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In a Georgia courtroom recently, Ray Brent Marsh, the manager of a cremating business, pleaded guilty to theft, fraud and abuse of a dead body. Rather than cremate hundreds of bodies as he was required to do under contract, and honor the wishes of the deceased, apparently he stacked up the remains and allowed them to rot, rather than rest, in peace. At the hearing in a packed courtroom, Marsh apologized to some of the families of the dead. He also stated that he plans to write a personal handwritten letter of apology to each of the families for whom the dead bodies could be identified. (Many families never learned what became of their loved ones’ remains.) For many of these relatives, the plea agreement failed to achieve any sense of relief, closure or moral justice. Not only is the jail sentence light (Marsh is likely to spend fewer than four years in prison for his crimes), but perhaps even more painfully, the truth and story behind his crimes-what he did, specifically, and why he did it-will never be known. Jannie Moore, whose husband’s body was never identified, summed up many of the conflicted, bitter feelings in stating, as reported in an article in the New York Times, “I always felt like if it went to court we would have had some answers. I’m not going to get that now.” A spiritually bankrupt system The Marsh case is yet another example of the dreadful failure of the legal system to respond to what citizens and victims need in the aftermath of loss, damage, betrayal and violence. We continue to operate in the belief that a legal remedy should be limited solely to incarcerating offenders in criminal matters, and requiring compensation in civil actions where there is material loss to property or person. These remedies, although perfectly acceptable in a purely legal context, are often inadequate to address the moral and spiritual needs of victims of violence, harm and indignity. This failure of imagination in fashioning remedies in more complex terms is at the root of why many people do not believe there is justice in America. Yes, we do have justice in a formal sense-defined as what the law ultimately provides as an answer to an injury. But the question is: Do these remedies and judgments actually feel just, or are they merely examples of a legalistic, overly technical, bureaucratic choreography by which cases are settled, dismissed or rendered final-and litigants are summarily sent home-without asking whether people are reconciled to, and satisfied with, what was done? The most important legal remedy is having a day in court. Being able to tell the story of what happened and being given an opportunity to speak to the grief, in an open setting, with witnesses and jurors present, and having the truth determined and preserved for posterity is the hallmark of moral justice. Courtrooms are not merely places where index numbers end up as final judgments. They are public forums where citizens seek to tell their stories, where truth is expected to matter, where parties are able to confront each other with words of pain and contrition, where resolutions truly feel resolved, and where judgments ultimately make sense. To the extent to which the legal system ignores these spiritual needs, is it any wonder why moral justice is lacking and why most people feel so profoundly that there is no justice at all? This is what Moore lamented with regard to her husband’s missing body. She came to the legal system, in good faith, hoping, believing, that it was the job of the law to at least provide her with answers and to acknowledge that her loss deserved a public reckoning. There are many rituals of the legal system that defeat story-telling and truth-seeking. The rules of evidence-so often exclusionary-and procedural rules, settlements, attorney-client privileges and zealous advocacy are among a long list of technical devices that restrict narrative, defeat meaningful personal encounters and sabotage litigants who want to speak-and hear-the truth. Plea bargains are particularly vulnerable to criticism from a moral-justice perspective, which is why the victims of Marsh’s crimes will never feel either whole or satisfied that the law has done what was just. In negotiated pleas, truth and story are routinely sacrificed in favor of an administrative outcome. The certainty of jail time, and the avoidance of the risk of trial, are deemed more important than the respect and dignity owed to victims. Whenever there are plea bargains, the victims-morally speaking-get the wrong end of the deal. There is no day in court, incarceration becomes the only contemplated remedy, truth is buried and unspoken, and there is no attempt either to restore moral balance to relationships or to help communities heal. One hopes at the very least that the apologies offered by Marsh will be sincere, because apologies are essential to moral justice as well. And the presiding judge should be commended for scheduling a Jan. 31 hearing so that the families can express their objections to the negotiated plea. But in the end, these gestures, in the context of a plea bargain that undermined and trivialized the larger need for a public airing in a community that has suffered tremendous indignity and loss, will not be sufficient replacements for moral justice denied. Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author of The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right (Harper Collins 2004).

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