a conundrum for our compassion

a ten-year-old murder case in San Jose begets murder last week and presents a conundrum for our compassion


On Saturday night, Wayne Sanchez walked inside a coffee shop in San Jose and shot Maurice Nasmeh, then ran outside and shot himself just as police were arriving. Nasmeh was the chief suspect in the never-solved case of the disappearance and probable murder almost ten years ago of Sanchez’s sister, Jeanine Harms.

The preceding was reported by the San Jose Mercury News, which has subsequently published reports that he was upset about the lack of closure in the case, which was never prosecuted due to problems with evidence-handling. The same article also included indications that Sanchez was a troubled man:

It appeared, however, that Sanchez had problems. He was divorced at least once and filed for bankruptcy twice, according to friends and public records. And in an interview with police shortly after his sister disappeared, Sanchez admitted that “a long time ago” he hit his sister “in the face a couple of times with an open hand,” according to a police report obtained by the Mercury News.

That last bit has me wondering. Was the brother himself perhaps the real murderer? Statistics are on the side of suspecting immediate family members in cases like this, and with a police record of his having struck her, I don’t think it’s a ludicrous question. I haven’t seen any reporting on that angle of the case, though, and for all I know, there were good reasons to rule that possibility out.

I learned about this story from a Facebook friend’s comment:

Some guy in San Jose walked up and shot the guy that killed his sister. I have a hard time thinking he was wrong. I’d probably do the same. One cold case file shut.

We’ll probably never know for sure, but let’s assume for sake of argument that he was right in thinking that Nasmeh was guilty.

I have some sympathy for my friend’s comment. I can relate to the guy. It’s hard not to. If someone had murdered my brother and gotten away with it, and I were sure of my facts and knew where to find him, I’m pretty sure I’d give the use of firearms some thought.

I can’t deny it. I would be seriously tempted to murder anyone who murdered my brother.

I find that troubling. No, not because I’ve struck my brother in the face with an open hand several times long ago. (He had it coming. He’d hidden the Lego pieces I wanted. No police reports were filed.)

Thing is, I’m fervently opposed to capital punishment. I do not believe in the death penalty. It is not how civilized societies behave, one. Two, our criminal justice system—for all it might be one of the best in the world—is far too flawed for me to think it has any business deciding who gets to live. Capital punishment cases are the worst of all, too—time and again, researchers have demonstrated that our justice system is not just in the application of the death penalty.

(Arguments three through five against capital punishment aren’t especially pertinent to my thoughts about the Sanchez/Nasmeh/Harms story, but why stop when I’m on a roll? Three, capital punishment has been proven to be ineffective as a deterrent. Four, it’s absurdly expensive. Five, it snarls up our justice system and contributes to the problem with justice not being speedy enough to be justice. Arguments six through thirty are left as an exercise for the reader.)

So. I don’t think court systems—ours or anybody else’s—should be sentencing murderers to death.

I also don’t think private citizens should be sentencing murderers to death. For all our courts are lousy at administering justice, private citizens would be even worse. I can make that case pretty easily to anyone who follows politics: in the recent elections, a little over or under half the people who voted made what you consider catastrophically stupid decisions, right? (For those who don’t follow politics, consider how many referees, umpires, or other sports officials you find to have consistently sound judgment.) So why would anyone expect the reasoning of the average citizen to be any better when it comes to determining justice after someone in their family has been murdered?

I’m not going to rehearse, rehash, or rebut any of the tired and all-too-commonly oversimplified religious perspectives on the subject—an eye for an eye, turn the other cheek, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, whoever slays a soul unless it be for manslaughter, etc.—because in the United States, our Constitutionally-mandated (and might I add, just plain sensible?) separation of church and state means that people’s religious opinions on this matter are relevant only in the extent to which they inform their voting decisions as individuals. Having thus weaseled out of a serious discussion of the topic in religious terms, at least for now, I’ll just state without arguing the point that my religious thinking accords with my secular thinking on the subject.

So this is me, facing my own conflicting thoughts on the matter. Killing somebody because he killed somebody is just plain wrong in every sense imaginable, and yet there are circumstances in which I would have a hard time behaving according to that principle.

This whole story is a conundrum for our sense of compassion.

We have to have some compassion for Wayne Sanchez, if we can recognize in ourselves that we might in certain circumstances behave in a way that is completely repugnant to us and goes against everything we hold sacred and everything we believe about justice, society, and the taking of lives.

We also ought to have compassion for Maurice Nasmeh, whose life was already largely ruined by the popular belief, never proven, that he was a murderer, and whose life is now ended for the same reason.

And clearly, we have to have compassion for the entire family of Jeanine Harms, the young woman who has been missing and presumed murdered for nearly ten years.

We even owe compassion to the members of the justice system who appear to have tried hard to do right in a case that yet satisfies nobody.

Wayne Sanchez took justice into his own hands and killed the man he believed to be his sister’s murderer, and then he shot himself. And I have to ask myself: why did he shoot himself? Because he was already suicidal? Because he didn’t want to face death by lethal injection? Because he panicked when he saw police? Because he was mentally unstable to begin with?

Or could it be that even he was overwhelmed by his guilt when he realized he’d taken another man’s life?

A kaddish for all the characters in this sad story who are now dead.

By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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