Bully For Them
December 16, 2010 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Ken Rex McElroy for years had terrorized the small town of Skidmore Missouri, and was considered the town bully. He had been charged with more than 20 felonies, robbing, raping, burning, shootings. He intimidated people by driving by at night and firing a shotgun blast, putting a rattlesnake in their mailbox, etc. He was murdered on July 10, 1981. No one in town would identify Ken Rex's killer and no one has ever been charged with his killing, though there has been intense speculation about who did it. There have been various dramatic depictions of the crime. Is vigilante justice ever justified?
posted by Xurando (148 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just read the NYTimes article and was hoping someone would make a post about the story. Thanks!
posted by inigo2 at 9:53 AM on December 16, 2010


No.
posted by spicynuts at 9:54 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


In answer to your question, no.
posted by kafziel at 9:57 AM on December 16, 2010


Yeah, no.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:57 AM on December 16, 2010


Sounds like it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:58 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


"After fathering 10 children with various women, he pursued his last wife Trena McElroy while she was 12 and in eighth grade in Skidmore. After she was pregnant with his child she dropped out of school in ninth grade at age 14 to live with McElroy and another woman, Alice. Sixteen days after Trena gave birth she and Alice fled to Trena's mother and stepfather's house. According to Trena's court reports, he tracked them both down to bring them back and then went to Trena's parents home while they were away, shot the parents' dog and burned the house to the ground"

Wow.
posted by amicamentis at 9:58 AM on December 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


yes
posted by Redhush at 9:58 AM on December 16, 2010


Maybe sometimes
posted by Hoopo at 10:00 AM on December 16, 2010 [15 favorites]


Is vigilante justice ever justified?

It's spelled "vigilante justice", but it's pronounced "revenge".
posted by mhoye at 10:02 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's an old Texas saying (that I made up) "Some people just need killin'"
posted by dead cousin ted at 10:02 AM on December 16, 2010 [24 favorites]


Bizarre and fascinating.

Is vigilante justice ever justified?

Is ending a post with a question that also happens to be a link to Lew Rockwell usually ill-advised?
posted by joe lisboa at 10:04 AM on December 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


No, but I still won't mourn for him. Seriously, fuck that guy.
posted by bondcliff at 10:04 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's a tough one, but the whole "I know where your daughter is, give me back the product of my impregnating a middle-schooler" and witness intimidation and arson and... I'm inclined to admit that actual justice failed these people. A lot.
posted by SMPA at 10:05 AM on December 16, 2010 [22 favorites]


Vigilante justice is never justified.

But this guy sounded like he was a white-trash supervillain.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:06 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


(Sorry, that was unduly snarky.)
posted by joe lisboa at 10:06 AM on December 16, 2010


Of course not, because situations aren't always as black and white as this one with a true bad guy with no apparent redeeming qualities.

In this case, though, its pretty tough to feel sorry for him.
posted by hockeyfan at 10:07 AM on December 16, 2010


Is vigilante justice ever justified?

When the law willnot/cannot take care of a severe public menace, then yes.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 10:07 AM on December 16, 2010 [15 favorites]


I'd love to hear the whole story from Ken Rex McElroy's perspective. Of course I myself believe he was a shitty, shitty person, but I guarantee you he felt justified in most, if not all, instances of his assholery. Hell, he probably thought of himself as a victim. I'd love to hear his justifications.
posted by LordSludge at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


The article doesn't really explain why he was never convicted--does anyone have any more info on that?
posted by Ideal Impulse at 10:09 AM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, you could cast it as vigilante justice, or self-defense. (Note; I have no idea, have only vaguely heard of this case before). If the local law enforcement was so ineffective that this man could commit so many crimes unhindered, then you could easily see the townspeople as a group in fear for their lives or those of their loved ones.

It's an unusual case, which is why it's gotten so much attention. Many of his crimes seem to fall under the heading of "stalking" and in the 80s, were there any laws preventing that?
posted by emjaybee at 10:09 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Justified? To whom?
If someone were terrorizing my loved ones and nobody else was stopping it, then, yeah...I'd take matters into my own hands. That would be justified. To me.
posted by rocket88 at 10:10 AM on December 16, 2010 [9 favorites]


It was Shane.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:10 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Wow, I did a double take when I saw Ken Rex McElroy's name on a metafilter FPP! I'm from small town Northwest Missouri and this story is legend in those parts.

Skidmore is also the town where Bobbie Jo Stinnett had her baby cut from womb by a mentally disturbed woman who wanted a child. That's a whole lotta crazy for one very small town.
posted by something something at 10:11 AM on December 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


He had been charged with more than 20 felonies, robbing, raping, burning, shootings.

In all, there were 46 potential witnesses to the shooting, ... Only Trena McElroy claimed to identify a gunman; every other witness either refused to name an assailant or claimed not to have seen who fired the fatal shots.

I'm really conflicted here, on the one hand, justice by mob rule is never a good thing, but on the other, you've got a guy who had managed to evade prosecution dozens of times and kept on terrorizing people.

The good man that I sometimes pretend to be says "no", but the part of me that wants to be Batman has to admit, when the law has failed, and the threat persists, sometimes the dark place might seem inviting.
posted by quin at 10:12 AM on December 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


but I guarantee you he felt justified in most, if not all, instances of his assholery

You know who else felt justified? Hitler Bush Those jerks that ruined Yogi Bear's legacy by making that new movie.
posted by inigo2 at 10:13 AM on December 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


He was never convicted because he intimidated the witnesses into not testifying against him.
posted by amicamentis at 10:13 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's hard to understand what really happened from this article. Why was he above the law? Why didn't local authorities stop him sooner? There's a point to be made that when the agreed upon authorities fail to act, the agreement is off. The justice system didn't just fail to convict McElroy's killers, it failed to protect them as well.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:13 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is vigilante justice ever justified?

Well, the Joker isn't going to drop himself off the side of a building, is he now?
posted by hermitosis at 10:15 AM on December 16, 2010 [18 favorites]


The outrage should have been directed at law enforcement. Seems like you'd only have to follow the guy around for a day or two to bring serious charges witnessed first hand, or even video taped.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:16 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


> There's an old Texas saying (that I made up) "Some people just need killin'"

Someone fond of the USMC beat you to it.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:16 AM on December 16, 2010


I'm sure my brain tumor feels justified with it's activities, but if my white blood cell cops can't take care of business, I'm sending in some vigilante chemo and radiation to keep my society from crumbling away
posted by Redhush at 10:16 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


...but the part of me that wants to be Batman has to admit, when the law has failed, and the threat persists, sometimes the dark place might seem inviting.

Batman doesn't kill.

posted by griphus at 10:16 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am not comfortable commenting on the justice system further under my current pseudonym.

...unsurprisingly though, I'm not a big fan of mob justice.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:16 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


The expectation that people will simply wait about to be terrorized and hope that maybe this time the situation will be different is not one which will have a great deal of success.

I will be cold blooded about this. Clearly, run-of-the-mill social pressures would not function on this person. The citizenry could have, I suppose, constructed a tiny one-person prison in a remote location, locked him up, and then carefully staffed it in secrecy until he expired. This seems untenable. Alternately, he could be abducted and given a crude icepick lobotomy (it's fast! it's easy!) or deliberately maimed in some fashion, then released back into the wild.

From the reading of the articles, it appears that the weakness of the system was in witness intimidation, at which he was a master, rather than a fallibility due to technicalities, legal trickery, or police and prosecutorial blundering. One witness, unsupported, holding that the only thing which could convict a man who will surely make your life miserable, if not over, should that conviction fail, that witness is afraid. People on their own are cowards.

Enough people, together, are not. Getting shot in the clear light of day, with none held to account, is perhaps the last social pressure there is, one that will nudge you right into a waiting grave.
posted by adipocere at 10:17 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm kind of in the camp that sometimes rules should be broken, but once you break the rules you do not avoid the consequences of your actions. You might be in a situation where you feel you have to kill someone, but once doing so never avoid the fact that you are a murderer and should be incarcerated.

imo one of the biggest problems we face socially is a general lack of accepting the consequences of our actions, it seems so pervasive, and has nothing to do with any specific social or ethnic, or $_random group.
posted by edgeways at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2010 [14 favorites]


This man's death pleases me.

If you don't think it's "just" that he was killed then you must live by some absurd categorical imperative that would also condemn lying in order to hide the 12 year old girls from him.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Well, the Joker isn't going to drop himself off the side of a building, is he now?

Worth noting that the rise of the costumed avenger character corresponded with the rise of very public, widespread gang activity that the police seemed unable to control.
posted by The Whelk at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2010 [11 favorites]


Perhaps he needed convicting first. I mean he isn't some guy living in Yemen hiding out and threatening innocent cartoonists. He's sitting at the pub, arrest him again already.
posted by humanfont at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is vigilante justice ever justified?

No. But I would have cheered had I been in the crowd that day.
posted by tommasz at 10:19 AM on December 16, 2010


It sounds like somebody got away with murder, and that the murder was fortuitous in that the victim was a menace to society. But I don't think I'd have a problem with the killer having to face the court system.

Would I name him to prosecutors? Sure, in a heartbeat. And I'd make sure I knew that I thought he was a hero.

I just don't see the upside in the kind of solidarity that would permit someone to get away with this without having to answer for his actions.

