A homicide trial is no place for the faint of heart. That is especially true in the murder trial of John Ben Jones Jr., a Tacoma man whose crime requires adjectives usually reserved for the jacket of a Stephen King novel.
Start with macabre. According to Sean Robinson’s article (TNT 5/9), a foul smell emanating from Jones’ room led his mother to discover a man’s decomposing body.
Move on to grisly. The body, that of Jones’ friend, Wayne Williams, had been partially dismembered and stuffed into trash bags.
The shock value of Jones’ crime is undeniable. Although he was convicted of Murder second degree and sentenced Friday to 17 years incarceration, the minimal fanfare that accompanied this decision suggests that we are perhaps becoming complacent to such atrocities in the news.
And if that is so, who is to blame? The Internet with its graphic images available 24/7? The Hollywood producers who shovel gore onto screens in exchange for ticket sales? The public that laps it up?
These may be fair questions, sure, but pundits have been flogging the data for years for answers. The better question is this – what faulty wiring in the brain leads one human being who takes the life of another?
That can be asked of John Ben Jones Jr. As in most cases of homicide, the prosecutor attempted to establish frame of mind, including any evidence to suggest prior planning of the crime, the nature of the relationship between the killer and his victim, and in this instance the cold-blooded dismemberment of the body.
Jones’ attorney likewise brought up his client’s mental state by raising the prospect of an insanity plea. Skeptics of this defense point out that a troubled past, a problem with drug addiction and a history of objectionable behavior are too often touted as sufficient evidence that an individual is (or was, at the precise moment of the crime) mentally incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong.
If that were true, then one should be able to argue that homicide is itself an unnatural act. However, despite all our nurturing and protective instincts, homicide has always been a part of society. From the biblical tale of Abel’s murder at the hands of his brother, Cain, to the present day, human history is a testament to the murderous nature of our species.
Thus, homicide does not automatically imply any inherent mental defect. Murderers can be highly intelligent, skilled, educated or even, like Mr. Jones, extremely polite. Fortunately, the judge who presided over Jones’ trial understood that ”nice guys” (Ted Bundy was described as such) have committed some pretty vicious acts over the centuries.
To be fair, debilitating mental illness has been a factor in countless murders. But for every John Hinckley (declared insane after shooting President Ronald Reagan), there are three Jeffrey Dahmer’s, calculating killers who use deception and false claims to mask their indifference to the suffering of others. In fact, that same callous disregard is perhaps the single consistency amidst the hordes of killers who have stalked our planet.
We may all wish that everyone placed a high value on life, but when murderers attempt to hide their disdain behind a mask of insanity, it is gratifying when the criminal justice system can spot the ruse.
And that is where the fiction ends.