Should Father in Molester Killing Be Charged?

A woman in handcuffs.
(Image credit: Ioannis Pantzi, Shutterstock)

In an emotionally charged case of vigilante justice, a Texas man beat to death a man who he allegedly caught sexually assaulting his four-year-old daughter on a ranch last weekend. The case has much of the country talking about whether the killing was justified.

Should the father be charged? Assuming his version of events is true, it's hard to blame the father for reacting the way he did; most parents would probably do the same. Police and the public have no reason to doubt the father's story, but absent other evidence, that's all it is at this point -- his story.

The situation has parallels with the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida earlier this year: George Zimmerman claims he killed the unarmed teenager in self-defense. Martin is of course dead and cannot tell his side of the story. Maybe Zimmerman's version of events is true, maybe it's not; later this year a jury will decide if he is guilty of second-degree murder.

Ultimately, as with the George Zimmerman case, it's not public opinion but instead a grand jury that will decide whether or not to charge the father with the man's death. Though most people are assuming that forensic evidence and medical tests will vindicate the father, it's not as clear cut as many may believe.

Justified Lethal Force?

One of the issues that a grand jury will consider in a case like this is what sort of force was necessary to stop the attack. For example, if mugger or rapist is knocked unconscious, beaten, or incapacitated by a defensive attack, that is clearly justifiable force. But if the beating continues -- as it did in the Texas case -- at what point do the blows change from offensive to defensive? For example if the attack has stopped and the attacker is on his back reeling from multiple blows to the head, are further fatal punches -- however satisfying -- legally justified?

The answer is subjective, of course, but the father's fate may hinge on such ambiguity. For example, if an autopsy reveals that the father continued to beat his daughter's attacker even after he'd lost consciousness, that might be grounds for bringing charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter. An unconscious man is clearly not a threat to anyone, and intentionally inflicting further blows that lead to death could be illegal.

Passing Judgment on Few Facts

Though most people have an opinion on the case, those opinions are based on very little knowledge. News reports offer conflicting accounts of what happened; Time magazine blogger Bonnie Rochman wrote that the father found the man "allegedly caught molesting his 4-year-old daughter." But other news reports, including from the Associated Press, stated instead that the man was "caught trying to sexually assault his daughter."

There is, of course, a significant difference between the two, most importantly for the physical and emotional wellbeing of the victim but also legally: an attempted robbery, sexual assault, or murder is not the same as an actual robbery, sexual assault, or murder. All are serious crimes, but society (and the legal system) make distinctions between trying to commit a crime and actually committing that crime.

So far few details have been released about the incident and what the father reported seeing. Did the man sexually assault the girl or not? Was the man caught in the act of raping his daughter? Was he touching her under (or over) her clothes? Were either or both of them undressed, or partly dressed? Was he exposing himself?

These are not irrelevant, salacious details, but instead will be key to understanding what happened, and ultimately whether a grand jury decides if the deadly force the father used was justified.

Lavaca County Sheriff Micah Harmon stated that the girl was not injured, and "okay besides the obvious mental trauma." If it turns out that there is in fact no physical evidence of sexual assault, the father's fate may come down to whether the grand jury believes his testimony. (Obviously if there are other eyewitnesses or other physical evidence supporting the father’s claims that will help his situation.)

The public overwhelmingly supports the father, saying that he was justified in killing the man. But, of course, that's assuming that what the father says is true. There were apparently no other eyewitnesses, and so far no physical evidence has been released to support his claim. The rush to judge is understandable, and while it's tempting to call the father a hero, the facts of the case are unclear.

There have been many cases of self-defense that seemed cut-and-dried at first: Many people scoffed at George Zimmerman's claim of being attacked by Trayvon Martin -- until photographs of Zimmerman’s head injuries were released, and toxicology tests found drugs in Martin's body. These revelations did not prove Zimmerman's claims of self defense, but they did show that some of the common assumptions about the case (based on incomplete facts) were wrong.

Unfortunately the death of the alleged attacker assures that the accusations against him will forever remain unproven; in our legal system everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. This presumption of innocence protects both the guilty and the innocent -- the alleged child molester and the father who killed him.

Hopefully the full truth will come out to condemn the guilty and vindicate the innocent, but as of now there is much we don't know.

This story was provided by Discovery News.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is