===============DEXTER SPOILER================
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(With that said, I'll also say that a certain moment in the Dexter season finale had me nearly in tears and quite conflicted as to whether the person who I admire greatly, in a similar situation, did the right thing.)
posted by bovious at 10:19 AM on December 16, 2010


^I knew^they knew
posted by bovious at 10:20 AM on December 16, 2010


elwoodwiles: "It's hard to understand what really happened from this article. Why was he above the law? Why didn't local authorities stop him sooner? There's a point to be made that when the agreed upon authorities fail to act, the agreement is off. The justice system didn't just fail to convict McElroy's killers, it failed to protect them as well"

From the first link:
He had figured out the weakness of the criminal justice system: no witness, no case. People were scared to testify against him because they saw what happened to others: their barns burned down or rattlesnakes appeared in their mailboxes or guns were pulled on them. Prosecutors in five different counties failed to convict McElroy of over twenty felonies that were filed.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:22 AM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


The texas expression you are looking for relates to why they are more likely to hang a horse thief than a murderer.

"You may have known a few men that needed killing, but you never saw a horse that needed stealing."
posted by lalochezia at 10:26 AM on December 16, 2010 [31 favorites]


If your legal system is scarily fucked up, then yes.

But I would say 99.9% of people are incapable of having the knowledge/foresight to know whether or not their actions are going to make things worse.

Didn't some mob on 4chan ruin somebody's life because they mistook him as the guy who threw a dog off a bridge?
posted by The ____ of Justice at 10:26 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


People don't seem to like this guy.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:26 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Marisa: Yeah, read that, but it doesn't seem enough. If you are a sheriff or prosecutor you should find a way to get this guy incarcerated. Not all cases should depend upon witnesses, in fact many don't. The authorities clearly failed to act in this case, but perhaps there isn't a real reason why, perhaps they are merely inept.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:29 AM on December 16, 2010


elwoodwiles: "Marisa: Yeah, read that, but it doesn't seem enough. If you are a sheriff or prosecutor you should find a way to get this guy incarcerated. Not all cases should depend upon witnesses, in fact many don't. The authorities clearly failed to act in this case, but perhaps there isn't a real reason why, perhaps they are merely inept"

I agree. I mean, the sheriff recommends - after McElroy storms into a bar with an M1 and threatens some elderly guy in graphic detail - that the townspeople form a Neighborhood Watch?? What is that?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:34 AM on December 16, 2010


This man's death pleases me.

If you don't think it's "just" that he was killed then you must live by some absurd categorical imperative that would also condemn lying in order to hide the 12 year old girls from him.


Or maybe I just take issue with the use of the phrase "pleases me", because I'm sure much of the terror McElroy caused in his victims pleased him. I also wonder what sort of early life experiences (usually horrific stuff that happens before one can speak) contributed to McElroy becoming the monster he became.

Would I have killed him if I had the chance (or contributed to the conspiracy of silence that has thus far allowed his killer to avoid "justice")? That's a question I can't answer. But I'm pretty damned sure it wouldn't have pleased me.
posted by philip-random at 10:47 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


...but the part of me that wants to be Batman has to admit, when the law has failed, and the threat persists, sometimes the dark place might seem inviting.

Batman doesn't kill.


He was referring to the lost manuscript Batman's Banjo, in which Batman visits rural Missouri, finds its slow pace to his liking, sticks around and develops the frontier justice sensibility common in the locals.

He also makes a Batman-symbol belt buckle out of a Milwaukee's Best can, and sends Robin to the general store for a can of Skoal in his superhero outfit. Offensive hilarity ensues.
posted by mreleganza at 10:47 AM on December 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


Batman doesn't kill.

Having now seen his standup comedy routine, I agree.
posted by zippy at 10:48 AM on December 16, 2010


Society should strive to create justice systems and laws which make vigilante justice wholly unnecessary. But in this case, the residents of Skidmore, MO were let down - by the laws which allowed this vengeful psychopath to run free after attempted murder and a long history of intimidation, police who were too scared to arrest him even after being threatened by him with firearms, ineffective prosecution, and so on. Whether vigilante justice was justified in this situation can be a subject of debate, but given the man's history, the seriousness, deliberateness and variety of his crimes and the length of time over which he committed them - against a small population - it shouldn't surprise anyone that this happened, given how poorly the town was served by the forces meant to protect them. I find it odd that people point fingers at the vigilante justice here, and not the forces that made it seem so necessary that the entire town has supported it with their silence for three decades.

And you know, vigilante justice can be totally supportable. It doesn't have to be a bunch of angry villagers stringing up a known baddie. The Warsaw Ghetto Jews, most 'positive' revolutions, even Wikileaks all function(ed) as forms of vigilante justice in a sense. see: "Frontier justice (also called vigilante justice) is extrajudicial punishment that is motivated by the nonexistence of law and order or dissatisfaction with justice."
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:50 AM on December 16, 2010 [20 favorites]


Vigilante justice doesn't stop at the act. All these people had to live with it for the rest of their lives. I bet there was a significant increase in nightmares and anti-depressants consumption in Skidmore after the event. The justice system is a way of minimizing the trauma of violence that comes with revenge.
posted by Kattullus at 10:59 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


In a way, it seems like this small town was functioning less like part of a republic with rule of law and more like a tribal community that was continually subject to the wrongs of a decidedly evil individual. If they were a remote tribe in the Amazon, this would probably be a pretty reasonable way to handle the situation. It doesn't seem that crazy to think that this might be a reasonable course of action for a remote tribe in Missouri.
posted by snofoam at 11:04 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Kattullus that is a unique perspective...I had never considered it from that angle. Still, I imagine that traumatic memories of killing were better than constant fear of violence.

But certainly, we are supposed to have a justice system so that these are not your two choices.
posted by emjaybee at 11:07 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another question: do you think he just ran across a rattlesnake one day and thought "Goddam! I know jes' where I'll put this snake!", or do you think he might have had a stockpile of rattlesnakes for different occasions?
posted by jabberjaw at 11:09 AM on December 16, 2010 [15 favorites]


If only there was some way he could have avoided his fate.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 11:15 AM on December 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


My mentor and friend, the late B.C. Hall, co-wrote an excellent book about this years ago. It's out of print but available, and well worth reading if you have further interest in the case.
posted by cyndigo at 11:19 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


By 3 degrees, I know of someone who lives in a small town in Montana. When he came into the town, he was an adult. He works for a local industry and chose to live in that small town because of the convenience of the commute to the industry as well as because he just likes small towns.

After he had lived in that town for a while, he started dating and eventually got engaged to and married the local schoolteacher.

One night before the engagement but after it was clear that he and she were a serious item, this man was at his home, alone, and there was a knock on the door.

When he answered the door, many large gentlemen were arrayed outside the door. They were dressed for trouble and they asked if he was alone. When he said he was, they asked if they could come in. He said they could.

Once inside, they all had a talk. The group of gentlemen said they were all relatives or former students of the schoolteacher. They explained that if this man were to hurt her or do her wrong in any way, they would kill him and drop his body down a local abandoned mineshaft. He said he understood and invited them to stay for a beer, which they accepted.

I'm not sure if the question is realistically whether vigilante justice is ever justified. The question is more realistically whether it can be effectively enforced against. I think the answer to that question is also "no".
posted by kalessin at 11:23 AM on December 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Maybe the guy committed suicide by community. It's not unlike suicide by cop. The perp confronts someone he know will put him down in such a way that he knows they will have no option but to take him out or be killed.
posted by WagonTyre at 11:25 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


There's an old Texas saying (that I made up) "Some people just need killin'" - dead cousin ted

That actually is an old saying. Jim Bell, the godfather of Assassination Politics, used to say it frequently.
posted by rush at 11:31 AM on December 16, 2010


To all the people basically giving one-word "No" answers, or equating vigilante justice to revenge, I'd really like to hear what you thought should have happened here.

The guy was openly threatening to kill a man he was convicted of shooting, was continually terrorizing him, had no fear of the law, and the cops were refusing to do anything about him. Were they just supposed to wait--after repeated failures by the criminal justice system--for him to kill the guy and then *hope* he was detained without bail?

The system failed spectacularly. For over ten years. At some point I think it's fair to say the entire neighborhood should not live in fear, and should not wait for a monster to carry good on his threat to commit murder. I really don't see what the alternative should have been.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 11:35 AM on December 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


Is vigilante justice ever justified?

In a world that is rarely black and white, often run by corrupt authority figures, maybe.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:36 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I also wonder what sort of early life experiences (usually horrific stuff that happens before one can speak) contributed to McElroy becoming the monster he became.

"There, but for the grace of God, go I."^

Surely some sort of mental illness was at work here as well, or as a result. Facile "good vs. evil" thinking does more harm than good in the long run, I think.
posted by LordSludge at 11:37 AM on December 16, 2010


10 children and hitting up a 12 year old, ugh. Doesn't say much for the town if that many were willing to shack up with the man. Apparently someone eventually grew a pair and put an end to the nonsense. Is it a good thing, no, but life doesn't allow for things to be handled in the best manner.
posted by wkearney99 at 11:39 AM on December 16, 2010


10 children and hitting up a 12 year old, ugh. Doesn't say much for the town if that many were willing to shack up with the man.

I wouldn't assume that willingness was a given in this case.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:45 AM on December 16, 2010 [16 favorites]


In a world that is rarely black and white... maybe.

Yeah.

Doesn't say much for the town if that many were willing to shack up with the man.

I don't think we need to extrapolate to far to get from "extremely violent man who successfully intimidated witnesses in 12 federal trials" to "probably was actually raping a lot of those women who were 'shacking up' with him".
posted by muddgirl at 11:45 AM on December 16, 2010 [9 favorites]


Is vigilante justice ever justified?

"...while they were away, shot the parents' dog and burned the house to the ground"

You don't mess with a man's dog.
posted by madajb at 11:52 AM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, I think the answer is that it was understandable. And honestly, the perpetrators of his killing should then have the cojones and sense of rightness to stand up and say, "Yes, yes I did it." Bring it all into court. The whole town should support him in court. They should also pool together their resources and pay for a damned good lawyer. If the court doesn't recognize the exigent circumstances, then the court is shown to be unmerciful (once again) before the community.

