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Justice or Mercy? The Walsh/LeFevre Case May 2, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Our esteemed colleague and my good friend Professor Larry Hinman  from University of San Diego was interviewed in the San Diego U-T yesterday about the arrest of former drug dealer, now Carmel Valley wife-of-executive Marie Walsh. Walsh, then Susan Marie LeFevre,  ran away from a Michigan prison and a 10-20 year sentence for selling heroin in 1974, and vanished into thin air. Now it turns out that for 32 years she’s been living a decent and productive life on the right side of the law. So what does this mean? Should she have to go back and serve the rest of her time, plus the added charges for being a fugitive, or should her obviously rehabilitated 32 years make a difference?

USD’s Hinman said it’s easy for people to feel so much empathy for LeFevre.

“It sounds like she’s led a good life, maybe even an exemplary life since then, and we feel that should count for something,” he said. “And she was young when she committed these crimes . . . and what she did is not the same thing as shooting someone or stabbing someone.

“On some level, we want to believe our judgments are accurate because we can all imagine her as one of our neighbors. And if this is true, what does that say about our judgments about our neighbors? Could we be mistaken about them, too?”

I’ll bet Hinman said a lot more, which SDUT didn’t print—such as how well this case illustrates the fundamental difference between a consequentialist and a deontological world view: If you are a utilitarian/consequentialist, you will of course want her time behind bars minimized, maybe to a few years of probation, or perhaps simply reduced to “time served” (which was one year), because no good consequences will come of dragging her back to prison, away from her family and her community, since she is no threat to anybody, and she has so thoroughly redeemed herself. On the other hand, the deontologists among us will point out that (1) she committed a crime and was sentenced for it, and all the good behavior in the world isn’t going to nullify that, so her punishment should fit her crime; and (2) she has not been rehabilitated inasmuch as she has lied about her past to everybody, which shows fundamental disrespect for other people (treating them as merely a means to an end); and (3) we can’t universalize letting her off the hook—especially since others caught after escaping, who aren’t living in nice neighborhoods with wealthy spouses, will indeed be held accountable.  Not that our opinion will have any great impact—she is headed back to Michigan to serve at least 6 ½ years, maybe with an additional 5 ½ years, according to the SDUT, and nobody is asking us.  But it makes for a good philosophical discussion of justice, redemption and clemency—and it fuels the ongoing discussion about the relevance of rational vs. emotional arguments…



1. Larry Hinman - May 2, 2008

Nina’s comments on the deontological/consequentialist split in this case are right on the mark (as always!). Perhaps another angle on this might have to do with mercy. We might want to say that she does not have a right to be pardoned, but nonetheless it would be appropriate–on grounds of mercy for her and her family–to waive any further prison time. Her upstanding life would certainly weigh heavily in this direction, as would the fact that it would seem that no one will benefit from her further incarceration. Certainly both she and her family will suffer, and the state will have to bear the cost of additional legal proceedings and imprisonment costs.

2. Nina Rosenstand - May 4, 2008

Hi Larry!
Welcome to our blog! Apparently the Governor of Michigan tends to think in terms of justice, rather than mercy. If we were to apply the mercy angle, we might ask ourselves, has Susan LeFevre really developed a more upstanding character over the years? And (further evoking virtue ethics) will we be better people for choosing to think in terms of mercy rather than justice? One aspect that speaks in her favor is (as she has mentioned in a TV interview) that she has raised her children with an uncompromising stance against drugs. Another question is whether mercy must be deserved…Even so, I can’t help but wonder if granting her clemency would not send out the wrong signal in many ways, further undermining the already fragile sense of impartiality that our justice system is supposed to be grounded in.

3. forrest noble - May 5, 2008

Larry, Nina

The law, I believe, has little discretion in the sentencing time in this case. She is a convicted felon and an escaped convict. There will be a trial concerning her new crime of escape. A judge will make the sole determination as far as re-sentencing her; all the related pluses and minuses should be considered. She will do more time. The only question will be how long based upon the discretion of the judge. Chances of her then winning an appeal to significantly reduce her sentence, in my opinion, would be nil.

your friend forrest

4. Huan - May 5, 2008

I think this points to a fundamental problem with bureacracy, its inflexibility. Which actually confuses me on which argument would be the emotional and which would be the rational. What Professor Rosenstand pointed in her second comment is quite rational, pointing towards “maximum efficiency” in a way. Of course the bureacratic argument is quite different from the deontological argument(this is a new word for me, a great word at that!), but considering the bureacratic argument, it actually makes the utilitarian argument look a bit irrational. Then again, bureacracy has its roots in utility I suppose.

