It’s easy to understand the rage directed at Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the man responsible for the shot that killed Kate Steinle.
It’s just as easy to understand the anger seething toward Karen Mathews Davis, the former Stanislaus County clerk-recorder who told federal investigators a made-up story of being attacked in 2013.
Despite our anger and revulsion, we learned Thursday that neither will face jail time. What does it say about the quality of justice when two people who have engendered so much anger essentially walk away from their crimes?
It says America’s laws do not serve vengeance. That justice can – and must – be held separate from our thirst for retribution.
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Every parent ached upon reading accounts of Steinle dying in her father’s arms; of Jim Steinle, powerless to answer her pleas for help. The pain of those moments are so awful no one should be asked to bear them.
That our president tried to turn Kate Steinle’s death into political theater doesn’t help. He’s using a family’s anguish to push for his border wall, to disparage so-called “sanctuary cities” and further demonize immigrants. Trump called the jury’s finding of innocence “disgraceful” and a “travesty.”
But the bullet that killed Kate Steinle first struck a Pier 14 wall 12 feet from where Garcia Zarate carelessly handled the gun. It ricocheted 72 feet before hitting Steinle. Her death was horrific, but not willful.
That Garcia Zarate was even in America was a crime. That the convicted felon was in possession of a firearm – stolen or found – was another. He should pay for those crimes. But, deemed the jury, not as a murderer.
As much as we want accountability in the Mathews Davis case, we also crave justice for Roger Steiner – the man convicted in 1997 of attacking Mathews Davis in her garage.
Shortly after Steiner had been released from prison for that crime, Mathews Davis told federal agents she had been attacked once again. She blamed Steiner and others. After 14 months chasing a lie, investigators instead charged Mathews Davis. She confessed to fabricating the second attack.
For many, her confession casts doubt on the first attack. As Modesto Bee reporter Garth Stapley pointed out in Friday’s coverage of her sentencing, nine people served a combined 50 years in prison for that crime. But after lying to federal agents in trying to send at least Steiner back to prison, Mathews Davis spent only one night in jail.
“Despite popular mythology to the contrary, the resources of the United States and its law enforcement agencies are actually limited,” wrote U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert as he recommended a three-month sentence. “Because Davis maintained her charade for over a year, agents expended resources investigating a fake crime, which logically prevented them from investigating other criminal offenses that had merit.”
Someday, we hope investigators confirm or refute the facts behind Steiner’s original conviction. If Mathews Davis is found to have fabricated that story, too, she must be held accountable for Steiner’s 19 years behind bars. Seeing her jailed would slake our appetite for vengeance.
For some, people like Jim Steinle, their hearts have no room for revenge.
“We have never had a second of anger – not a moment,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Frustration, maybe, and sadness for sure, but no anger and no retaliation or vindictiveness or anything like that.”
Few of us can be that forgiving.
Which brings us back to Mathews Davis. Would seeing a judge throw the book at her have made up for her attempt to send Steiner back to jail?
As the Mathews Davis’ pre-sentencing report lays out, incarceration – even of the guilty – must serve a purpose.
Sending Mathews Davis to jail might send a signal that lying to federal agents will not be tolerated; that wasting the public’s time and sympathy comes at a cost. But would it keep anyone else, mentally feeble and depressed, from committing similar crimes? Would it change Mathews Davis? Probably not.
Justice is not served by revenge.