IMO, that is the way a righteous person behaves. It's also the best way to demonstrate, as an adult person, to any child that has witnessed your "crime" (essentially self-defense to the community) that a person owns up to what they do. They are, in fact, either proud to stand up, or willing to confess guilt.

Personally, I'd hope that were I the holder of the gun, I'd have the guts to go to jail for what I did. I'm pretty sure people would bring me cake.
posted by RedEmma at 11:54 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Even better scenario: the entire town "confesses" to having done it. Every single one of the 43 or so people who were witnesses. I'm pretty sure that would play out well.
posted by RedEmma at 11:55 AM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm Spartacus?
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:00 PM on December 16, 2010


I'm Spartacus?
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:00 PM


No you're not, you hat stealing bastard.
posted by electroboy at 12:02 PM on December 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


I guess my answer boils down to "sometimes", because sometimes it is the proper response.

Here's a real-life example:

It was on a camping 4-day weekend with a large group of friends, all in the same organization. One evening, as we were going to bed in our tents, we all heard a stunningly loud *slap* noise and shouting from another tent.

Worried, curious, we investigated and found out that "S" had hit "A", his wife, for the crime of flirting with someone earlier that evening. The proof was obvious in the livid red mark on her face, and from the shouting. We took her away from him, she spent the night in a friend's tent.

The next day, "S" was visited by every man in the campsite, about 40 of us. We surrounded him, alone, and told him quite directly that he was not allowed to hit his wife. If he did it again, if we *ever* saw any evidence again, the consequences would be quite painful for him. No courts, no law, no defense or rationalizing, he'd simply be in for a serious beating. He believed us, and to our knowledge (tight community, lots of interaction all the time) it never happened again. His only long-term consequence was that no woman in our (large, active, mostly polyamorous) group ever again dated him or to my knowledge, respected him.

(I miss that group.)

Vigilante justice was served, and I think rightly so. I'm proud of my participation in that event, and our reaction. It didn't need to go to court, it just needed fixing, immediately. It worked.
posted by Invoke at 12:05 PM on December 16, 2010 [11 favorites]


Wow, this sounds very similar to Peter Matthiessen's book Shadow Country, which was awarded the 2008 National Book Award and is a great read.
posted by wabashbdw at 12:07 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Some people are innately evil, and should not be allowed to exist in society. It doesn't make any sense to let a criminal psychopath like McElroy continue his reign of terror indefinitely.

If the law couldn't hold McElroy, then the townspeople were justified in eliminating a scourge upon their community. He got what was coming to him.
posted by reenum at 12:08 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


To all the people basically giving one-word "No" answers, or equating vigilante justice to revenge, I'd really like to hear what you thought should have happened here.

If the townsfolk were capable of organizing a hit on McElroy, then they were capable of organizing a protective detail for the witness du jour so they could see things through to a trial.

Between a witness sitting at home alone at night while McElroy peppers their house with buckshot, and 45 men standing around a truck pumping bullets into it, there's a lot of options, including ones that would likely have likely led to McElroy's death in actual self-defense. Get a witness, wait until McElroy fires his shotgun in your direction, and shoot back, for instance.
posted by fatbird at 12:10 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


IMO, that is the way a righteous person behaves. It's also the best way to demonstrate, as an adult person, to any child that has witnessed your "crime" (essentially self-defense to the community) that a person owns up to what they do. They are, in fact, either proud to stand up, or willing to confess guilt.

If the state to which you're submitting yourself was absent when you performed the act in question, indeed if that absence was the reason you felt compelled to administer justice yourself, why would you suddenly turn around and grant them the right to put you in jail, as if to suddenly stop acknowledging that the state's sovereignty in the area is weak or nonexistent? Are you bound by those laws absolutely, even in the absence of the apparatus that enforces them?
posted by invitapriore at 12:16 PM on December 16, 2010 [10 favorites]


That's a heartwarming story, Invoke, but I also think it's a great example of why community vigilantism doesn't work, especially in cases of domestic violence. The impetus in these cases isn't "stop abusing," it's "stop getting caught." The abuser sees that his victim is protect by other strong men, which may teach him to move on to less-protected victims who are outside the tight-knit community.

I'm not saying that's what happened with your friend, but it seems all-to-common in a historical sense. You say, "It worked," in that you don't have to witness the offensive behavior any more, but I don't think we can extrapolate and say, "Well, we cured him with our mighty man justice."
posted by muddgirl at 12:16 PM on December 16, 2010 [10 favorites]


If the townsfolk were capable of organizing a hit on McElroy, then they were capable of organizing a protective detail for the witness du jour so they could see things through to a trial.

Fatbird, did you read the articles? There had already been a trial. It was the twentieth trial, and the first to result in a conviction (because in all the others, he had intimidated witnesses into silence). But he was let out on bail pending appeal. And then the appeal was delayed. And then delayed again. There was no set date for this to end. Just more directions from the government to keep waiting it out.

Get a witness, wait until McElroy fires his shotgun in your direction, and shoot back, for instance.

In other words, yes, wait for him to make good on his threat. And that's assuming his target is the one he threatened, when he'd already demonstrated a capacity for violence against anyone who crossed him. Well, all I can say is, I disagree.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 12:20 PM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Mudgirl, true. There are lots of loopholes and ways that the jerk could get around our vigilance. I'm just pointing out an apparently successful example of vigilante justice that seems to have "worked" by putting some social boundaries and consequences on the jerk's actions. I believe that the law would have taken more time, been less successful, and had less long-term effect.
posted by Invoke at 12:20 PM on December 16, 2010


putting some social boundaries and consequences on the jerk's actions. I believe that the law would have taken more time, been less successful, and had less long-term effect.

Providing consequences for violating social boundaries is what the law is supposed to do.

I would hope that if the law isn't doing it's job, we'd all work towards fixing or replacing the broken system for everybody, rather than just replacing it for the people we care about.
posted by muddgirl at 12:22 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]




I thought this story would end differently... 46 men, 46 guns, 46 shots on this guy. I could swear I read a very similar story that ended with everyone in the mob taking action/responsibility for the deed. Is that ringing a bell for anyone else?
posted by Meatbomb at 12:24 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you are a sheriff or prosecutor you should find a way to get this guy incarcerated. Not all cases should depend upon witnesses, in fact many don't. The authorities clearly failed to act in this case, but perhaps there isn't a real reason why, perhaps they are merely inept.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:29 AM on December 16


So if someone puts a rattlesnake in my mailbox, you come on over and dust it for fingerprints...
posted by Billiken at 12:26 PM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Fatbird, did you read the articles?

Yes, I did. Yes, the justice system repeatedly failed the townsfolk, but in part it was because the townsfolk seemed to depend exclusively upon the justice system. How about organizing yourselves to help it out?

In other words, yes, wait for him to make good on his threat.

That is one option, yes. My whole point is that if you're capable of organizing full-on vigilante action, then you're capable of organizing less extreme measures that would blunt McElroy's tactics and perhaps kill him less objectionably if the opportunity presents.
posted by fatbird at 12:32 PM on December 16, 2010


fatbird: If the townsfolk were capable of organizing a hit on McElroy, then they were capable of organizing a protective detail for the witness du jour so they could see things through to a trial.

That doesn't necessarily follow. The first is a one-time action that can be done by any one person. The second requires several people being vigilant continuously for months, and even then it might not work. Protective details can't assure 100% protection in a world with accurate long-range weapons

Of course, law enforcement should have done a better job here (here's a hint - when the guy you arrest has a long history of personally intimidating witnesses, deny bail.) This situation should have never been allowed to come up.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:32 PM on December 16, 2010


Muddgirl, I agree, putting social consequences on actions is what the law is supposed to do.

However, it doesn't do a great job of it, and I'm not willing to dedicate my life to helping advance those causes. My path isn't that. What I was willing to do is to spend an afternoon administering a beat-down to a jerk, if necessary. I'm not a fan of violence, but I can go there if needed.

As a community, we made it clear to her that we'd support her with housing, money, and friendship/support, should she choose to leave him. If not, then we were there to force him to behave. I truly believe she would've told us were he to resume his abuse.

I honestly do believe this was a better result than any you'd get from the law. It isn't "mefi-correct", but that's my perspective.
posted by Invoke at 12:34 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


That doesn't necessarily follow. The first is a one-time action that can be done by any one person. The second requires several people being vigilant continuously for months, and even then it might not work. Protective details can't assure 100% protection in a world with accurate long-range weapons

I didn't say it would offer 100% protection. But it wouldn't involve premeditated murder that's then covered up by the entire community. And a protective detail that's only 50% effective is 50% more than they were willing to do up until the point they lynched McElroy.
posted by fatbird at 12:37 PM on December 16, 2010


There's an old Texas saying (that I made up) "Some people just need killin'"

69,300,000 hits for that phrase on Google, so I don't think you made that up, bucko.

I remember reading an account of a town taking out a bully many years ago, and one of the many standing nearby who didn't see who killed him said exactly that. I remembered it as being in Idaho, but it was probably this very case.
posted by msalt at 12:41 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The police failed to protect the city of Skidmore from McElroy, and the police failed to protect McElroy from Skidmore.

Makes me wonder why any of them pay their taxes.

(maybe because the police sit outside their houses in their cars, with guns)
posted by edguardo at 12:47 PM on December 16, 2010


However, it doesn't do a great job of it, and I'm not willing to dedicate my life to helping advance those causes. My path isn't that. What I was willing to do is to spend an afternoon administering a beat-down to a jerk, if necessary. I'm not a fan of violence, but I can go there if needed.

