Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tragedy and Rights

Five-year-old Destiny Norton’s remains were found last night in the basement of her neighbor’s home, eight days after she went missing (see here and here). She was apparently murdered by her neighbor, 20-year-old Craig Roger Gregerson. No information has been released about the nature of the murder or the condition of Destiny’s body.

This news is a bitter pill to swallow for those that had searched, hoped, and prayed for Destiny’s safe return. Tired family members, neighbors, and friends of the Nortons responded in a hostile manner late last night when the Salt Lake City Police Department announced the results of its investigation. Of course, anger and rage are normal steps in the grieving process. I hope for the best for these people as they work through this process.

Some family members understandably felt that the police had failed to do their jobs properly. Destiny’s aunt repeatedly said that had the police allowed the searchers to do what they wanted to do; Destiny would have been found much sooner. But we have Fourth Amendment rights against “unreasonable searches” of our “persons, houses, papers, and effects” that cannot be abrogated except by a legal and specific warrant issued “upon probable cause.”

Family members submitted to extensive searches, information gathering, and lie detector tests, since it is common practice for police to first work to clear family members in missing person cases. This is both because family members often have the greatest opportunity and motive for being the cause of the person going missing, and so that police can remove doubt so as to be able to focus their attention and resources on more productive potential investigative leads. Many neighbors willingly allowed police and volunteers to search their homes. But apparently Mr. Gregerson did not permit police or volunteer searchers to inspect his home, or at least his basement.

The fact is that police had no “probable cause” that would stand up in court to forcibly search Mr. Gregerson’s home—until yesterday. In order to protect the rights of the accused as well as to allow for the strongest possible prosecution of the accused, police are unwilling to explain what information led to the issuance of a warrant to search Mr. Gregerson’s home.

While this story is immensely tragic, upon thinking about it, we would want it no other way. It appears that the police did a fine job of developing leads until they had something solid enough to successfully conclude their investigation. Had police or volunteers forced a search of Gregerson’s home without a warrant, the evidence gathered probably could not have been used to prosecute Gregerson. While Destiny’s remains would have been recovered sooner, a disservice would have been done to society, since a sick murderer would have been left free to exploit another child.

The grief of the Norton family and of their friends is understandable, and we should all grieve with them. But we have a Bill of Rights attached to our Constitution for a good reason: to protect the rights of individuals as well as society as a whole. One might aptly argue that courts have occasionally ruled in ways that have upset the balance between individual and societal rights. In that case, we should work within legal limits to fix things. But constitutional principles must be upheld if we want to maintain order in our society, even if that means that it takes a week instead of a day to snare a murderous predator.


That One Guy said...

Damn that constitution!! Never an easy pill to swallow at these times, eh?

Til you're on the other side fo the fence anyway.


Scott Hinrichs said...

Yeah, I've felt like I was on the other side of the constitutional fence a time or two, but it has never been anything near as poignant as the loss of a child to a muderous pervert.

I truly ache for these people. I don't even want to imagine what it would be like to be in their place.