Heartbreaking Case of the WWII Veteran Shoplifter

(Court Case Friday)

Some criminal cases are heartbreaking, not because of harm to the victim, but because of the circumstances of the criminal. In these cases, mercy sometimes outweighs justice.

As a young criminal prosecutor, I was assigned the case of an 80-year-old WW II decorated veteran who charged with shoplifting.  He had walked into a J.C. Penny store, removed a dress suit from the rack, rolled it up, stuffed it down the front of his pants.  He then rushed out of the store without paying.  

The theft was obvious – a skinny senior citizen with a man’s suit crammed in the front of his pants.   It was not a sophisticated crime. Plus, a security guard watched the whole thing. He was clearly guilty.

When the security guard stopped the men, he broke down in tears.  He pleaded, “I have never done anything like this before. I was going to bring the suit back.  But I am too poor to buy a suit.  Today is my only grandson’s wedding, and  I just wanted to look nice.” 

I confirmed that the shoplifter had a clean criminal record.  I also verified that he was in fact a WW II hero. I learned that he was on social security. I confirmed the details of the wedding.  

I was assigned to prosecute the man. But that didn’t feel right. In the end, I got permission from my boss to dismiss the case “in the interests of justice.”  It was also “in the interests of mercy.”

As I struggle to balance the conflicting demands of justice and mercy, I turn to Micah 6:8: “O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  In other words, to “do justly” and to “love mercy,” requires “humility.” “Above all, a judge must have ‘humility before the vast unknown.” (Justice Learned Hand)

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