It doesn't take a life, it takes an understanding that things are broken and that a little time and money can fix it. Anyone can administer a beat-down to anyone, don't you see? Your abusive buddy can hook up with 50 abusive friends and beat back if he wants to. One of your 40 buddies could actually be some sort of secret abusers as well, who gets off on administering beat-downs.

I guess it's a question that communities have been trying to determine for awhile - who gets to decide when a beat-down is needed? Certainly police officers think they have that right, but I mostly disagree.

You say "I'm not a fan of violence" but then you don't seem to analyze why we're supposed to be non-violent. Why is violence bad in some cases but warranted in others, and who gets to decide?

It isn't "mefi-correct", but that's my perspective.

"Mefi-correct"? First of all it seems to me like you're opinion is in the majority here, but besides that we're just having a conversation. We're not writing a Constitution or anything.
posted by muddgirl at 12:47 PM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


For all of you rah-rah vigilantes on the thread ...

The problem with vigilante justice is that it's carried out by humans.

And humans are often wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Mistake after mistake after mistake.

Since we know this about humans, society sets up laws, police and courts to ensure that mistakes -- which will still happen, no matter how good the courts are -- are as few and as far between as possible.

It won't be perfect. Justice never will be. But it will be as good as it can get for the most number of people.

Vigilante justice is flawed. Court are flawed, too. But less so. That's why vigilante justice is never justified.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:49 PM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


"there were 46 potential witnesses to the shooting, ... every other witness either refused to name an assailant"

That strikes me as an incredibly large number of people to collaborate in a tacit(?) conspiracy. I could rule the world if I knew how to get half that number to keep a life and death secret.
posted by klarck at 12:56 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


It isn't "mefi-correct"

oh for the love of fucking christ
posted by Greg Nog at 12:58 PM on December 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


oh for the love of fucking christ

Yeah, I get accused of being the voice of some Mefi Opinion Squad all the time. It's starting to go to my head.
posted by muddgirl at 1:00 PM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


The problem with vigilante justice is that it's carried out by humans.

Papa Bell, if that's the distinguishing feature of vigilante justice, then all justice is vigilante justice. I'm not trying to split hairs here or single you out, but your comment reminded me that I really wish there was another term for what actually happened here. The 'vigilante justice/real justice' dichotomy is misleading.

As you say, courts are less flawed, but that doesn't make them categorically different from any other justice-serving entity.

What we have settled on is a convention for dealing justice that doesn't require the posse comitatus, because we have better things to do than chase down thieves. So we have a 'standing police force' like we have a 'standing army'.

But killing is killing, and a beating is a beating, no matter what kind of hat or badge the person (or persons) doing it is wearing.

So really I wish we could get unstuck from this 'vigilante justice' idea and start considering the real problem, which is how to effectively and justly prevent crimes like McElroy's from happening in the first place. That would be best, right?

Next best, of course, is to prevent those crimes from happening again in the future. The community did that here. It could have been the police. It could have been a roofing tile falling on his head.

But that's still a sub-optimal solution to the problem of crime. The best thing would be prevention.
posted by edguardo at 1:03 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


We're not writing a Constitution or anything.

*sighs, removes powdered wig*
posted by joe lisboa at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2010 [20 favorites]


69,300,000 hits for that phrase on Google, so I don't think you made that up, bucko.

I never said I was original. Bucko.
posted by dead cousin ted at 1:08 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, i fail at spelling.
posted by dead cousin ted at 1:13 PM on December 16, 2010


I remember reading an account of a town taking out a bully many years ago, and one of the many standing nearby who didn't see who killed him said exactly that.

I recall reading something similar, although I thought it was Montana or North Dakota. The basic story being the eventual victim struck it rich buying up natural gas rights and using his newfound wealth to sleep with people's wives and ruin anyone who crossed him. My best guess is it was in Harpers, maybe 3 or 4 years ago.
posted by electroboy at 1:16 PM on December 16, 2010


Invoke: “Vigilante justice was served, and I think rightly so. I'm proud of my participation in that event, and our reaction. It didn't need to go to court, it just needed fixing, immediately. It worked.”

Okay, this is a good example of vigilante justice, I suppose, although there are others in this thread; kalessin gives one. And I can see how being part of such a group might feel good. Kattullus made a very good point above about one reason for the actual justice system – because doling out punishment is a heavy responsibility that can be immensely painful – but your group luckily did not have to face that prospect.

But I still think what your group did was wrong. I believe there are other reasons why vigilante justice is wrong, and I'll try to say why.

The first reason: justice is not an easy or a simple thing. You'll notice that in many of these cases, we're given stark, apparently obvious cases; the man in the link above, for example, was clearly a terrible man, and did many, many horrible things. In your story, the man apparently hit his wife, and it's easy for a lot of us to say we don't like that much. But that's not how life usually is; it's not so stark. Life is filled with situations where the just course of action is not obvious, and unfortunately the vast majority of situations are not even remotely as simple as they may seem on the surface.

To use the story you've given as an example: you say your group "investigated" this. How can you be sure that he hit his wife, and why? What if she slapped him? It's possible. How could you know what happened if you didn't witness it yourself? What's more, how can anyone be sure of what happened if it isn't discussed openly, among all participants, and carefully sorted through? This is one of the perils of mob justice: the mob doesn't frequently know the facts. And even when the mob does know the facts, its rendition of justice is not rarely horribly wrong. Your group sounds like a good group of people; but on this account, they are just as justified in their actions as a group of bad people. What if they disliked someone because of their race? Because of their sexual orientation? That's happened much more frequently than the kind of vigilante justice you're describing, and it is never pretty. This is a good reason for actively discouraging this kind of thing, and even for refusing to participate in it.

The second reason: because justice requires cold impartiality, not hot-blooded closeness to the situation. People who care about the victim are frequently the very worst people to render justice in any given situation; this is why judges are required to recuse themselves if they have a personal connection to a case. The chief concern is that they will be tempted to act out of revenge rather than justice. The point of justice is not to hurt the guilty; the purpose of punishment is far beyond that impulse toward vengeance. The point of justice is to try to find peace and a better outcome for all involved, including the criminal; in fact, punishment is supposed to better the criminal by giving them a chance to pay back what they've done, to suffer in some way in order to even the debt, and to think through their crime and find a way to be a responsible member of society again. Of course, justice also has to look to the well-being of the victims of crime. It has to look to all these things, and vigilante justice simply does not have the perspicacity to do so.

The third reason why vigilante justice is bad: because it contributes to the breakdown of the system. This isn't something we think much of nowadays, I think because it doesn't jive well with our sense of individualism, but the system is itself something worth preserving. Abraham Lincoln famously said that if he could have won the civil war and preserved law and order without freeing a single slave, he would have done it – and moreover that would have been the right choice, I think. Why? Because law and order are necessities for a society worth living in. Otherwise there is everywhere injustice, wretchedness, and even death. It doesn't generally occur to us, but the atmosphere of lawlessness is a large part of the environment in which the worst injustice thrives. The guy described in the main link was able to do what he did because law and justice were malfunctioning; they've gotten rid of him now, but unless they also make the law work, there could easily be others like him. What's to prevent this in the future?

And because of all of these things, vigilante justice almost never works. I don't even think it worked well in this situation, even if we assume that your group's assessment was correct and he hit his wife in anger. You say you threatened the man, pointed out that he was not to hurt her again or you would be sure he paid for it. But that's not punishment; it's a threat. There was nothing therapeutic about it for criminal or victim. He received no stern counsel about how to avoid this in the future. He didn't get treated for his obvious anger problems. There was no arrangement in place in case he ever did it again, which (I'm sorry to say) is extremely likely. The actual nature of domestic violence makes this kind of arrangement unworkable. Most of all, how the heck are any of you to know whether he does it again anyway? Presumably he'll be alone with her again at some point; and she's not necessarily likely to report it, especially since all that came of the last time were threats. Consider what would have happened if you'd convinced her to report it to the authorities last time; he would have had to face his actions – whereas all you taught him to do was to cover them up. Most of all, since she didn't go through the hard process of reporting it last time, she's even less likely to speak up if he does it again. And that's tragic.
posted by koeselitz at 1:22 PM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Vigilante justice is flawed. Court are flawed, too. But less so. That's why vigilante justice is never justified.

It seems to me that what you've laid out is a reason for why vigilante justice is not desirable, not for why it's never justified.
posted by Hoopo at 1:26 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Vigilante justice is flawed. Court are flawed, too. But less so. That's why vigilante justice is never justified.

Your conclusion does not follow from your premises. It's better to give the courts a chance first, and to reduce vigilante justice to a minimum. I don't think anyone is disputing that. But "never" is a strong word. If you have a case where the overwhelming evidence is that the flawed courts have completely and totally failed, then flawed vigilante justice might be the only answer.

I'm not being hypothetical here. Again, Cool Papa Bell: What do you think should have happened here, in *this* case? Overall I agree, vigilante justice is bad. But this was not a mob run amok. This was a community who had been failed by the courts, and whose legal options were basically reduced to waiting for someone to get killed.

I can't see what the community did here as wrong, even if I think that 99.9% of the time I would agree that vigilante justice is bad.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 1:28 PM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


What edguardo said.

I should mention, though, that I'm actually against the death penalty (as administered by a government) in all cases, but not categorically opposed to vigilante justice (although I would advocate it only in very specific cases... like this one).
posted by Rykey at 1:30 PM on December 16, 2010


I'm kind of in the camp that sometimes rules should be broken, but once you break the rules you do not avoid the consequences of your actions. You might be in a situation where you feel you have to kill someone, but once doing so never avoid the fact that you are a murderer and should be incarcerated.

