Protecting Marcus Wesson protects us all

In June Marcus Wesson was convicted of murdering nine of his own children, children he fathered with his daughters and nieces, and at the end of summer Fresno city and county police, prosecutors, public defenders, jailers and judges are still counting the financial cost.

The money—well over $1 million and including everything from the $31 per hour for a jail guard to more than $595,000 for attorneys and their staffs—will come from discretionary funds usually used to hire police, repair parks, build sidewalks and other constructive purposes.

Of course, whatever the bill it will be paid by the taxpayers. Should not law-abiding residents be sickened at the waste of our money to try such a man?

We should be proud.

Not proud of what Wesson is convicted of. Not proud that the money will not go to safety and recreation. Proud that we fulfilled, no matter how imperfectly or expensively, an obligation that outranks streets and sidewalks.

The Constitution guarantees every citizen a fair trial and a competent defense. True, it also says a speedy trial, but in this case we did a good job of that: Wesson was arrested March 12, and the judge affirmed the jury’s conviction July 27. How many trials of this magnitude last less than a year?

In the aftermath, officials have said public safety is a priority. Good to hear, but what else do we expect them to say?

First feeling “their” wallets threatened some months ago, a few of our public guardians were less charitable, publicly proclaiming their opposition to throwing more money at a man they said had taken advantage of society for years. Maybe Wesson did abuse the system, but that’s no excuse to make political hay. The squawkers had no choice. The money would be paid one way or another, and they knew it. They knew it, or they needed to review the obligations of their offices. They just didn’t like it. I saw this regularly in my years as a newspaper reporter. Nothing enrages politicians like a higher law limiting their power.

And a higher law is exactly what is at stake. Whether the founders of our nation were Christian believers, Enlightenment rationalists, or a bit of both, the Declaration of Independence, prefacing the spirit of the Constitution, declares that people are “endowed by their Creator”—not by a flag, no matter how inspiring; not by a soldier, no matter how heroic; not a by a country, no matter how great—with “certain unalienable rights.” Rights the later document enumerates, but does not bestow.

Sure, it would have been cheaper not to charge Wesson with capital murder. Some people, people like me, would also add it would have been more just. But that’s another article. Given the circumstances of the crime and the politics of the region, what Valley prosecutor could expect to be anything but burned in effigy if she (in this case) didn’t demand the ultimate punishment, even if takes decades on death row before it is carried out? And kindly keep in mind that it was the taxpayers on the jury who marked Wesson for death. The prosecutor requested, the judge confirmed, the people decided.

You may be disgusted at what Wesson was convicted of doing—I am—but our righteous indignation does not relieve us of our duty. Each time we protect the rights of someone like Marcus Wesson, and he is neither the first nor the last to turn our stomachs as we lend a hand, we assure our own rights.

Wayne Steffen is university editor at Fresno Pacific University and a former newspaper reporter who covered the courts and criminal justice system.