On Punishment, on Rehabilitation, of Statutes of Limitations, and on Why They Do Not Exist for Murder
By Ken K. Gourdin
Does it matter that someone who murders another human being, after having done so, goes on to live an exemplary life? In some ways, perhaps. But no matter how much good the murderer does, still, he is incapable of restoring that which was lost—that which he took. What of the good that his victim might have done yet, were his life not cut short? What of the myriad ways the loss of that victim impacts so many other lives?
As a priest in the Catholic Church, John Feit was a suspect in the 1960 rape and murder of a Texas schoolteacher, Irene Garza, then 25. Mr. Feit later left the priesthood to marry, and, after moving to the Phoenix area, developed a reputation for willingness to help, for volunteering for various projects in the church, and for helping many individuals and families in need.
Coverage of the case written by the Associated Press’s Terry Tang appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. It can be found at the following address (last accessed April ??, 2019): https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=3537772&itype=CMSID
If one of the purposes of punishment (including incarceration) is to rehabilitate an offender, is it possible for someone to be rehabilitated without going to prison, or without being subject to whatever punishment the law prescribes for a particular crime? Mr. Feit’s example seems to provide evidence that (at least in some cases) the answer to that question is yes.
But rehabilitation is only one purpose of punishment. Other such purposes are retribution (lest individuals or communities take matters into their own hands), restitution, incapacitation (preventing the individual from offending further), specific deterrence (inducing the punished individual himself to not offend further) and general deterrence (inducing others, by the example made out of this specific offender, to not commit similar acts).
Most crimes have a prescribed time limit beyond which charges may not be brought, which is known as the statute of limitations. The theory underlying the concept of statutes of limitations is that few crimes are serious enough that threat of their prosecution should be allowed to hang over suspects’ heads like the sword of Damocles—especially if an alleged perpetrator uses the time between the commission and the discovery of his crime to reform himself, to atone as best he can for his misdeed, and to be of service to others.
Such was the case with Mr. Feit, who, because of service to church and community and fellow human beings, is nearly universally hailed for his current character. However, there is no statute of limitations for murder, as well as for other serious crimes. The rationale for the lack of a statute of limitations is that no matter how much good a person does in the intervening years between his crime and its discovery, some crimes are so serious and their impact so devastating that he cannot undo the act; he cannot give back what he took; he cannot restore a human life.
As Ms. Garza’s family members point out in coverage of her murder, notwithstanding all of Mr. Feit’s good deeds and all of the people he has helped since, all the good in the world cannot erase what he did. Addressing Mr. Feit directly (though the chances that he ever would see my comment are virtually nil), I commented on the case as follows:
This simply goes to show, there’s more bad in even the best of us, and more good even in what some might consider to be the worst of us, than we might suspect. That said, as much as I laud the good you’ve done, sir, and as unfair as some might think it to be to hold you accountable for the bad you’ve done (since, clearly, you have “turned over a new leaf” in a way that even many who’ve claimed to be reformed would envy), while only God can weigh both the good and the bad you’ve done perfectly, it would not speak well of us as a society to allow you to escape justice for what you’ve done. That’s why there’s no statute of limitations on murder, no matter how much good you’ve done in the decades that have intervened since your crimes. If a judge or a jury chooses to accord your good deeds great weight when it comes to imposing a penalty for your bad ones, that’s their decision, but the fact is, you’ve denied them that opportunity for far too long. At the risk of trivializing your heinous misdeeds by invoking a cliche, it’s time to face the music.