That's one way of looking at it, but an overly simplistic one. Killing in and of itself does not make a person a murderer as a matter of law. An executioner, a police officer firing upon a violent criminal, or a person acting in defense of self or another have valid defenses against such a charge, and would be acquitted. (You might not approve of the death penalty, but that's a matter of changing the law itself.) There are even some situations where a person does commit murder - ie the killing is judged deliberate and unlawful - but incarceration is not considered appropriate.

Now, if you're a religious person then you have to work out the moral consequences of your actions via prayer and whatever religious strictures you live by. The Jain sect in India is so concerned with the preservation of life that they wear breathing masks and sweep the dust in front of their path to avoid stepping on insects or small crawling things. If you're Christian, the most trivial offenses may result in eternal suffering, but no crime is too monstrous to be forgiven if there is faithful repentance. But here on earth, we lack the divine perspective and are limited to human judgments as a result. Not all people accept this of course, but since a majority goes with what's in front of them and miracles are relatively rare, earthly judgments are where it's at for now. As a famous jurist once said, law is a system for predicting what a judge will decide.

In this case, where it seems two people shot McElroy down, nobody is a murderer. Not only that, but this is an example of a partially successful outcome for the legal system itself, despite the lack of a trial - a point to which I will return below. In the most technical sense, nobody is a murderer at present because no court has said that anyone is a murderer, which is the only standard that matters outside a church. Would a court say so, if we know the two people who fired the different shots? (McElroy was hit with bullets from two different guns; let's assume two shooters as the most likely explanation.) Perhaps. Part of it would depend on whether either shot was sufficient to cause death by itself. Laws vary from state to state and also over time, and I don't want to spend half a day looking up the standard for felony murder in Missouri in 1981.

Whether neither, one, or both of the shots resulted in an unlawful killing depends in part on whether the shootings themselves were unlawful. McElroy was out on bail while appealing a conviction for attempted murder, and reportedly had taken a gun and bayonet to the bar where he spoke loudly and persuasively (given his history) about his intent to kill the victim and/or other witnesses to that crime. When the townspeople showed up en masse he departed the bar; whether he repeated his bragging in front of them all is unknown, as is the question of whether he took his weapon with him when departing the bar, from the links we have here. If he did utter threats and take the weapon, and if Missouri law at that time allowed for force to be used in defense of another, it could be argued that he was shot to prevent him from driving away and immediately carrying out a murderous assault. My guess is that this is pretty much the standard employed by the townspeople to justify their individual decisions to themselves. If he renounced violent intent or abandoned his weapon when leaving the bar, he would have been unarmed and defenseless, making revenge a much more likely motive than prevention of violence, but his widow's complaint would likely have included that if it had happened. So a trial on any charge might have ended in an acquittal for the people who shot him.

Now, if the sheriff had told him to surrender and ended up shooting him, it wouldn't be remarkable. Why he felt unable to capture McElroy himself we don't know. Maybe there were legal impediments, maybe McElroy was blackmailing him, maybe he was afraid. Ideally, the citizens should have waited until the next election, then elected a new sheriff, or DA, or judge, or state lawmaker, or whoever would have been able to identify the mismatch between the laws and their failure to protect the community's interests. The case is interesting and polarizing because it does seem as if the townspeople acted in a deliberative and even democratic manner, as opposed to acting like a hysterical mob. There were a large number of them, they were probably intimately familiar with the progress of his attempted murder case, as well as having their own first- and second-hand knowledge of his character and doings over many years. The civic problem is that even when the system is obviously not working effectively, townships our counties cannot simply opt out of state law. If they could, then sooner or later there would be a Hatfield & McCoy type dispute between people in two different counties, and a uniform system of justice would quickly unravel. So no matter how democratic, thoughtful, and appropriate the collective behavior of the townspeople was, abandoning legal procedure and authority as they did weakened the legal system in the state. The killing may even have been lawful, but it was unjustified, and remains so; that is to say, no judge has ever examined the question and given an answer.

So why did I say above that it was a a partially successful outcome for the legal system? Well, consider what was said at that town meeting. Obviously, they talked about what a bad man McElroy was and how they had had enough. What we do not (and may never) know is whether they agreed, by vote or acclamation, to put him to death. Perhaps they went to the bar intending to kill him no matter what. Perhaps they went there to take one last look at him, and let him see them, and reserved their decision until they had seen his reaction - would he stick to his murderous boast and walk out with his gun, or throw the gun away and ask for the sheriff. Perhaps they even just discussed matters and observed him, and then two members of the crowd acted on the spur of the moment - but let's face it, that's the least likely option, about as plausible as the idea that they all happened to be looking elsewhere when the shots were fired. So, let's assume they agreed something, and they all went to the bar with the idea of McElroy's death on their mind - whether as a certainty or a possibility is of secondary importance.

Now, if that's true and could be proved in court, all the townspeople who went to that meeting could be convicted of conspiracy to murder (or something similar, depending on the specifics of Missouri law in 1981 etc. etc. - usual disclaimers apply). But - and this is a big one - none of them are at fault for refusing to spill the beans. Because the 5th amendment provides that no person shall be compelled to be a witness against themselves in a criminal matter. If they agreed to act together, and left no evidence afterwards, then the fact of an unjust action, even a death, is not enough to proceed.

This is the great strength and weakness of our legal system: the burden of proof on the prosecution is that of correctly assigning blame. If it cannot show the truth of a criminal accusation beyond a reasonable doubt, then for legal purposes it didn't happen. McElroy had an attorney skilled enough to protect his civil rights to the maximum extent possible, and McElroy employed these freedoms to procure or frighten witnesses whose testimony would matter most at trial. If his attorney misled the courts about facts or his eligibility for bail or what-all else, that was the court's failure, since judges should know better. If the law in Missouri was too soft on bullies or neglectful of victims, then the law was lacking.

But the law that allowed McElroy to deny or plead 'not guilty' to every charge that was every brought against him is the same law that shields the townspeople to this day. Without it, the standard in our courts would not be 'beyond a reasonable doubt' but 'someone's gotta pay,' which is the logic of despotism. In such a system, if the people will not assist the state then the state punishes someone as it sees fit. Constitutional protection against self-incrimination is the essence of government by consent of the governed. Although it can be abused, and is weak in the face of concerted opposition as found in Skidmore, the inability of the prosecution to bring a case before the court is a far more potent demonstration of the rule of law at work than the events of the past are a demonstration of its failings.

I'd bet, incidentally, that Skidmore and the neighboring town have had an atypically low incidence of crime ever since.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:34 PM on December 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Damn, on preview, what Hoopo and Kingjoeshmoe said too.
posted by Rykey at 1:35 PM on December 16, 2010


... and on non-preview:

Invoke: “As a community, we made it clear to her that we'd support her with housing, money, and friendship/support, should she choose to leave him. If not, then we were there to force him to behave. I truly believe she would've told us were he to resume his abuse. I honestly do believe this was a better result than any you'd get from the law. It isn't ‘mefi-correct’, but that's my perspective.”

But what about him? That's the point!

It's very nice if you were all there to protect her and support her through that time (although, as I've said above, that's difficult even when people are publicly open about what's happened, so I'm skeptical she would have reported future incidents.) But he still has that problem! Fine – he knows not to hit her, nobody in your social group dates him, etc. But even if she leaves him, he'll just move on to another group. And he will do the same thing all over again. You won't be there all the time to threaten him, no matter how big your little group is; and fear is not an effective cure for domestic violence. He needs therapy, he needs treatment, he needs to be made better. And that starts with him publicly and legally having to confront what he's done. This is true, at the very least, because if it's on his record, future partners of his will have to go in knowing what to expect. Doesn't that make sense?
posted by koeselitz at 1:38 PM on December 16, 2010


kingjoeshmoe: “I'm not being hypothetical here. Again, Cool Papa Bell: What do you think should have happened here, in *this* case? Overall I agree, vigilante justice is bad. But this was not a mob run amok. This was a community who had been failed by the courts, and whose legal options were basically reduced to waiting for someone to get killed. I can't see what the community did here as wrong, even if I think that 99.9% of the time I would agree that vigilante justice is bad.”

It's not so much that what they did was wrong – it's just massively an incomplete action that in no way guarantees justice. Fine, so they got rid of him. Somebody got rid of him. But there's still a vacuum where law and order should be. What will happen the next time there's a monster like this? Or even a monster that's more common and less insidious in a publicly-obvious way – Invoke's wife-abuser, for example? Is somebody going to be there to get rid of the criminal then, too? Are we going to continue counting on somebody to make justice for us every time?

The world isn't a Batman comic, as much as I love them. Nobody is that strong, or that just.

Whereas consider the good things that would have come out of the situation if the justice system had done its job – or, best yet, if some people had stood up and demanded that the system did its job. (Why doesn't that seem to occur to people?) The people would have had good reason to trust that such a person would never be able to terrorize them again; this person would have been justly punished, and the victims would not have suffered any more. And most of all, the system would have been bolstered as something that the people could count on in all circumstances.

I don't condemn people for the things they might feel they have to do in such situations. But there's good reason to wonder if they did much good for themselves at all. What came after? What new bullies did they have to face after this one was gone? These are legitimate questions to which the answers are unsettling. There isn't just one evil person in any given town, you know; and simply getting rid of one guy, no matter how bad, doesn't generally make a town just and peaceful.
posted by koeselitz at 1:47 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


koeselitz,

I'm trying to avoid a derail. I had not realized my anecdote would be the subject of so much debate. I really appreciate and agree with most of your points, to be honest, I just think they are taking away from the main thrust of the post.

But (there's always a but), I do want to respond to this:

But even if she leaves him, he'll just move on to another group. And he will do the same thing all over again. You won't be there all the time to threaten him, no matter how big your little group is; and fear is not an effective cure for domestic violence. He needs therapy, he needs treatment, he needs to be made better. And that starts with him publicly and legally having to confront what he's done.

