The Pilot Editorial

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Blind justice

It's been an interesting little period in the courtrooms.

Jesse Wendelsdorf, who got off on charges of murdering toddler Shelby Duis a couple of years ago in a trial in Storm Lake, this time was found guilty - of a role in a drug peddling outfit - but still, he wasn't sentenced to a day in prison. Just probation and a short stay in a residential facility bed when available, after tying up the legal system for a few more months. What a nice message for the courts to send...

Speaking of people growing familiar with courtrooms, singer Michael Jackson is of course "not guilty" to yet another round of child molestation charges, this go-round to include allegations of abduction, false imprisonment, extortion and conspiracy involving 28 separate instances of abuse, including plying a little boy with alcohol.

Fans thronged to the courthouse, and Jackson blew them kisses and flashed the victory sign as he was sped away free. What's the price of making it go away this time?

Our society is so concerned with the rights of sexual abusers that the law has been changed in Iowa. It was determined that our efforts to keep convicted sexual offenders who are released from prison from taking up residence next to a school or playground is "unconstitutional." We've all seen those notices they release about child rapists when they move into our towns. They often read, "considered a high risk to re-offend." Do we ever wonder what is wrong with a system that turns such people loose to begin with?

And in Des Moines this week, 32-year-old Michael Snyder was walking away with nothing but probation after being caught for the third time peeping at teenage girls by hiding in their school locker rooms or bathrooms. Most recently, he was hidden in Des Moines Christian School, where he allegedly watched a young victim undress until she noticed him and called for help. Snyder pleaded guilty to doing the same things at another high school and a middle school in two other incidents in the 1990s. The court gave him a suspended 30-day sentence, a couple years of probation, and made him promise to stay out of the little girl's rooms. What do you suppose the chances are of that?

And in the most talked-about case of them all in Iowa this week, Dixie Shanahan of Defiance was sentenced to 35-50 years in prison - for defending herself.

We're not saying that she doesn't deserve to be punished, but the testimony did indicate that her husband Scott had repeatedly battered her, even when she was pregnant. She got tired of it and took a shotgun to him.

She says he was moving at her to beat her again. The prosecution says it thinks he was asleep and she could have chosen to escape his violence another way. She said she had tried that, and been dragged back by the hair. She also said he had threatened to kill her before that day was over. Only Dixie Shanahan knows the real truth of what happened that day in 2002.

But the files are full of police reports documenting Scott's alleged abuse of Dixie, photos of her blackened eyes, and of damage to their home where he reportedly slammed her head into the walls.

Remember the controversial Dixie Chicks song, "Earl"? It was about a creepy abusive husband who was murdered by his wife, and says, "It turns out Earl was a missing person that nobody missed at all."

Same for Scott. His corpse rotted in the bed for a year before anyone even wondered what had become of him. By all accounts, he wasn't a likeable person, to put it mildly, and he wasn't missed.

In the song, the woman goes blissfully unpunished. In reality, Iowa's Dixie "chick" was not so fortunate. She is 36 today - and is guaranteed to be in prison until at least the age of 71 before she is eligible to seek parole.

There is no excuse for murder, we know. There are better ways to escape abuse, and others have, we know. Yet it seems that in a lot of cases in the system these days, some are getting away with murder.

The lesson seems to be that there is no room in prison for abusers, those who prey on our children, drug dealers, sexual deviates of every kind. Lots of probation.

But self-defense of the eye-for-an-eye variety by a victim is cause for life in a prison cell.

It seems like some consistency of justice is in order.