On the last day of August, two thousand and seven, was sentenced a young American patent lawyer, Jonathan Edington, to 12 years in prison, thus ending but a chapter in this real-life Shakespearean tragedy.
In August of 2006, the 29-year-old attorney was told by his wife Christina, that their 2-year old daughter had said she had been sexually assaulted by their neighbour, 58-year-old Barry James, on tranquil Colony Street in Fairfield, Connecticut, USA.
A feud between James and Edington (pictured) was already brewing at the time of the disclosures. James, a retired funeral director, lived with his parents and was, apparently, fond of walking around inside his house au naturel. In the past, Edington had called the Fairfield police to report James as "either partly clothed or revealing parts of his anatomy that were inappropriate".
Police reports indicated that Edington’s daughter "did not want to go home because of Barry"; that "Barry puts it on her belly and her nose"; "he comes to me in the starry nights"; and "he makes noises that sound like 'heehaw' and then it feels like rain on her."
When Edington heard this, late in the afternoon of Friday, August 18, 2006, he grabbed a kitchen knife, bashed through a screen on James bedroom window and stabbed him fatally, while James’ parents, 87 and 91, looked on in horror.
James’ family vehemently denied not only the alleged abuse but that James was a pedophile, James’ only brush with the law being a drunk driving charge in five years previous.
On October 19, 2006, the police announced the result of their investigation: the victim had not molested Edington’s daughter.
Edington first pleaded insanity but later changed his plea to guilty of first degree murder. At sentencing, his attorney told the Court that Edington was "not in his right mind" and was "a good and decent man who suffered such a traumatic event in his life that he lost control".
When Edington was sentenced, his wife broke out in tears and yelled in the Courtroom." "We know the truth! We know the truth!", fanning further the flames of pain her husband's vigilante justice had caused.
Edington now faces a wrongful death suit by the James family, as does his wife, who allegedly provoked the fatal attack or made up the allegation (ed.note: Connectucutt Superior Court judgment, 2010, after a jury trial, given to the James' family in the amount of $315K).
Justice and the law are not the playground for the ill-informed or the uninitiated. Every courtroom lawyer develops a sixth sense when it comes to statements made by children, who readily believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
A few years ago, my client was accused of having used a 2" x 4" piece of wood to discipline his daughter, denial of access rights to follow. The daughter had apparently told her mother this and even the local child protection office rushed to the mother's side.
In cross-examination, I asked the mother if the daughter believed in Santa Claus. The other lawyer stood up and strongly protested; that such a question was making a mockery of the justice system. Luckily, the judge knew where I was going and the mother was asked to answer the question.
"Yes," she answered. "My daughter believes in Santa Claus."
For other reasons, but this included, my client was exonerated from the allegation of abuse on his daughter with a "two by four" and enjoyed a long and wonderful relationship with her which continues today, yet he must remain with the bitter legacy of the accusation.
At the other side of the spectrum, is the very real difficulty of vulnerable children who have real horrific facts to share, especially when they have been sexually abused, and who cannot defend themselves against an aggressive defense attorney, something that is not lost on the more clever of offenders.
Jonathan Edington graduated from law school and although he was practicing intellectual property law, ought to have had the sense to pause not only before grabbing a kitchen knife with murderous intent, but at any other moment to come to his lawyer or 'I'm an officer of the court' senses as he ran across the yard, broke into his neighbour's house, and stabbed Mr. James 13 times.
In contrast to what ought to have been his attorney’s reaction, the following anonymous words were posted on the Internet in relation to this crime:
"As a father with two daughters of my own, Jonathon is a hero!!! This is the way monsters like this should be dealt with and I would have done the same exact thing in his shoes. FYI, two year olds don’t lie or make things up. The guy was guilty and was lucky that his punishment came so quick and swift."
This type of "tavern" comment would not come as a surprise to an experienced lawyer. We do not expect John Doe to have the wisdom of Solomon, a wisdom we are called upon to exercise constantly. John Doe sees vigilante justice as "OK in certain circumstances", preferable to "keeping that bastard alive".
In any profession - doctors, firefighters, engineers - there are always anomalies. Jonathan Edington is an anomaly because he had in his possession the sacred knowledge of law and justice. He practiced the art. And yet, he acted as judge, jury and executioner on hearsay of a two-year-old, a risk to Mr. James so substantial that it defies analysis by lawyers and distorts any definition of the word "justice".
For that, Mr. Edington will sit in prison for twelve long years, and will face the ignominy of a wrongful death suit, including the examination or discovery of both himself and his wife and a painful civil trial.
There never can be justice in a case like this. The only true justice would be to resurrect Mr. James, which is not an option.
But just as you can find water in the desert if you know where to look, the publicity surrounding this tragic case of vigilante justice may give pause to the next person who is given an isolated piece of information which raises strong emotions; pause within which the wise words of Aristotle may find life: the law is reason, free from passion.
- Associated Press, "Girl described abuse before neighbour killed", 12-SEP-2006
- The Syracuse Daily Orange, "Police charge SU alumnus with murder", 5-SEP-2006
- ABC News "Attorney accused of killing his neighbour", 30-AUG-2006
- Connecticut Post "Edington gets 12 years for fatal stabbing", 31-AUG-2007
- Tepfer, Daniel, Jury awards dead man's family $315,000 in civil case, Nov. 2, 2010, Connecticut Post, Bridgeport, Connecticut