Nothing we did prevented her from taking legal action. In fact, she was encouraged by many to do just that, which she chose not to do, like so many abuse victims before her. What we did stopped the immediate & obvious abuse. I make no claim that it was a permanent or perfect solution, I only say that it was better than the alternative ... which was nothing.

Lastly, no harm meant or head-pounding exasperation was intended by my use of the phrase "mefi-correct". I should have said, "the apparent near-consensus on this thread."
posted by Invoke at 1:48 PM on December 16, 2010


I'm not being hypothetical here. Again, Cool Papa Bell: What do you think should have happened here, in *this* case?

Your loaded question speaks to how you're attempting to conflate two different conversation threads -- vigilante justice vs. "right here, right now." You might as well ask me when was it that I stopped beating my wife.

It is possible to hold conflicting thoughts in your head, you know. For example, I think capital punishment is always, always wrong. At the same time, I'm not at all upset that Ted Bundy finally got to meet Old Sparky.

That capability is part of what makes us ... wait for it ... human.

Vigilante justice (and capital punishment for that matter) is always wrong because humans are fallible, and therefore the risks are too great. Dispassionate, third-party court systems are the best way we've found to minimize those risks. Nothing will ever, ever be perfect, but the only calories that should be burned is in making the courts better.

Ken Rex McElroy had children. Children that knew him as "Daddy." He was not a good father, by any meaningful use of the term. But still, they probably miss him, in some weird way, because they, too, are fallible humans.

At the same time, he was, as I cracked wise, something like a white-trash supervillain. I'm sure everyone was objectively better off without him, whether they subjectively liked him or not.

But it was wrong to kill him, and the incident should not be held up as an example of anything good.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:50 PM on December 16, 2010


Courts aren't actually good at justice; they convict and murder innocent people every day; and they function as part of a system of oppression.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:03 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think I might be confused about your view of justice generally, CPB--it seems to be some ideal of perfection that can't be attained due to human fallibility. So in some sense, courts, laws, and the justice system will also ultimately fail to "justify" their outcomes. To me justice is a construct that means different things to different people, and as ugly as it may be, in some situations vigilante justice can satisfy peoples' need to set things right (whatever that means).
posted by Hoopo at 2:16 PM on December 16, 2010


Hoopo: “To me justice is a construct that means different things to different people...”

It's worth noting that, if you really believe that justice is a subjective construct, then all justice is vigilante justice. Courts don't have any inherent justification at all under that perspective, and judges are just vigilantes with nice robes and a lot of goons in blue suits who work for them.

I tend to disagree, but that would be an interesting conclusion, I guess.
posted by koeselitz at 2:27 PM on December 16, 2010


Hmmm..that's not really the conclusion I get koeselitz. I look at laws etc in our society as something of a consensus, reflecting shared values and agreed-upon remedies people can accept as appropriate to the given violation of those values. So a judge isn't a vigilante, he's interpreting and meting out justice according to the real, established values of the people enshrined in the form of laws. They exist, but they're not perfect and they will vary from society to society.
posted by Hoopo at 2:32 PM on December 16, 2010


in some situations vigilante justice can satisfy peoples' need to set things right (whatever that means).

And that's the problem. What's your need to set things right? What's mine? What does "right" mean to you? He needed killin'? Well, maybe he needed your wallet.

Humans are animals. A person's "need to set things right" may be no better than a male chimp's need to murder a rival for access to a particular female chimp.

At least with a criminal justice system, we try to be better than our primate cousins...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:37 PM on December 16, 2010


It should be noted that this particular incident happened 30 years ago before domestic violence, statutory rape and stalking laws were as strongly punished as get are today. Today he would be much more easy to prosecute under a variety of laws. He would also likes likely to get bail do to tightening bail laws around the country.
posted by humanfont at 2:41 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Humans are animals. A person's "need to set things right" may be no better than a male chimp's need to murder a rival for access to a particular female chimp.

At least with a criminal justice system, we try to be better than our primate cousins...


I agree with this, however I feel that a criminal justice system is essentially just an attempt to come up with a way to "set things right" and meet that need consistently, to the best of our abilities. And to some kind of consensus, because we have to live with each other. The judge's decisions are based on OUR rules that WE give them the power to interpret. The cops are allowed to come for people that break OUR laws because WE give them that power. When the system fails or doesn't accomplish what we think it should, usually we can shift and change the system and make new rules or set precedent. But sometimes it's gonna be vigilante time and sometimes I'm OK with that.
posted by Hoopo at 2:48 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's to prevent this in the future?

The knowledge that the town of Skidmore doesn't take shit anymore, and doesn't snitch?

I like the sound of tribal justice as an alternative to vigilante justice - and maybe this is something that has positive aspects in contrast to a nation-state system. The nation state is big, remote, can be arbitrary and not meet the needs of smaller groups living within it. Now these Skidmore people are empowered, and their direct action has bonded them very tightly I imagine.

In tribal justice, the tribe takes precedence over the individual. The healthy survival of the tribe of Skidmore required the removal of sociopath Mr. McElroy.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:49 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


In tribal justice, the tribe takes precedence over the individual. The healthy survival of the tribe of Skidmore required the removal of sociopath Mr. McElroy.

Tribal justice seems to make sense when it comes to removing sociopaths, but it's not so great when the tribe decides that marrying an outsider gets you a faceful of acid, or that whistling at white women merits you getting beaten to death and your body thrown into the river.
posted by electroboy at 3:03 PM on December 16, 2010 [14 favorites]


In tribal justice, the tribe takes precedence over the individual. The healthy survival of the tribe of Skidmore required the removal of sociopath Mr. McElroy.

And fifty years earlier, the healthy survival of the tribe of Skidmore required hanging the uppity colored guy who looked at a white woman the wrong way.

The fact that premeditated murder seemed to work out all right in this particular case seems to make a lot of you feel like the 99% of other cases aren't that important.
posted by fatbird at 3:18 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


> The problem with vigilante justice is that it's carried out by humans. And humans are often wrong. [...] Since we know this about humans, society sets up laws, police and courts to ensure that mistakes [...]

Hmm...society is no more than an ongoing association of humans. Authority is an adaptive behavior because if every dispute ends in a deadly feud the group is weakened. Pooling some authority in one person who resolves the disputes of others and whose judgments are respected typically results in fewer deaths. Shamans are respected for having knowledge of the environment. Chiefs are respected for their ability to wield force. Occasionally, wise people are respect for their ability to establish consensus. Of course, a general loss of respect typically meant death and replacement by someone else.

In larger groups, these roles evolve into those of priests, kings and judges, and usually several at once. Society does not make laws, lawgivers do. The earliest laws we have (partial) copies of were written by a king named Ur-Nammu about 4000 years ago. (Laws issued by one Urukagina are spoken of some centuries earlier; the Code of Hammurabi a few centuries later is the most complete set of early laws we know about. These ancient laws were mostly in casuistic form, ie 'if x happens, then y should be done,' and most scholars think they were less of a systematic code than a random collection of previous decisions by a king most people trusted as fair (or who was powerful enough that nobody dared otherwise). Likely there was competition between various ancient lawgivers, but the bitterest disputes would sooner or later work their way up to a monarch who had the greatest ability to enforce a particular outcome.

Systematic analysis along with the concept of 'rule of law' did not appear until many centuries later in ancient Athens, and even then only after several false starts involving monarchy and plutocracy. The concept of legalism emerged in China around the same time. Now, society does start to become more than a mere collection of humans somewhere around the invention of writing, when ideas can begin to exist independently of their creators in time and space; but this is hardly a one-way progression, or even a smooth one. A constitutional government with a body of law that includes procedures for its own modification remains an abstraction in much of the world, and no country that I know has any legal mechanism for deriving, validating, or correcting rules - that still comes down to people having arguments in courts and in legislatures and in referendums, and one of the problems in our polity is the declining understanding of or respect for this way of doing things, due to the often questionable quality of the results...

> Courts aren't actually good at justice; they convict and murder innocent people every day; and they function as part of a system of oppression.

...for example. I can't dispute this; courts are only as good as the quality of law they administer, and laws are only as good as the quality of the judges and legislators and administrators that develop them. I personally think the common-law system is the best approach we have come with so far, and think the American systems is the best implementation of that so far - and that's mainly because the US is so large, resulting in 1 federal, 50 state, and several specialist subsystems (like bankruptcy courts) producing a variety of different outcomes for study. Of course, not all of these outcomes are good, but although everyone would like to see a better legal system, there's very little consensus on what it ought to be.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:22 PM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


His head would be on a stick at the city gates if he tried that with me and my family.
posted by Bubbles Devere at 3:51 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I personally think the common-law system is the best approach we have come with so far, and think the American systems is the best implementation of that so far

Not for me, unless I'm misinterpreting you. Too much incarceration, too much suing and passing the buck, too much death penalty, too susceptible to 3-strikes simplistic get-tough-on-crime rhetoric. But it beats whatever the hell is going on in Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney. Have you played that? Good God, it's like Kafka-lite.
posted by Hoopo at 3:55 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I could swear I read a very similar story that ended with everyone in the mob taking action/responsibility for the deed. Is that ringing a bell for anyone else?

Spoiler for Agatha Christie story






This is the resolution of "Murder on the Orient Express". A man is found dead with a lot of stab wounds. In the end, just about everyone on the train did it, resulting in a lot of variance in the stab wounds.
posted by Danila at 4:36 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I tend to disagree, but that would be an interesting conclusion, I guess.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:38 PM on December 16, 2010


This is the resolution of "Murder on the Orient Express". A man is found dead with a lot of stab wounds. In the end, just about everyone on the train did it, resulting in a lot of variance in the stab wounds.