I guess it seems to me that the law is more bureacratic than deontological. Which would mean that there would actually be benefit from sending this woman to jail. Though the inflexibility of bureacracy seems to be inevitably leading to further bureacracy, eliminating possibilities of human progression. We’ll be stuck breaking the laws and needing a bureacratic system to create maximum efficiency and sacrificing cases like this to uphold that efficiency, we’ll never be able to improve and escape this cycle.

I suppose it seems like a safety rope tied to a living person that stops him at a height that’s just inches from burning fire, and securing him there so he doesn’t drop any further, but he won’t be able to escape. Perhaps this criticism of bureacracy is a bit too idealistic, but sometimes that’s a good thing. 🙂

5. Paul Moloney - May 6, 2008

One has to wonder what the relationship between mercy and justice is. If they are both virtues then they do not contradict each other. It would never be unjust to be merciful to someone. If justice were unmerciful then it would not be just. Still, justice and mercy are distinct from each other.

Virtue depends upon the virtuous person for its existence. There is no justice, at least in practice without just people. Justice does not belong to the government except through people in government that are just.

What is at dispute here may be, not justice and mercy themselves, but what would be just and merciful in this case.

6. charlotte - May 7, 2008

What i think would be just and merciful in this case would be.. Letting her go with time served and maybe probation. i guess i agree with the utilitarian/consequentialist. Considering the guy she was sentenced with was released after a year. why should Susan have to sit in jail again; for the same crime. Yes, she broke out of prison but it took Michigan 32 years to find her. I feel Michigan should of dropped the charges against Susan. When they released her partner in crime. Maybe Susan has lived a lie to everyone. But how can you say she lied about her life. If no one ever asked her was she a convicted felon. I don’t think it would be just if Michigan sentences her after 32 years. Susan has already spent 32 years living with the fear of being caught.

7. Huan - May 7, 2008

To sum up my previous disorganized post, heres the main point. It could easily be argued that the true utilitarian would indeed see the negative effect on our “already fragile sense of impartiality that our justice system is supposed to be grounded in”.(To quote Professor Rosenstand) In other words, in order for our bureacratic system to function, the bigger picture utility of locking her up would “overwrite” the single case utility of letting her go.

This seems rather unfair, which leads to my previous criticism of bureacracy’s inflexibility with the burning fire example.

8. Stephen - May 8, 2008

Professor Hinman,

I understand how based on her model life in the past thirty years it is easy to call for mercy (with respect to her family) to be given; however, what right does she have for mercy when she herself has not shown any? Not only has she led a lie to her husband and children but her own brother didn’t even know what had happened to her for thirty years. Aside from the fact that she is a fugitive, she has hurt everyone around her with dishonesty. How is it just to criticize the system when it is acting as it is supposed to?

You also mention that nobody would benefit from her incarceration. Nobody benefits from me getting a speeding ticket but that does not change the fact that I broke the law and will be fined. Like all criminals, she brought it on herself. Granted, selling drugs in the 70’s is not that surprising of an offense, some kind of punishment (however lenient) is deserved.

9. susan hamidy - May 8, 2008

That in fact is a great topic. I have come to question that justice system as well. Marry Walsh was a 19 year old girl who had been going on the wrong path, like the students of SDSU. It is hard for teenagers to be on their own at a time when they are not ready; they get involved in wrong things thinking that they will never be caught, or to make a few buck along the way. It is hard to see a woman who has changed without the help of jail, and brought up a family. Isn’t the purpose of jail system to straighten people? And an individual is already straightening then why need to punish them over again. I was watching the news the other day, and I heard the interview of Mrs. Walsh. All she was worried about was her 15 year old son. Arrest of Walsh and sending of her back to Michigan prison could only become a psychological distress to the teenage son of hers. These misfortunes and losses in life is what causes teenagers break the rules, and rebellion against laws. That could be some of the reasons behind the drug use of students at SDSU.

