Special Report: Vigilante Justice

By Taylor Barnhill  - bio | email | Twitter

COLUMBUS, GA/PHENIX CITY, AL (WTVM) - A man is being robbed and pulls a gun on the suspect. A woman's car is stolen and her husband tracks down the thieves. These are lines taken straight from stories WTVM has recently covered. It's called vigilante justice and in a News Leader Nine special report, we see how taking the law into your own hands is becoming more popular, as more people get fed up.

"Vigilante justice is basically taking the criminal justice system into your own hands. The criminal justice system is set up for a reason, it's set up to protect the community, to protect the citizens and to give them a mechanism to bring people to justice through the use of laws," explained Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith.

Every few seconds someone becomes a victim of crime. While most people allow law enforcement to take the appropriate measures to handle those cases, some take matters into their own hands.

Smith told News Leader 9, "We can understand the emotion of people who are victims of crime and certainly the criminal justice system has its flaws but it is the best system we know of to be able to bring people to justice while at the same time protecting everybody's rights. Certainly the accused have rights, the victims have rights and the balancing act is to try to make sure both parties have a fair hearing and the truth comes out because that is what justice is."

But some feel that justice isn't served if they wait around for police officers to do the job. Contractor Randy Prather had his business broken into several times and actually caught one of the suspects on surveillance video, "We finally caught the guy. Somebody saw it on the news and recognized him and called it in. We offered a reward for it and he helped identify him and we finally got him picked up."

Prather decided to investigate the burglary himself, and the anonymous caller took him to the suspect's house.

"I saw the car and he and someone else were sitting under the carport and we just rode by and didn't pay any attention to him. I called the police the next morning," he recalled.

Some would say justice was served with the suspect being put behind bars, but Prather feels the punishment did not fit the crime, "This guy stole $2,500 worth of stuff from me and by the time he called a bondsman to get him out, it cost $150 to get out of jail. He was in jail probably two and half hours at the most. I don't think that's fair. It's not fair to me or anyone else who gets stolen from."

Chief Smith added, "Resources being what they are, we have to prioritize the most serious cases versus the smaller cases. At no time do we take any case as not workable, we're going to work all the cases."

But for those who don't have a "sit around and wait" attitude, they may see vigilante justice as their only way to get the retribution they are searching for.

Prather said, "I don't blame people for trying to defend themselves and take up for themselves and cover themselves any way they can. I guess you can call it vigilante justice if you want to, I don't know."

"When we are victims of crime it makes us emotional, but if we can step back and take a good hard look and make sure that who we bring to justice is who in fact is responsible for that, that's really what the criminal justice system is all about," added Chief Smith.

Law enforcement wants to stress to the public that taking the law into your own hands is not only illegal, but could be very dangerous for you. We've reported several stories where the vigilante ends up in the jail or the hospital after trying to seek justice on their own. The best advice is, no matter how passionate you are, let the police handle the suspects the way they know how to.

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