That's a fairly classic Mystery Trope, it shows up in a lot of things I'm not naming cause Spoilers. (well okay the "correct" ending of Clue). I wonder if the Christie is the first example of it (goes to TV Tropes, never to return. )
posted by The Whelk at 4:40 PM on December 16, 2010


(goes to TV Tropes, never to return. )

SPOILER ALERT: The Whelk was stabbed. By everyone.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:41 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was thinking more of the way it develops over time rather than the quality of the results at a given moment. For example, I could point at some things that are much better in Britain or Ireland (also common law countries) from a social/economic/penal policy point of view, but other things that are worse, like fewer guaranteed liberties or a more limited electoral franchise. I'm not a very big fan of civil law systems, which I think concentrate power too rigidly in the executive/legislative parts of government.

Japan's legal system is weird. They went from despotism to civil law very rapidly in the 19th century (adopting a lot of Germany's legal system), then we transplanted large parts of our system in there after defeating them in WW2. But while some laws can bring change very quickly others can be very slow. Something like 95% of Japanese criminal trials are won on the basis of a confession (voluntary...of course) and the trial is usually seen as more of a formality than a fact-finding exercise.

That makes Phoenix Wright something of a dangerous radical by Japanese social standards. And even without coercion, it makes confessions easier to obtain because people are so used to them that fighting a criminal case and being acquitted won't result in vindication so much as social exile. Conservatives will dismiss an acquittal as corrupt and even moderate people will be uncomfortable at the defendant's rocking the boat.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:48 PM on December 16, 2010


No I managed to stab myself 17 times in the back.
posted by The Whelk at 4:48 PM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Court are flawed, too. But less so.

Hard to say. Some courts make pretty egregious, catastrophic mistakes that a mob could never get away with.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:55 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are lots more details in the article about McElroy at Crime Library:

He rarely held a legitimate job, even though he drove new trucks and supported a squadron of children and a small harem of women. He stole grain, gasoline, alcohol, antiques and any other commodity he could fence. But he was particularly adept as a livestock rustler, another activity practiced at night. He paid off auction barns to sell his hot livestock. Law enforcers and farmers alike knew that McElroy was stealing, but Missouri did not require branding, so authorities were unable to pin a crime on him.

When he was finally charged with rustling, in 1972, McElroy hired a big-shot Kansas City lawyer, Richard McFadin, whose maneuvers got the case dismissed. The two maintained a long and mutually beneficial relationship. McElroy helped make McFadin wealthy, and McFadin kept McElroy out of jail.


The lawyer McFadin sounds like just as much of a sleazebag as McElroy:

To his credit, the prosecutor piled on eight additional felony molestation charges after collecting evidence from Trena about trysts with McElroy at a St. Joseph motel over three years, beginning when she was 13. Then, lawyer McFadin went to work.

He split the charges into two separate trials and sought changes of venue for each. Trial dates were set, reset, then set yet again. After a year had passed, Trena announced to the foster family that she was leaving and would be living with her grandmother. The family was suspicious, but she couldn't be held against her will.

Not a month later, McElroy was in McFadin's office. He asked the lawyer, "What happens if I marry Trena?"...The lawyer placed a gloating phone call to inform the prosecutor that his only witness against McElroy was now the man's wife—and therefore could not be compelled to testify against him. Technically, the prosecution could have gone forward, but it was a hopeless case. Eventually, all charges were dropped.


The specifics of each case are infuriating. I stopped at page 13 of 29.
posted by mediareport at 5:17 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, but I still would have put a bullet in him.

Vigilante justice is neither the perfect or the ideal solution. But it is a solution.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 6:12 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I read a book about McElroy 20 yrs ago and IIRC his lawyer McFadin made a member of the Missouri legislature McElroy's lead lawyer and as long as the legislature was in session Missouri law disallowed a trial where a defendent's lawyer was otherwise busy with state business.

Also, I think that member of the legislature later became Missouri's attorney general who was convicted and sentenced to prison for corruption.
posted by wrapper at 6:46 PM on December 16, 2010


"Is vigilante justice ever justified?"

Depends. How dead are my parents?
posted by Eideteker at 7:05 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The story Ken Rex McElroy reminds me of a story from my neck of the woods. If McElroy had been rich and connected, he would've been a lot like Scottsboro, Alabama's Hugh Otis Bynum. There's an interesting book about Bynum, Lay Down With Dogs: The Story of Hugh Otis Bynum and the Scottsboro First Monday Bombing. Yeah, that Scottsboro. I always intended to make an FPP about Byrum, but there's just not enough material available online to merit it. He was one evil motherfucker, though.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:00 PM on December 16, 2010


Nothing is never anything. Everything is sometimes something. Everything is gray.
posted by tehloki at 9:12 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


A couple questions:

1) Is there a duty to obey or enforce the law for no other reason than that it is the law? If so, why?
2) Is killing as a soldier in a war morally superior to similar killings where the participants are not soldiers? If so, why?

I don't think so, on either count, and I think both questions are relevant to vigilantism.

1) No. The law is frequently immoral, even in a democracy, and the actions of the powerful in codifying a law books do not change the moral rightness or wrongness of the acts to which they pertain.

2) There are, of course, many reasons to forbear from killing, but I don't see any reason to craft a moral exemption for the state, especially because the state must always act through the individual. Again, a General at a desk in Washington has not the power to condemn or absolve any man or woman for murder.

To vest moral authority in the police that exceeds the standard issue is to vest the state itself with that moral authority, and I don't see any particular reason to do so. The question "Is Vigilante justice ever justified?" could just as easily be reworded to ask, "Is armed rebellion ever justified?" If the state has a moral authority inaccessible to its citizens, then no, neither vigilante justice nor rebellion are justified. But I would ask, if a state has a moral authority that exceeds that of its people, from where does this authority come?
posted by Richard Daly at 9:59 PM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Richard Daly: “1) Is there a duty to obey or enforce the law for no other reason than that it is the law? If so, why? ... No. The law is frequently immoral, even in a democracy, and the actions of the powerful in codifying a law books do not change the moral rightness or wrongness of the acts to which they pertain. ”

I disagree. There is certainly a duty to enforce the law as law. Why? Because it's conducive to justice. Law is the single greatest and most useful tool for creating justice in the world. There might be individual cases where illegal acts create justice, but because law is the only tool by which we can create thoroughgoing and regular justice in the world, what tears down law in general is destructive to justice. And we at the very least have a duty to try to make the world just.

It is tempting to see law books as mere words spoken by some group of human beings. But they have to be more than that. They're the stuff of a just society. They can be wrong, yes, but even the existence of generally wrong and unfortunate laws creates a better society. As Hobbes would have pointed out, a society with bad laws is invariably better than a society with no laws. The laws by their very nature as structuring influences create justice.

“2) Is killing as a soldier in a war morally superior to similar killings where the participants are not soldiers? If so, why? ... There are, of course, many reasons to forbear from killing, but I don't see any reason to craft a moral exemption for the state, especially because the state must always act through the individual. Again, a General at a desk in Washington has not the power to condemn or absolve any man or woman for murder.”

Again, I disagree. Killing as a soldier in war is at least quite morally distinct from killings in which the participants are not soldiers. Why? Because the killing is impersonal, first and foremost; it (theoretically, at least) serves a higher purpose, the good of whole nations. Also, it should be noted that there's one thing we always ignore in these cases, the thing that might be most central: the effect the killing has on the killer. The two situations – a military and a nonmilitary killing – are utterly different in context, though the tremendous and difficult weight the killer must bear is the same. However, more honor is accorded to military killers because they need it. Killing is painful. It is not easy, and making yourself a killer for a higher cause is a difficult sacrifice; even if you believe that that sacrifice is wrong, it's hard to deny that it is a difficult burden ostensibly assumed for the sake of something higher.

I think in these days, days when we (rather mistakenly) feel as though the greatest specter we could ever face is a powerful and evil state, it's easy for us to conclude that the state and the laws have no special moral quality to them, that in the moral view they are no better or worse than any other words written on paper or any other organization brought together by small groups of people. But that conclusions is false. The state and the laws have a special moral place in the public sphere; they have categorically a different nature from other things. A bowling club or a debate society are not the same as the state. A list of suggestions or a treatise on political philosophy are not the same things as the laws. In the metaphysical sphere which human beings inhabit, those things are utterly different, and utterly above mere words on paper or groups of people.

Governments and laws can be wrong. But still, governments and laws have real importance in societies, more importance than any other groups or words, in a way. And this importance is natural; it rises to the level of duty, that is, we as human beings do have a duty to uphold the law and to uphold the government. It's certainly true that in certain situations that duty can or even must be abrogated, but it is a duty nonetheless.

“To vest moral authority in the police that exceeds the standard issue is to vest the state itself with that moral authority, and I don't see any particular reason to do so. The question ‘Is Vigilante justice ever justified?’ could just as easily be reworded to ask, ‘Is armed rebellion ever justified?’ If the state has a moral authority inaccessible to its citizens, then no, neither vigilante justice nor rebellion are justified. But I would ask, if a state has a moral authority that exceeds that of its people, from where does this authority come?”

That's sort of beside the point, I think, and all this talk of justification might make more sense if we talk less about "justified" and more about what is beneficial or harmful. And if you ask: "is armed rebellion ever beneficial?" – then, looking at history, it becomes very, very hard to answer in the affirmative. Armed rebellion almost always means death, destruction, mayhem, injustice, poverty, sickness, starvation, and general wretchedness. It's hard to see why people nowadays are quite blind to this fact; it might have something to do with the fact that several of our regimes were built on myths of bloodless rebellion.

