Punishment or Protection? The Case of Kevin Coe October 27, 2008Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
When a person has been convicted of a crime, sentenced, and has completed his or her punishment, we are all accustomed to thinking that such a person has paid his or her debt to society—under the assumption that we believe in the righteousness of punishment in the first place. Some don’t. Some believe that punishment is an inappropriate and oppressive enforcement of society’s values on an individual, based on a culture-specific values system. Some believe that punishment is justified if it helps rehabilitate the offender, and/or keep the public safe; and some believe that punishment is, and ought to be, a form of just retribution. Some believe that punishment is supposed to make the offender feel bad, and the rest of us feel good. We’ve touched on this debate before, but here is a new twist: the case of serial rapist Kevin Coe, Spokane, WA.
Once there was a young man called Fred Coe. He had a doting mother and a father connected to the local power structure, being a newspaper editor. Fred didn’t like his name, so he changed it to Kevin. And as Kevin Coe he became locally infamous a quarter of a century ago, as “The South Hill Rapist,” stalking young women in the parks, forcing a gloved hand or an oven mitt into their mouth, and raping them. When he was caught (and the rapes stopped), a dozen rape cases were piled up against him, but due to legal procedural issues he only faced one rape trial at the end—of which he was found guilty, and sentenced to 25 years. You can read the story in an excellent true-crime book, Son, A Psychopath and His Victims, by Jack Olsen, and here is an update in the Spokesman-Review. There’s an additional angle to it: His mother spent time in prison for having tried to hire a hit man to kill the local judge and prosecutor…Coe never admitted any guilt, and never sought parole. He served his 25 years precisely so he could walk out of prison without having to report to any parole officers, and two years ago the 25 years were up. The local community was worried; Coe claimed he wouldn’t return to Spokane, but since he never showed remorse, had displayed sociopathic behavior patterns (read Son), and had given indications of being mentally addicted to violent sexual behavior, Spokane prosecutors were motivated to pursue a new WA law: permanent incarceration in a mental facility. This was not intended as an additional punishment (so it is not unconstitutional), but as a means of protecting the public from a person who is likely to reoffend. It is roughly the same philosophy that is the foundation of the various versions of Megan’s Law (registration of sex offenders): prediction of future behavior based on past tendencies. As a result, a jury recently found that Coe presents a danger to the community, so he is now locked up again, in a mental facility, for an indefinite length of time. His victims are elated that he will not be allowed to walk free. The community feels vindicated, finally. Having followed the case for many years, I have to agree with the verdict—but as a moral philosopher, I had to ask myself some questions, and now I will pose them to you: What concept of justice are we operating with here? A straightforward utilitarian protection of the public? A further attempt to rehabilitate the unrepentant? An ad hoc attempt at justice that bypasses past legal hurdles—or punishment for something the offender hasn’t yet done? Or perhaps it really is a form of revenge? Are we just playing semantics when we claim that further incarceration of offenders who are likely to reoffend isn’t “punishment”? Does the end justify the means? Lock’em up for the sake of society, or let’em loose on society for the sake of a moral principle? I certainly don’t want to imply that a good man has been railroaded, because I think he is as vicious as they come, and as manipulative. A huge amount of written pages authored by Coe while in prison have been obtained by The Spokesman-Review, from letters and legal briefs to a pornographic novel, and they give a clear picture of a smart and guilty man dancing as fast as he can. Take a look, and judge for yourself. In the real world, principles and pragmatic assessments have to be balanced (which is why we had the discussion about Susan LeFevre and mercy), and I think Coe’s case is an example of just that. But being an old deontologist, my concern is that pragmatic assessments may win out over principles in cases that truly involve the risk of people being railroaded for the sake of the community…