Editorial: Law shouldn’t bend to outrage
Outrage is a good catalyst but a poor navigator.
A physical assault on two women at an Exxon station in Pittsburgh’s Marshall- Shadeland neighborhood has prompted huge response.
Viral video of the incident shows the black women leave their car to go into the gas station, ostensibly to ask for a refund after a malfunctioning pump spilled fuel. When they come back into view, they are being hit by men. One woman is dragged to the ground by her hair.
It sparked outcry. It led to protests. Three men were charged with simple assault. That prompted more outcry. Why just misdemeanors for beatings that did look savage, people asked, demanding more serious counts.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. declined to change the charges. His office released additional video that showed what happened in a 35-second period inside the gas station, where one of the women appeared to purposely knock over a display of bananas and other items. That was when the assault began.
The gas station has been closed since the uproar began.
People in the community are within their rights to be incensed by the attack. They are free to use their power as a group and as the buying public to express their anger and deny their dollars to a business they don’t believe aligns with their community values. That kind of protest has no threshold beyond what people believe and feel.
Where care must be exercised is when the demands of the people crash into the carefully constructed architecture of the law.
Prosecutors and police must play within the framework that is laid by the legislature, and the people — particularly minority groups — should encourage that. A charge like simple assault has boxes it has to tick off, as does an aggravated assault charge.
One of those boxes should never be public outrage.
The law is meant to be dispassionate because individuals are not. People can ache for a victim and imagine themselves in those shoes.
Blind Lady Justice asks only for facts and returns answers that may leave us frustrated, but punishment should never detour around the laws as they are written. If people are unhappy with laws, there is a process to change them.
A world of social media and instant video makes it easy to react in haste, but the law takes time because it should be more thorough than the quick spark of indignation, even if that righteous fury is justified but especially if it might be mistaken.