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Shock to the conscience

SoVaNow.com / March 13, 2013
One can easily be held captive by the headlines and think the world has gone completely mad, but then the sun comes out, an act of simple kindness brightens the day, and life seems not quite so haywire after all. Then it happens: an act utterly senseless and cruel shocks the conscience, leaving a community bereft, and a good man is gone, taking his place among the angels.

And so the Commonwealth mourns the death of Junius Alvin Walker, 63, a Brunswick native and a Virginia hero, slain last week on Interstate 85 in the first death of a Virginia State Trooper in an armed confrontation in 20 years. Master Trooper Walker is survived by many loyal friends in the law enforcement community and a loving family whose members include Walker’s mother and three siblings living in Lawrenceville.

This was never supposed to happen, certainly not one month before Walker was due to retire. In the flood of news Thursday afternoon and Friday in the immediate aftermath of Walker’s slaying — from which we learned, among other things, the identity of the alleged killer, Russell Ervin Brown, 28, of Chesterfield — the aspect of the story that eludes all reason can be captured in one word: Why?

In an excellent second-day story on the killing (available on-line at http://www.timesdispatch.com), the Richmond Times-Dispatch tracked down acquaintances of Brown, an unemployed barber, who remembered him not as a monster but as a kind father and an intelligent man who would seem incapable of such deeds, if not for the cold-hearted, miserable realities that point inexorably to his guilt. (The case against Brown isn’t shaping up to be much a challenge for the prosecution, which has said it will seek the death penalty; at his first court appearance Friday, Brown told a judge, “I’m fine with being executed.”)

The initial read on Brown is that he was down on his luck, heavily in debt and tottering on the brink of homelessness; by the time he blasted away at Walker’s State Police cruiser, pulled up by the side of the interstate, something inside had “snapped,” we are led to believe. This is a woefully lacking explanation for the horror that Brown has wrought, and only time will tell how such words play in court (although surely we know by now how the court of public opinion will rule). Yet there are times, and this is truly one, when sane minds have no purchase on the work of demons. Such evil is beyond comprehension.

Many mournful and pained words will be employed to explain the death of Master Trooper Walker, a 35-year veteran of the State Police and a man beloved in his adoptive community of Dinwiddie and his hometown of Brunswick, no doubt in the hope, however faint, that the sheer weight of compassion might ease the pain of those that he leaves behind. Amid the torrent, all that one can do is add one’s own thoughts and prayers for the Walker family, and for Walker’s fellow lawmen, who have more reason than most to be stunned by this devastating turn. Junius Walker will forever represent the better angels that walk among us, protecting and comforting those fortunate enough to come into their paths. He will be sorely missed.

***

The ferocity of the news overwhelms one’s ability to keep up with it all, yet two other recent stories cry out for comment, even if what we know at the moment is far exceeded by what we don’t:

First, about The Sun’s top-of-the-fold story last week, on an unnamed South Hill Elementary teacher who stands accused of taping shut the mouth of an unruly student: If the charge is true, then the teacher ought to be fired; no question about that. While some may find perverse reason to cheer a teacher coming down hard on a student, physical abuse of any sort is intolerable, and the alleged offense certainly crosses the line.

All this said, the episode, unproven though it is, strikes a chord: many families have endured entire years in which the classroom experiences of their children were ruined by one or two fellow students who, for one reason or another, couldn’t seem to behave themselves. The simple remedy — isolating the problem child — isn’t as simple as it seems, especially in the context of developmental issues that may contribute to the offending behavior but present civil rights challenges. Society has come a long way in its treatment of special needs children, but we haven’t fully figured out how to balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the group when the two come into conflict. The best option usually is to pair up the student with an aide who can perform the sort of damage control that a teacher in charge of a full classroom cannot, but teacher’s aides cost money and education budgets are shrinking. When push comes to shove, too often shove wins out.

The second story: an election-related felony charge filed against county supervisor Jim Jennings has spawned tremendous speculation, some of it misplaced, some of it no doubt unfair. By the same token, however, there has been an unmistakable tendency in some quarters to dismiss the allegation as no big deal, the work of an overcaffeinated prosecution. Perhaps. We’re certainly not talking about the Manson murders at any rate.

Yet the case against Jennings can’t be dismissed out of hand, given the unlikelihood that the Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which is investigating the allegations, would be interested in a fishing expedition in Mecklenburg County that didn’t take place on Buggs Island Lake. There’s also a political context to the case, albeit unrelated to the facts specifically at hand, that deserves consideration.

The context is this: In the past couple of years, states including Virginia have placed increasing restrictions on the rights of voters to participate in elections. This year, for instance, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring voters to present a photo ID at their polling stations. This might not seem like a big deal to those of us accustomed to carrying a driver’s license around, but for a discernible share of the population, including the young and old, and minorities, who might not have licenses, such a requirement could stand in the way of actually voting. Again, all of this would be nothing more than a necessary evil if anyone could demonstrate that voter fraud was a real problem, but no such case has been made. Stripped of other justifications, voter ID laws start to look suspiciously like partisan skullduggery.

Conservatives who promote these measures cry foul whenever anyone pushes back with arguments such as these. Just the potential for fraud, they say, is sufficient reason to impose voter requirements, potentially burdensome as they might be. Well, if this is true, shouldn’t candidates for public office be held to an even higher standard? Those inclined to pooh-pooh the election filing rules that may or may not have tripped up Jim Jennings should be careful not to traffic in double standards. If the average voter is going to be required to prove herself, then double should hold true for the candidates who are seeking her vote.









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