In medieval times, when families lived in walled-in compounds, a post was set just inside the range of good bowshot on the road leading to the gate. This post was called the ‘pale,’ and a horn hung from it. Visitors were obliged to blow the horn and announce themselves, and wait until invited before they advanced, to show their intentions were peaceful.
Enemies were not invited further, but were met at the pale if they wanted to talk. Those who were not allowed closer were said to be ‘beyond the pale,’ a term which came to mean those who could not be trusted, or had demmonstrated their evil proclivities.
We no longer live in compounds, or hang horns on pales, but there are still those who should never be trusted closer than a long bowshot.
CBS News program 60 Minutes aired a story in February 2009 about a man named Alton Logan, who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. During that time, two attorneys knew he was innocent, but kept quiet, and let him serve time, even though they knew he wasn’t guilty.
The lawyers, Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz, were representing another man, Andrew Wilson, who was charged with killing two policemen. Even before Logan went to trial for murdering a security guard at a Chicago McDonald’s in 1982, Coventry and Kunz learned that their client, Wilson, had killed the guard.
Attorney/client priviledge provides that Coventry and Kunz were not allowed to disclose anything Wilson, their client, told them in confidence, unless he allowed them to disclose it. So they watched an innocent man get convicted of murder, and spend 26 years in prison, when they knew he was innocent.
Now, here’s the deal. The law is wrong, here. The two attorneys obeyed the law, and Logan suffered for it. I can understand when our laws sometimes allow a guilty person to go free because of a shadow of doubt, or lack of convincing evidence. I cannot understand how our laws can cause a travesty like this.
Moral law, without question, should take precedence over civil law, or federal law, or any other law. The two lawyers were morally obligated to speak up, to keep Logan from having to pay for a crime he didn’t commit. Instead they did the wrong thing. They obeyed the law.
Some, I’m sure, would disagree with me. The law, they would say, is there for a reason, and Coventry and Kunz did the right thing by keeping their mouths shut. They had no choice.
Respectfully, let me just say that, if you believe that, you are dumber than a wet sock. And you would not say that if your name was Alton Logan. Anyone who could sit back and allow an innocent man to be punished for 26 years, knowing they could stop it, is devoid of not only compassion and emotion, but common sense. What Coventry and Kunz did was reprehensible, far beyond the pale.
Very similar to attorney/client priviledge is doctor/patient confidentiality. A doctor, of any kind, is prohibited from disclosing information a patient has offered in confidence. The idea is to allow a patient to feel free to be open with his or her doctor, in order to receive the most accurate diagnosis possible.
Last Thursday James Holmes appeared at a court hearing concerning the July 20 shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Holmes allegedly killed a dozen people and wounded 58 others. At the hearing it was discussed that Holmes had been under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, who was ‘so concerned’ after their last session on June 11 she contacted campus police at the University of Colorado, where Holmes was a student.
Another fact that came to light at the hearing is that Holmes mailed Fenton a notebook before the shooting. The contents of the notebook may not be admissible in court, but depending on what it contains, its timely disclosure could possibly have prevented the Aurora tragedy.
I’m guessing about that, of course. I have no idea what’s in the notebook. But if it contained a note saying Holmes planned to kill a bunch of people, and Fenton sat on it because of doctor/patient confidentiality, I would submit she would be guilty of murder. The law says otherwise, of course, but if she could have prevented twelve deaths, and didn’t, I’d call that guilt.
The obvious point here is that some of our laws need to be changed, because they’re doing more harm than good. But there is a much deeper and more ominous problem – the fact that some ‘professionals’ are more dedicated to obeying the law than to their fellowman. If that is the prevailing attitude of our society, our laws won’t matter one way or the other. We are doomed if we are unwilling to break laws to help one another, regardless of the cost.
Coventry and Kunz are, unquestionably, guilty of moral turpitude. They could have freed Logan any number of ways, ranging from shouting his innocence from the rooftops to mailing an anonymous letter to his lawyer. They chose to let him spend over half his life in prison, because they lack the necessary vertibrae to stand up for the truth.
Hopefully the same cannot be said for Fenton. Time will tell . . .
Kendal Hemphill is normally an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker, when he can’t find his soapbox. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org