Murder motivations don’t matter much

Lately the media have been filled with news of particularly heinous crimes, such as the recent mass murders in Alabama and North Carolina. We should be neither jaded nor hysterical about these horrible events but I confess that the crime reported Monday about the young man in Milton, Massachusetts, who stabbed his 17-year-old sister to death and decapitated his five-year-old sister, nearly moved me to tears. The only good thing that occurred–or didn’t occur–was that he was prevented from killing his nine-year-old sister by a timely bullet fired by a police officer, whose chief described the situation as "a killing field."

In what has become routine in these cases, the writer of the AP story said that "There was no clear motive" for the crime, which occurred at the five-year-old’s birthday party "in a tony Boston suburb that also is home to Gov. Deval Patrick."

Doubtless readers wonder what difference the neighborhood or the residents make, but I question the sense in inquiring about the motive. Let’s be clear on this: murder is a heinous crime whatever the motive is.

The unstated assumption behind examining the shooter’s motive is that multiple murders require an explanation. Who in his right mind would do such a thing, right? Why, he must have been crazy. And once we establish that about the killer, you know what’s coming next. That’s right, the insanity defense.

Has there ever been a more useful way of dodging a murder charge, or at least of avoiding the death penalty? If 23-year-old Kerby Revelus had not been killed, he would have been judged insane, pitied more than condemned and sent away for "treatment" at a facility that provides room and board and three meals a day, and recreation too. Fortunately, justice was done on the spot.

The truth is, the motive, or lack of motive, doesn’t matter. A young man killed two of his sisters and he got what he deserved. Thank God we’ve been spared the charade provided by defense lawyers who specialize in diverting attention from the crime and concentrating on the perpetrator's alleged lack of deliberate motive.

The motive does not count so that we might "understand" why a murder was committed, but it does count when the police investigators or the district attorneys don’t not have solid proof. That is, when they are trying to link a suspect or a defendant with a crime, motive (along with time and opportunity) may be part of the web of circumstances which prove guilt.

Although motive is irrelevant except for proving guilt, it is relevant in determining the seriousness of the crime. Crimes of passion draw lesser penalities than those committed with malice aforethought. Deliberate, cold-blooded murder draws worse penalties than accessory to murder or manslaughter (or at least it should).

But there has been some equivocation in recent years. Those who drive drunk and cause fatal accidents are being treated like murderers in our courts. I’m not so sure this represents the exercise of judicial equity in supplying defects in legislative intent or is in response to understandable public outrage. But legislatures should make clear in well-framed statutes that repeat drunken drivers who leave death in their wake do in fact merit trial as murderers and not leave it up to the varying determinations of local judges.

It is in the area of racially or sexually related crimes where motives have caused the most confusion. Crimes with this link are judged as more serious than otherwise. But when victims become privileged by their identities, we are entering a thicket of moral pretentiousness. How is it worse when the victim is black or homosexual and (a necessary corollary to this politically correct indulgence) the suspect or defendant is white or heterosexual? Does this imply that when white kills white or black kills black, the crime, other things being equal, should be deemed less serious?

And this is not merely academic. There is a lot more black on black crime than white on black. Law-abiding blacks unfortunate enough to be living in high crime areas are forgotten victims to our major media. That, after all, doesn’t support the well-worn liberal thesis that America is a racist country. And we’re supposed to believe we’re a homophobic country too when straight men murder gay men.

Motivation matters most to authorities trying to solve crimes or convict defendants, but it is hardly an excuse for crime. Degrees of culpability or responsibility are certainly relevant in fixing penalties, but they matter not at all just because crimes are committed across racial or sexual lines.