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Hothead or felon: Can we see the line?

By Jacquielynn Floyd
April 15, 2005 - Had you walked around Canton a month ago and asked people at random to name the likeliest person in town to come unglued and shoot somebody, it's a fair bet you would have heard about Jeff Robertson.

Long before he was arrested, accused of driving over to the high school and shooting his son's football coach in the stomach, Jeffrey Doyle Robertson was the town hothead, notorious for his temper. He had been ejected from baseball games for screaming at officials. He was banned from the school for shoving his son's teammates around.

His boss said he was hurt not long ago in a road-rage brawl with a truck driver. Even people who liked him admitted he had a volatile temper.

As we like to solemnly intone in the news racket: All the signs were there.

Mr. Robertson reminded me of a lot of other people whose violent behavior, when it finally erupted, did not come as much of a shock.

There was David Edward Johnson, a 33-year-old man in Volusia County, Fla., who killed himself last month after slaughtering a couple he (inaccurately) blamed for ratting him out on a drug charge. That case achieved temporary notoriety through the heartbreaking audiotape of the couple's 5-year-old child calling 911 and telling the dispatcher she thought her mommy and daddy were dead.

There was public anger at a judge in that case, who had earlier denied the couple's petition for a restraining order against Mr. Johnson. The judge said after the murders that he "would have liked to have done it differently."

In another dreadful recent case, a man named Bart Ross killed himself during a Chicago traffic stop. Mr. Ross left a note admitting to killing a federal judge's husband and mother because she had ruled against him in a lawsuit.

Although Mr. Ross was such a pitiful loner that the county morgue spent a fruitless month looking for somebody to claim his body, at least one acquaintance said he harbored an obsessive rage against the judge and other people connected with his suit. Plenty of warning signs in that one, too.

These cases, and the countless others like them, sometimes make me wonder why we can't do something about these chronically enraged, potentially dangerous people. (The semi-comical term "disgruntled" doesn't seem to convey the gravity of this issue.)

After all, we're sufficiently preoccupied with terrorism in this country that we're willing to lock people up as a precautionary measure. Why can't we take proactive steps to protect ourselves when there are human land mines out there just waiting for somebody to make a wrong step?

Irate though people were at the Florida judge who wouldn't issue an injunction against Mr. Johnson, how much good would it have done? A guy crazy enough to kick in a door and shoot two people isn't really likely to pull up short and say, "Wait, I'm not supposed to do this – there's a restraining order against me."

So why aren't there any prophylactic measures we can take when "all the warning signs are there?"

Only because we're not supposed to punish people for things they didn't do yet. As much as it may serve the interests of public safety to keep potentially violent people incarcerated, I have an unhappy sense that it mocks some of our most cherished beliefs.

And if we can't jail volatile people before they shoot the football coach, I can't help being uneasy about those who are locked up at Guantánamo and elsewhere in the interests of national security. They may well be dangerous, and it's reassuring to have them behind bars. But a little flicker of doubt makes me ask: What have they actually done?

I'm seriously conflicted on this issue. We need to be safe. We need to be fair. Sometimes, we cannot be both.

"There's not much you can do before the fact," said Larry Chavez, a Sacramento-based workplace violence consultant and former police hostage negotiator.

He reasonably points out that there are a lot of chronically angry, hotheaded jerks out there who never graduate to life-threatening violence. Are we going to lock them all up, just in case?

Well, are we?




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