In an alternate universe, Brendon Kaluza-Graham is working at a meaningful job and has enjoyed access to all of the services he may need to succeed. He has options outside of crime to pursue a living, and a supportive community helping when he slips up. Gail Gerlach never shot him, because he didn't have a reason to steal his SUV. Opportunities for people to redeem themselves for past mistakes abound in this other place, but not in the here and now. In our universe, just yesterday, a jury of 12 Spokane residents confirmed a cultural story about dangerous criminals, people less than you or I, who deserve punishment, even punishment outside of the law, for their actions.
Yesterday, the jury determined Gail Gerlach was not guilty of manslaughter. Just over a year ago, Gerlach shot dead Kaluza-Graham as he drove away in Gerlach's SUV, stolen from the driveway as it warmed up for its morning commute. Directly after the shooting, a heated debate sprouted around the issues of self defense, gun rights and vigilante justice. I was disturbed then by the amount of fervent support for Gerlach's right to shoot dead a person who threatened only his property.
Is the SUV an extension of the self? When driving, a vehicle acts as an extension of the driver's body and their safety becomes tied up together. An SUV in the driveway, though? Occupied by only the would-be thief? According to many barstool pundits in the weeks following, and now seconded by a jury in Spokane County, killing a person as they steal property is legitimate self defense.
I have had three bikes stolen in as many years. While the value of a basic commuter bike and the value of Gerlach's SUV look very different on paper, they serve a proportionate function in each of our lives. I depend, as he does, on my vehicle to get me to and from work and play. I transport the necessities of life from their source to my home on its back, and he does the same with a little more elbow room. We both put time and money into maintenance of our vehicles and take pains to keep them safely locked. Two of my bikes have been stolen right under my nose, off of the porch of my house. I can understand the rage that Gerlach must have felt when he caught the perpetrator red-handed. If I had seen the people who took my bikes in the act, it's very likely that I would have lost my temper, chased them down. It is wrong to take things from people without their permission, and those actions have consequences.
I have a temper, and I might have socked that bike thief pretty hard had I caught him. But I also have a sense of perspective and a sense that my bike is important to me, but not irreplaceable. In our culture of incredible materialism coupled with disconnection from one another's humanity, incidents like this shooting are one of many likely consequences. As the media and the criminal justice system further dehumanize criminal offenders, the general public becomes less aware of their humanity. People who steal cars have, in all likelihood, already made a series of mistakes in their lives. Statistically, they have been victims themselves. Abuse, neglect, mental illness, addiction and a free-fall through the many deep cracks in our safety nets are the common traits that those in our jails and prisons share. None of these factors makes a person less human than an object, even an object we depend upon in our daily life.
Rather than being about gun rights or gun control, this case has sent a message about who is valuable and who is disposable in the eyes of the average people who comprise a jury. The front page story about the acquittal in today's Spokesman-Review pulls out a quote from Gerlach to top the headline. He said, “As Christians, we believe in redemption. The greatest tragedy is that Mr. Brendon Kaluza-Graham will not have a chance to turn his life around.” As a non-Christian, I believe in redemption too, both for Kaluza-Graham and for Gerlach. Unfortunately, our justice system's focus on punishment and isolation over treatment and our culture's devaluation of people who have made mistakes join forces to create an atmosphere in which the odds are not in redemption's favor.
I can only hope that the work being done in Spokane around moving toward Smart Justice, which matches offenders with services that can help mitigate their unmet needs, continues to move forward and provide a real chance at redemption for people who make mistakes. I expect that in the courtroom, the jurors felt a great deal of empathy for both the slain Kaluza-Graham and the defendant. Let's see if we can move our society to one where expressing our empathy happens sooner and the expression is deeper. Then the alternate universe described above can become part of our reality. ♦
Taylor Weech, who hosts the weekly public affairs program Praxis on KYRS-FM, is a Spokane writer and activist. She's advocated, among other things, for environmental sustainability and all-ages access to the arts.