By Les Zaitz
The anger spills off the screen.
Anthony Montwheeler, the former state hospital patient accused of two local murders, draws special venom from commenters on social media.
“Mob with pitchforks and torches, I’m thinking. Take care of business the right way,” one person wrote.
“Kill him” has been the theme of other comments, though put more colorfully and graphically than that.
And then came word police were looking for Douglas R. Villines on charges he sexually abused a 10-year-old Nyssa girl.
Commenters proposed gruesome treatments for the accused man.
“Public hanging would make people like him think twice,” one man wrote.
Both men are targets of deep disgust for what they are suspected of doing or have done. Montwheeler told officials he faked his mental illness and three weeks after his release, two people died. He is charged in their deaths. Villines has been to prison several times, including for an earlier case of child abuse.
No one, clearly, is ever going to make Montwheeler or Villines “Citizen of the Year.”
What each man deserves, no matter their past, is justice. If they get justice, the victims get justice, and so does our community.
In the U.S., we deliberately make it hard for government to take away our liberties. In too many countries, you can be “disappeared” for even minor offenses, depending on who in power is aggrieved. In America, we force a government that thinks we did wrong to prove it.
We are – every one of us, including Montwheeler and Villines – presumed innocent until proven guilty. I grant that sometimes, guilt seems obvious. But what is obvious is not proven, and it doesn’t always turn out to be right.
You read accounts across the country of men and women convicted and imprisoned only to be later declared innocent. Witnesses lied. Or government prosecutors hid evidence. Or new evidence proves that the apparently guilty individual didn’t do it. In Oregon, some attorneys have become so profoundly concerned about mistaken guilt that they have established the Oregon Innocence Project.
And we have had high-profile examples of justice at work. In Portland last year, Ammon Bundy walked free from charges he took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He did, of course, take it over. More recently in Las Vegas, Bundy’s father Cliven walked out of jail on charges he had an armed standoff with federal agents. He did, of course. But a federal judge found the government wrongly handled the case and concluded that justice called for Cliven Bundy to go home, a free man.
Cliven’s case underscores why our community should want prosecutors to be careful and methodical. Citizens in the community should want Montwheeler, Villines and every defendant to get properly defended, face a fair trial, and get their day in court. If they are then convicted, they get their due.
If prosecutors or any part of the system tries to cut corners, the jailhouse door could swing open and they walk. Or they could tie up appeals courts and a small fortune in tax money appealing their cases over those cut corners.
Every one of us should want the system to work – and work near perfectly. The process that might end up putting Montwheeler and Villines away for a long time might also be the system that protects one of us. Our justice system is meant to not only deal harshly with those who are guilty but, as important, to safeguard the innocent from wrongly enduring the heavy, punishing hand of government.
Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Enterprise. firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-473-3377.