We want simple stories, but life gets in the way
A Stone’s Throw
We like our stories clear-cut. Nice, even edges, all squared up. Good guys and bad guys — with hats to match, white and black.
It saves time, wear and tear. It saves us from having to think, to wrestle with deeper issues.
But sometimes (Sometimes? Ha), life refuses to cooperate.
Stories refuse to be simple.
And when that happens, we often pick sides nonetheless. We choose good guys and bad guys according to our particular taste in that sort of thing — and we can make some serious mistakes along the way.
We’ve had two of those stories recently.
The first was the painfully annoying story about the kid who was busted at a bus stop near the school campus with marijuana in his backpack.
That incident began with a policeman claiming — apparently incorrectly — that he saw the kid openly rolling a joint. It ended with the kid on the ground screaming in pain after the cops used a “pressure point” to take him down.
It seemed as if everybody was eager to choose a side on that one:
1. The cop was a brutal jerk who violated the kid’s civil rights, or
2. The kid was a punk who got exactly what he deserved.
Lost in the uproar, I think, was the reality: Both sides of that story are essentially true.
Say what you will; the kid had a bunch of marijuana in his backpack and he was pretty much right on the edge of school property. And once the cop confronted him, the kid began to shout and scream, thrash around and carry on, which pretty much ensured that whatever trouble he was already in was only going to get worse.
Like I said: a punk. A pretty stupid one at that.
And the cop, as subsequent investigation by this newspaper revealed, seems to have a fondness for those semiviolent confrontations.
Over the past few years, that one police officer — one out of 22 patrol officers — has been responsible for almost one-third of the entire department’s use of nonlethal weapons. His weapon of choice: the stun gun or Taser.
That same cop also was responsible for more than 13 percent of the department’s use of “soft techniques” — such as the pressure-point takedown he used in this instance.
They tell us his action in every one of those incidents was entirely justified — and maybe, taken case by case, that’s true.
But when you look at the entire story, this is clearly a cop with an affinity for confrontations.
So in the end, the kid deserved all the trouble he got into and the cop deserved all the abuse he got from the community (and probably more trouble than he actually encountered from his superiors).
There’s no simple story here. No good guy vs. bad guy. Just two jerks locking horns.
The other story on my mind is very different.
This is the story — sad beyond imagining — that began with a terrible car crash on Highway 133 in the summer that took the life of a vibrant young woman.
The death of Meleyna Kistner shattered the lives of her parents as well as the life of the young man who was in the car with her and was grievously injured but not killed.
That crash also shattered the life of the woman who caused this tragedy: Christine Tinner of Basalt, who apparently fell asleep at the wheel, veered across the center line of the highway and ran head-on into Kistner’s car.
Those wide swaths of destruction were on display at the Pitkin County Courthouse last week during a lengthy — and still incomplete — sentencing hearing for Tinner, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and faces as much as a year in jail.
Kistner’s parents testified to what an exceptional young woman their daughter was. They spoke heartrendingly of how their lives had been destroyed, drained of all joy, by her death.
And they confronted Tinner harshly.
Kistner’s stepmother called Tinner an “evil woman,” accused her of “willful and wanton” behavior and scorned the testimony of those who praised Tinner’s character, saying they were trying to create “an image of character that does not exist.”
The first day of the hearing was cut short when Tinner neared an emotional collapse.
That collapse happened more completely midway through the second day of the hearing, when Tinner left the courtroom, sobbing uncontrollably, and was taken to the hospital.
Even the judge — a mature and levelheaded woman — was reduced to tears several times in the course of the two days.
There is no clear story to be found amid this swirling anguish, this grief that will never end.
There was righteousness, tainted by rage, and clear guilt tempered by despair.
Yes, in the darkness there were a few sparks of light as some of Kistner’s family and friends tried to find space for forgiveness.
But there in the courtroom, the rage and pain — understandable but terrible — seemed to overwhelm everything else.
A simple story would end with justice.
Justice is a wonderful concept, but in a case like this one, there is no justice. There can be no justice.
And those who want a clear, clean story will not be satisfied.
And yet I cannot help pointing to the one woman — the judge, appropriately — who seemed determined to find some kind of resolution to this insoluble problem.
And she did not speak of justice.
“I’ve said the end of this for you is forgiveness so you can live, so I can live, and that is a religious concept, so we’re not going to encourage those kind of discussions,” said Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely. “A lot of judges would never do this; they would never have this much input. They would have just said, ‘A year’s jail. We’re done; that’s it. Maximum sentence.’”
But she was intent on finding a better way.
“I went to bed last night and thought (Meleyna) is going to come to me,” the judge said. “She’s going to tell me what to do.”
Perhaps there is a simple heart to this story after all.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.
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