In any case: the state has moral authority that exceeds that of its people because the end of the state is the well-being of the people. The state is generally the only thing that humans can be asked to agree upon roundly. It is the only point of unity, so to even speak of a "moral authority of the people" in distinction from a "moral authority of the state" isn't very coherent; they are one and the same; that is, the state is the moral representative of all the people.

To put it another way, the moral authority of the state derives from the fact that the very existence of the state creates justice, even in those times when the state is run by evil people. As I said above, a government run by evil people has often been preferable to no government at all, or at least more just; it creates an order in society, it averts the chaos in which all evil acts by the strong are allowed and even encouraged by filling that vacuum with structure, and with the idea of law, the idea that there can be a just way to live. And insofar as a government – every government – creates justice by its bare existence, to that extent moral authority inheres in government – every government.
posted by koeselitz at 12:01 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's an old Texas saying (that I made up) "Some people just need killin'"
...I never said I was original. Bucko.


Really? 'I made it up' doesn't mean 'I was original?' OK, I just made up 'E=MC2.'
posted by msalt at 12:17 AM on December 17, 2010


Good shoot.
posted by Horatius at 1:14 AM on December 17, 2010


Vigilante justice might only be rarely justified, but it was certainly justified in this case. In other cases, well... just remember: the police have no duty to protect any particular individual or to prevent crimes; only to investigate (some of) them after the fact, if they have the time, personnel, and other resources. And of course, prosecutorial discretion means that some crimes will never be punished, or will be punished with the proverbial wrist-slapping.

I guess you could say, that people/victims should sit meekly by, waiting for the slow, sometimes corrupt, and always imperfect gears of justice to eventually grind in their general direction. But, in the U.S. at least, I think there are big swaths of the country that don't support that idea – that the state is the only legitimate dispenser of justice. Maybe the history of frontier justice (NB it doesn't matter if "frontier justice" was a real phenomenon or mostly mythical here) was passed down through the generations? Americans have always had a peculiar relationship with guns and property.

So, how long should Skidmore have put up with this guy? Justice was not going to come from the state. After all, it would've been real easy for him to avoid getting murdered: just stop raping, killing, stealing, kidnapping, and assaulting people and property. I'm not saying they should have killed him... but I understand.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 7:05 AM on December 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is vigilante justice ever justified? Yes.

Is vigilante justice always justified? No.

Was vigilante justice justified in this case? Yes.
posted by Zozo at 10:52 AM on December 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I guess you could say, that people/victims should sit meekly by, waiting for the slow, sometimes corrupt, and always imperfect gears of justice to eventually grind in their general direction.

Well, no, this is exactly the point: between sitting meekly by and organizing a conspiracy to commit premeditated murder, there were other options. Vigilance committees, armed guards for witnesses, deputizing townsfolk... they had other options.

What makes this vigilante action wrong is the fact that they didn't try anything else beforehand.
posted by fatbird at 11:45 AM on December 17, 2010


Well, no, this is exactly the point: between sitting meekly by and organizing a conspiracy to commit premeditated murder, there were other options. Vigilance committees, armed guards for witnesses, deputizing townsfolk... they had other options.

Exactly. Options they weren't willing to try, because murder was easier.

That doesn't necessarily follow. The first is a one-time action that can be done by any one person. The second requires several people being vigilant continuously for months, and even then it might not work. Protective details can't assure 100% protection in a world with accurate long-range weapons

I have no sympathy for the claim that not committing murder would have been too hard.
posted by kafziel at 11:53 AM on December 17, 2010


It's spelled "vigilante justice", but it's pronounced "revenge".

Nice try, mhoye, but shallow and naively wrong. Wrong. No one enacted revenge on Ken Rex. They acted in self defense.

--

I grew up around the corner from Skidmore. Know a lot of the people in the store, mostly 2nd-hand. Know a bit more about how the people felt, and what they lived under, than the armchair philosophers in this thread.

If you live in terror, under a real threat to your life, where your property can be taken, your family harmed, your daughters raped, and the established government won't act, it is not vigilante justice to band together with your community and act to protect yourselves.

It is the basis of civilization itself, and it is government at its most basic.

Ken Rex McElroy owned the town of Skidmore. He ruled with impunity over the law enforcement and judges. He was overruled by the de facto improvisational government of his community.

--

If any of you are so pacifist that you would not act violently to protect your own spouse, parent, or child from a hoodlum's attack, then you may judge from a realistic point of view. If any of you who condemn Skidmore's residents have lived through war, and sat idly by while the enemy pillaged your town, then you may understand. But as for the other 99.9% - go back to playing WOW. This was real. Ken Rex had to die.

--

As a post script, his "widow" (child rape victim) was informed by townspeople that as long as she didn't assist in the investigation, she would be helped financially so that she could start her terribly damaged life over somewhere far away. This wasn't a savage lynch mob. This was a community, acting to defend itself, humanely.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:40 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: Ken Rex McElroy had children. Children that knew him as "Daddy." He was not a good father, by any meaningful use of the term. But still, they probably miss him, in some weird way, because they, too, are fallible humans.

WTF?

Children who are beaten, sexually abused, and live in fear of their male zygote source DO NOT miss their "daddies".
posted by IAmBroom at 12:08 AM on December 19, 2010


This wasn't a savage lynch mob. This was a community, acting to defend itself, humanely.

What did the community do between the justice system failing and killing McElroy? Did anyone call a legion meeting to discuss steps that didn't involve killing him?
posted by fatbird at 12:49 AM on December 19, 2010


Since 8 years passed, with 21 acquittals on felony charges, between McElroy's first arrest and his murder, yes, I'm sure there were many discussions about what to do. You say "between" as if his intimidation wasn't continuous, as if he was acquitted in 1978 and people suddenly killed him in 1981 after a long silence.

What is your suggestion as to how the town should have handled it better? A petition, perhaps?
posted by msalt at 2:05 AM on December 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


What did the community do between the justice system failing and killing McElroy? Did anyone call a legion meeting to discuss steps that didn't involve killing him?

Ironically, fatbird, they apparently did. Just prior to the execution, the townspeople met at a nearby location - the church, IIRC, but my memory is old at this point on the details - and then proceeded over to Ken Rex.

Obviously, they hadn't randomly assembled, when by luck he happened to be in the local tavern (carrying his gun, BTW). There was considerable prior planning, to make sure it went off smoothly.

It's inconceivable that these otherwise law-abiding, normal citizens worked out this plan without considerable discussion of possible routes of action, before finally coming to the conclusion that this was their only viable solution.

So, yes.

--

Extra chapter, not in the news:

My hometown had a local pyromaniac, Tony. EVERYONE knew Tony burnt down the Dog & Suds, some houses, and so on. The fire chief interviewed Tony after the D&S fire. He put a candle on the table, lit it, and began passing his fingers through the flame, while questioning the suspect. Tony orgasmed.

My neighbor was head of the local Ma Bell, which at the time owned the phone lines in your walls, and had the legal right to break & enter & rip up walls, if they believed you had tampered with the lines. Tony liked bugging his mother's phone, so Rick would go in, and find the bugs. In the process, he often stepped over a lot of highly combustible circumstantial evidence... but he wasn't LE on a warrant, so he couldn't do anything about it (and LE couldn't act on this, since it wasn't garnered in a legally usable way).

There was a fire at Tony's house once - you never saw firetrucks move so fast!!! Much fuel, explosives, weapons and ammo were removed from the basement.

But, no hard evidence ever linked Tony to the crimes.

After Ken Rex' demise, "local concerned citizens" informed the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce that "things that happen in Skidmore could happen here, too." It was probably a bluff (although there was that suspicious fire at Tony's house...). He passed the news along to Tony. Tony left town very quickly, and never returned.

Bad side: He obviously continued his crimes elsewhere. But, from the POV of the townspeople, at least their homes & businesses were safe from him.

--

Further note: Ken Rex was a conduit for drugs traveling from Chicago to Kansas City. Skidmore was a safehaven for the mules. Not sure if this was known at the time or not, but it became public knowledge in the FBI investigation afterwards. Ergo: Ken Rex had protection that extended well beyond his personal reach. However, once dead, there was no reason for the drug cartel to "avenge" him; he was merely a useful tool, and Skidmore was now too scrutinized for further use.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:47 AM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I can only express this by using weasel words and lots of conditions. For this I am sorry. Nothing is black and white except those colours.

Vigilante Justice is wrong, period.

What happened here is not vigilante justice, it was an immune response by a threatened community. Is it less wrong? That depends on your definition of ethics and the timescale over which you look.

The community here was threatened repeatedly by a toxic influence. Treatment by application of warm law, tight sheriff compresses and purging of crimes did nothing... The infection would mutate, threaten other bodily structures and carry on.

What eventually happened was that the town decided there was an infection, and it needed to be stopped. At some point, two white blood cells had their infection trigger points reached, and stopped the infection. As a consequence they caused a rash in the justice system which the larger body ignored because the infection was gone.

There are yesses and nos on both sides. I do not think that mobs of people make good decisions as to what law is, except when it is pre-meditated. I do not think that the community should have tolerated this man. The outcome was "good" but the process was shaky, especially if it inspires other behavior in the future.

If you are going to pin blame, recognize too that the town may not have asked for him to be murdered, but that you know that there are people who, having an understanding that "Something must be done", will do that something, even if you don't say what it is. So there are almost certainly people at a town meeting discussing a solution who believe the outcome will be someone else committing murder... And desiring that action. Can you know who they are, and punish them? Unlikely. So ultimately, you can punish the manipulated party, but not the thinker behind the crime. Soldiers Dilemma indeed.
posted by Quadlex at 6:06 PM on December 20, 2010


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