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Vigilante neighbors in court for branding molester

8-6-2002 Michigan:

.Three Pontiac men took the law -- and a blistering hot metal spatula -- into their hands when they learned a neighbor had been regularly sodomizing his 7- and 10-year-old nephews. Two of the men held down the uncle while the third pressed the smoking spatula on his genitals, buttocks, stomach and legs. They paused only long enough to reheat the spatula on the kitchen stove for repeated branding before tossing the uncle out onto the sidewalk, breaking his arm. The three men -- Billy Hatten, Dewon Williams and Randolph Evans -- were calm and coolly matter-of-fact Monday in Oakland County Circuit Court as they described their deeds in pleading guilty to the attack.

As their statements continued, several courtroom spectators started nodding their heads in seeming approval. Criminal justice experts are not surprised by the reaction. Citizens, frightened and angered by recent high-profile crimes against children, are more likely to give tacit approval to the rough justice dealt outside a courthouse, they say. The three men admitted in court Monday that they attacked neighbor Phillip Gibson in his Pontiac home Nov. 11, 2000, after the boys' weeping mother asked them for help. They said she told them her children had just accused Gibson -- their uncle -- of abusing them. Hatten, who wielded the spatula, is a family friend who has known the children since birth.

He pleaded guilty to assault with intent to do great bodily harm and is to be sentenced to 18 months in prison by Judge Nanci Grant on Sept. 3. His attorney, Amy Bowen-Krane, said that Hatten, 41, was an unsophisticated 10th-grade dropout who thought going after Gibson was the right thing. "It was an emotional gut reaction," she said. "He had known these children all of their lives. Anybody who is a parent can understand this -- not condone it, but understand it." Gibson was hospitalized for three weeks with first-, second- and third-degree burns. In June 2001, Gibson, 38, pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for the attacks on his nephews and was ordered to serve an 8- to 40-year prison term.

Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Ken Frazee said that no crime, even horrific assaults on children, merits vigilante justice. "I don't condone what the victim did," Frazee said, after Gibson's attackers were led away. "It was repulsive. But he was punished at the hands of these defendants -- tortured -- and the law does not allow for that." Evans, 37, who admitted holding Gibson down so he could be burned, also pleaded guilty to assault with intent to do great bodily harm. He faces a 19-month prison term under a plea agreement at his Aug. 28 sentencing. Williams, who admitted throwing Gibson on the sidewalk, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. Already serving alife sentence for murder in an unrelated case, Williams, 21, faces a year in prison for the assault. The Pontiac branding is part of what appears to be an increased level of vigilante actions, criminal justice experts said Monday. And with each additional and infuriating report of a kidnapped and murdered child or a raped teenager, Americans are more likely to be sympathetic to private citizens ready to act out their rage.

"Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't kill him," said Carl Taylor, a criminologist at Michigan State University who studies crime in urban settings. Taylor said that child rape is so taboo that citizens, particularly those in communities that are traditionally suspicious of the criminal justice system, will sometimes act out on their own. "We call it street law, or street justice," he said. "And it's actually quite common when you have cases of child abuse." The nods of seeming approval for the three men did not surprise James Alan Fox, a professor in the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

"More people are likely to cheer than condemn vigilantes," Fox said. "They turn them into folk heros, even when what they've done is not heroic." Fox said he has seen a shift toward more vigilante activity in the last 10 years as people grow increasingly disenchanted with a criminal justice system they think does not work. It is a perception perpetrated by high-profile news reports of repeat offenders who commit new crimes, he said. "What you have is more media outlets seeking out and commenting on failures of the justice system, so you have the notion that it doesn't work," Fox said.

"Americans appear much more willing to take matters into their hands, either by taking a greater role in protecting themselves, or by . . . going after the bad guys," he said. "That is not a good thing, because often the punishment is much harsher, more brutal, than what is appropriate," Fox said. "That's why we have laws, a system, to handle crime and punishment." ..more.. : by L.L. BRASIER

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