O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, pgs. 3-4
On Thursday, January 8, a jury in Los Angeles reached a verdict of involuntary manslaughter in the case involving Johannes Mesherle, an ex-BART police officer and Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22 year old resident of Oakland, California. The trial was moved to Los Angeles from Alameda County because of the enormous amount of pre-trial publicity, and the possibility that tension in the community would run high. While there were some protests and looting in Oakland (along with vandalism attributed to the verdict in Tacoma, Washington and Fresno, California), the streets of Sacramento were free of protests and verdict-related cases of vandalism, according to Sacramento police officer Konrad von Schoech.
As usual with high profile criminal cases, justice seems to be a nebulously defined and unfairly applied term for the families, friends and community members connected to the victim and the convicted. John Burris, attorney for Oscar Grant III’ s family, told the Sacramento Bee that the family was “extremely disappointed” with the involuntary manslaughter verdict, which carries a two-four year sentence. A member of the Oakland General Assembly for Justice for Oscar Grant, Tony Coleman, told fellow protestors at the demonstration located at 14th Street and Broadway last Thursday that “We want more justice”.
However, George S. Holland, president of the Oakland chapter of the NAACP, told the crowd gathered at 14th and Broadway that “Not guilty would have been worse. (Apparently, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict the defendant of murder.) I think (Mehserle) ought to go to jail. But we got a verdict.”
A sacbee.com reader, junodog, stated his support of the verdict by writing:
The reason we have a system of justice that guarantees rights and due process to the accused is validated by the statements out of the Grant family that they are “disappointed” in the jury verdict. One lady, I believe a Sac NAACP official stated that we need more black people on juries so we could have more “diverse verdicts.” Surely if twelve Oakland blacks were on the Mehserle jury he’d have been convicted of the highest charge possible no matter what the evidence showed.
All of these reactions, conflicting as they are, can be viewed as questions concerning the very nature of justice and how it should be (in the opinion of the speaker) applied. The issue is complex, and involves the emotionally subjective perception of the term “justice” . If nothing else, the Oscar Grant case demonstrates that while the criminal justice system in the United States has certainly changed since the founding of the nation, it remains in a state of evolution. Moreover, the American legal system has been, and continues to be, subject to social/political ideas and pressures. It is understandable (although to some, quite unacceptable) that adjustments must be made during the elongated, tortuous journey toward achieving clear, irrefutable justice.
In the Baha’i Faith, justice is seen as Divine in origin, and although seemingly inflexible in some instances, its purpose and application is for the advancement of mankind, and the progression of souls toward unity with the Beloved in the life hereafter:
Know verily that the essence of justice and the source thereof are both embodied in the ordinances prescribed by Him Who is the Manifestation of the Self of God amongst men, if ye be of them that recognize this truth. He doth verily incarnate the highest, the infallible standard of justice unto all creation. Were His law to be such as to strike terror into the hearts of all that are in heaven and on earth, that law is naught but manifest justice. The fears and agitation which the revelation of this law provokes in men’s hearts should indeed be likened to the cries of the suckling babe weaned from his mother’s milk, if ye be of them that perceive. Were men to discover the motivating purpose of God’s Revelation, they would assuredly cast away their fears, and, with hearts filled with gratitude, rejoice with exceeding gladness. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, pg. 175.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, son of Bahá’u’lláh , further explicates both the concept and application of Divine justice in the chapter, “The Right Treatment of Criminals” from the book, Some Answered Questions :
We must speak of things that are possible of performance in this world. There are many theories and high ideas on this subject, but they are not practicable; consequently, we must speak of things that are feasible.
For example, if someone oppresses, injures and wrongs another, and the wronged man retaliates, this is vengeance and is censurable. If the son of ‘Amr kills the son of Zayd, Zayd has not the right to kill the son of ‘Amr; if he does so, this is vengeance. If ‘Amr dishonors Zayd, the latter has not the right to dishonor ‘Amr; if he does so, this is vengeance, and it is very reprehensible. No, rather he must return good for evil, and not only forgive, but also, if possible, be of service to his oppressor. This conduct is worthy of man: for what advantage does he gain by vengeance? The two actions are equivalent; if one action is reprehensible, both are reprehensible. The only difference is that one was committed first, the other later.
But the community has the right of defense and of self-protection; moreover, the community has no hatred nor animosity for the murderer: it imprisons or punishes him merely for the protection and security of others. It is not for the purpose of taking vengeance upon the murderer, but for the purpose of inflicting a punishment by which the community will be protected. If the community and the inheritors of the murdered one were to forgive and return good for evil, the cruel would be continually ill-treating others, and assassinations would continually occur. Vicious people, like wolves, would destroy the sheep of God. The community has no ill-will and rancor in the infliction of punishment, and it does not desire to appease the anger of the heart; its purpose is by punishment to protect others so that no atrocious actions may be committed. Some Answered Questions, pg. 269
In our present day concept of justice, individuals often seek revenge and recompense, both physical (usually violent) in the former case and monetary in the latter. While monetary recompense might be warranted in certain situations, the Baha’i definition of justice disallows revenge for any reason. However, justice is meted out for the protection of the community at large, with the caveat that the community has evolved to the spiritual understanding that vengeance and hatred of the perpetrator has no place in its application.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá also states:
One thing remains to be said: it is that the communities are day and night occupied in making penal laws, and in preparing and organizing instruments and means of punishment. They build prisons, make chains and fetters, arrange places of exile and banishment, and different kinds of hardships and tortures, and think by these means to discipline criminals, whereas, in reality, they are causing destruction of morals and perversion of characters. The community, on the contrary, ought day and night to strive and endeavor with the utmost zeal and effort to accomplish the education of men, to cause them day by day to progress and to increase in science and knowledge, to acquire virtues, to gain good morals and to avoid vices, so that crimes may not occur. At the present time the contrary prevails; the community is always thinking of enforcing the penal laws, and of preparing means of punishment, instruments of death and chastisement, places for imprisonment and banishment; and they expect crimes to be committed. This has a demoralizing effect.
But if the community would endeavor to educate the masses, day by day knowledge and sciences would increase, the understanding would be broadened, the sensibilities developed, customs would become good, and morals normal; in one word, in all these classes of perfections there would be progress, and there would be fewer crimes. Some Answered Questions, pgs. 271-272
For more info: The Official Website of the Baha’is of the United States
The Baha’i Faith Baha’i Reference Library sacbee.com