10. Stephen - May 8, 2008


I respect your opinion but please do not make excuses for those involved in the SDSU drug bust. By that age they know what they are doing is illegal; how much older can you be to qualify as being ready to competently live on your own?

Also, if Mrs. Walsh was so concerned about her son, why is it that he was unaware that she was an escaped convict and the possibility of her being caught could happen and disrupt their “model life?” If you make excuses for unlawful behavior then who exactly is responsible?

People need to accept responsibility for their actions and the consequences that follow, not pawn it off as some unpreventable misfortune. If Mrs. Walsh wants to set a good example for her son, this is what she should do.

11. Hammond - May 8, 2008


Mrs. Walsh, commited a crime and should be punish. Everyone, despite their social class, needs to abide by a set of laws. If one breaks the law and one is able to do a crime, then they should do the time. This gives the rest of running fugitives, an hopeful possibilty they could avoid the law, by leaving a quiet suburban life. I think it was illogical to assume Mrs. Walsh learn her lesson by uphoding a lawbidding existance after her great escape. Of course Mrs. Walsh was law biding while living san diego, why would she bring unwanted attention, as a fugative.

12. Ryan - May 8, 2008

Mrs. Walsh did, indeed, commit a crime that deserved punishment. However, in the United States of America it is unconstitutional to give a punishment that does not fit the crime. Unfortunately, That is what Mrs. Walsh received. She was sentenced to more time than most Sexual Molesters and violent criminals. Mrs. Walsh did deserve to be behind bars. However, not for 10-20 years! I am sensitive to the fact that our government should uphold the law to make our judicial system seem “efficient” as well as effective. On the other hand, this situation is not black and white. Our government has continued to decriminalize marijuana and lessen the sentences of marijuana trafficers. Futhermore, Mrs. Walsh has stayed out of trouble and led a clean life since. If any punishment is given, it should be a probation or house arrest. Personally, I do not want to see my tax dollars spent on jailing a woman that sold marijuana 32 years ago. Metal bars are for viloent, malicious, and untrustwory people who need to be physically restrained. Fortuately, Mrs. Walsh does not fit this criteria.

13. forrest noble - May 8, 2008

You’re right Ryan, it would be even a sadder case if she had been selling only a few bags of weed but—————- she received a 10-20 year sentence for the sales of heroin as indicated above.

According to my research on Google for a couple of minutes, she claimed that she was only a user of heroin but possessed a quantity that qualified her as a seller under the law. She pleaded guilty.

She might get parole after serving at least a few years, in at least a medium security prison. She did escape before and is a convicted felon. That’s the best that she can realistically hope for. There would be a mandatory minimum sentence for her prior conviction even if she got concurrent time for her escape. A required part of her sentence must be time of incarceration for this crime which the judge has no discretion over. This is the law that has been developed over time by our elected legislatures.

The law can be changed if enough people vote to make changes to it. But a legal system based upon a case by case approach, I think, would be too expensive and ineffective. Mrs. Walsh will serve some time before she could be eligible for parole.

your friend forrest

14. Sean Clark - May 12, 2008

I think it comes down to a very simple question. Is prison used more as a tool to rehabilitate the individual so when they re-enter the world they can be productive members of society? Or do we use prison more as a punishment for the crimes in which someone has committed? We obviously use it for both, but what is the goal when we send someone to prison? This woman has lived for 32 years in society without committing any crimes and by all accounts has been a productive member of society. What is throwing this woman in jail for ten years going to accomplish? I believe that the appropriate for punishment for this specific case should be time served.

15. Justin Benhoor - May 12, 2008

This is a tough one. On one hand, we all know that we all make stupid mistakes when we are young… Maybe not selling heroin, but mistakes nonetheless. So should we all be punished for those mistakes we made in our past but never had to suffer the consequences of ? Should we be going through the past 20 years of Ralphs video surveillance and give all the kids who stole candy from the candy isle shoplifting citations ? I personally believe that some things can be let go. For example, Walshs crime wasn’t a violent crime, it could have just been a product of bad judgement, or harsh circumstances. And if she was able to prove that she can be an upstanding member of society for the past 20 years, then in my eyes that proves that rehabilitation is no longer necessary, and perhaps never was. But if we are to let those “petty” crimes go, then who decides where we draw the line ? What do we say to a “rehabilitated” ex-muderer who hasn’t killed someone for the past 30 years ?

