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Punishment or Protection? The Case of Kevin Coe October 27, 2008

Posted 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…



1. Paul Moloney - October 30, 2008

Again, there is too much upon which to comment!

I think some people would take “pragmatic assessments” to be the same as principles. There is always thought before action. It is what kind of thought that is in dispute.

There may be such a thing as philosophy of law, but philosophy and law are not the same. Ethical theories do not translate very well into rules of jurisprudence.

It is interesting to see people argue against utilitarianism. It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue against utilitarianism if one accepts the premises of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has the premise that happiness, the good and pleasure are the same. Utilitarianism does not demonstrate how pleasure is equated with happiness or how, if they are different, pleasure can cause happiness. People can experience pleasure without being happy.

Utilitarianism does not include the classic concept of virtue and vice. The dilemma of utilitarianism is whether it is justified to be unjust to someone, the innocent child, if it would lead to a greater good for more people and hence be a source of happiness for many people.

It is a contradiction to argue that injustice is just, so injustice is never justified, at least not by justice. If one is unjust to someone in particular they are unjust to others in general. If happiness is something that belongs to virtue then injustice will never be a cause of happiness. Injustice for the greater good is a fallacy, as injustice cannot be considered a good.

2. Dwight Furrow - November 18, 2008

I’m not sure I see why this is a question of justice. If I understand the case properly, Coe is now incarcerated, not because of his crime, but because he exhibits sociopathic behavior. If he is diagnosed by psychologists to have an addiction to violent sexual behavior, isn’t that an adequate basis for confinement in a mental institution? His past action is not only a crime (for which he has paid his debt to society) but is stong evidence of a mental disability that requires confinement in order to protect society. I’m not up to speed on all of the legal requirements that justify incarceration in a mental institution, but assuming that Coe qualifies, I don’t see this as a threat to justice.

3. teejaa - September 11, 2010

This is a sickness that was passed down from Ms.Ruth Coe which is called bi-polar and it is hereditary.Most likely either she was touched as a little girl an she justified it in her mind or she touched him and he had to justify it because parents have a way to make us think the way they want us to think as children.

4. teejaa - September 11, 2010

I hope and pray that before Mr.& Mrs Coe took their last breath they asked for forgiveness for what actions they took part in their son’s life.As a mom if my child is wrong I would be there to support him but I will darn sure scold him in a way that will allow him to know that I’m not pleased with his behaviors. I have a son that’s incarsorated I believe to some degree he was wrong,because of his action in taken someone somewhere a crime was committed. Now was he guilty in the crime I don’t believe. My son did apologize to the victims,he said my actions in bringing this individual in these people community allowed a crime to happen it could of still happen even if I didn’t bring him.I thanked my son for being responsibles for his actions inspite of hi doings.So I say this to say we as parents are not always right even though we want to be in he eyesight of our childrens,because if not we view our selves as failures.We all make mistakes some are just more serious than others.

5. Kevin Coe Revisited: Locked Up for Life « Philosophy On The Mesa - September 29, 2012

[…] had to look up my original post about Kevin Coe, and to my surprise it’s been four years since I wrote it. The wheels of […]

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