16. Kim - May 12, 2008

Marie Walsh LeFevre may have led a clean, exemplary life for the past 32 years, but I do not feel that it completely cancels out the fact that she commited a crime and broke free from person. As many have stated, she was young at the time she commited the crime and we all make mistake when we are young, this is true. However, she was given a sentence nonetheless, a sentence she was responsible for serving. Just because she has lived a good life since breaking free does not excuse her of her past actions. There are other people who are serving a sentence for committing the same exact crime who could very well have the potential of living a crime-free life if they had the opportunity of breaking free and starting over again. It would’ve been unfair to let her entirely off the hook.

17. Paul Moloney - May 13, 2008

It seems that a stricter justice belongs to those entrenched in their unreasonableness, while mercy belongs more to those that recognize their unreasonableness for what it is and have a real change of heart, which means they want to make amends in some form.

It seems people are divided over whether this person is the same unreasonable person or whether she has actually changed for the better. Reasonable arguments have been made on both sides.

If nothing else, this case demonstrates that we do more harm to ourselves through our unreasonableness than anyone else can do to us.

18. Sheyri - May 14, 2008

I Believe that justice need to be pay, In order for a person to learn what is right and wrong they need to be told and explained why? what? they wore doing was wrong according to the society they are living in. I’m more than happy to hear that Susan Marie LeFevre was able to change her life in a different direction and that ended in a positive way, but I think its wrong that a person run away for what is their punishment for their own actions especially when they are aware of the harm they are causing to others. Maybe at a point in life she was inconsiderate and its time to think of those she cause harmed. She should pay for her actions, because maybe at a bad stage of her life she can be tempted to sell drugs again, you should not let her doubt if she should or shouldn’t sell drugs again. You should make her paid for her actions so that she will learned that its bad to sell drugs to others.Because if you let her get away once she might think she can get away with it and even other things that we don’t even know.

19. Steven Robbins - May 14, 2008

Although Susan Walsh lives a just life, I still think that she should serve time for the crime that she committed in 1974. Justice needs to be paid and she needs to be shown why the actions that she did partake in are in fact wrong. If she is let off the hook so to say, it will show many others’ that partaking in these sort of actions is okay as long as you are no longer that type of person. Although she was young at the time and did not fully think of the implications of these actions, it still does not rid the fact that she is a criminal and must serve time. By serving time, she will be made an example of and it will thus show others that taking part in these kind of actions is not okay and is illegal.

20. Jack H - May 15, 2008

If the goal of prison for non violent drug users/dealers is rehabilitation, I think they should have no problem reducing her sentence to mass amount community service making an example for inmates who take control and decide straighten out their lives after they get out. The truth is that most people who go to jail, go back to jail, my friends and I say jail is simply the College of Criminals. One goes in knowledgeable on some types of theft, and drugs, and come out with a degree in money laundering 101….. If she is deemed rehabilitated, I say let her live with society while serving time!

21. ChaosApothecary - May 15, 2008

The real question is: Can we collectively make an exception for one, without losing faith in our justice department?

Regardless of her claims to have lived a “good” life for the past 32 years, we will never know what has truly happened. Did she continue selling drugs without being caught for 5 years after having escaped prison?

What message will this send to other criminals? If we are lenient with her, we would be hypocrites to send anyone other fugitives back to jail if we believed that they had “self-rehabilitated”.

And if we believe in that, what is the point of jails? Why don’t we either just decide to execute people or tell them to rehabilitate themselves?

Before I go on with that line of thinking, I’ll address my personal feelings on this subject.

I sympathize with her as a person, and assuming the government does some background checks on her to ensure that she has not been committing crimes during these 32 years, having her spend her “remaining” time simply on parole seems more than fair.

She should not get off free, since crimes were committed and a sentence has not been served, but I cannot see sending her back to prison to rot away as being good for our society as a whole.

We have far too many people doing that already.

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