When I was eleven, my best friend's father killed a man. Richard Dick's father was working as a night shift security guard for a strip mall in Trenton, New Jersey. It was a rough neighborhood where break-ins were common, so being a security guard was a stressful job. Richard's father, an overweight high school dropout, lucky to have this job, under-trained and pale white in a all-black area, was armed with a revolver.
This was 1983.
One night in August, a couple of neighborhood kids broke into the liquor store to grab whatever they could get their hands on (probably sent by an out of work father). As the alarm sounded, they scattered. Richard Dick's father fired at them, maybe blindly, perhaps afraid for his life, definitely afraid for his job, and struck a running 16 year old in the back, killing the boy instantly.
I learned all of this years later.
At the time, all I knew was that Richard's father sat on the couch in his dirty undershirt, mumbling to himself and drinking beer after beer as the kids ran around playing and screaming and making the worst kind of racket. The kind of noise that instantly induces level-10 migraines in adults. The indoor playground. The sound of weak children spoiled rotten. Most fathers I had encountered in my 11 years of life at that point would have yelled at the kids to stop being so damn loud. Richard's father never did.
It seemed as though there was a forcefield around him, a barrier of depression that nothing could penetrate. It was like being in the room with a sculpture of a deeply depressed man, not an actual one. I don't recall ever making eye contact with him.
The mother, when she was home between her two jobs, would discipline us if we got too loud, or play with us when we needed adult direction, and Richard's younger brother and older sister would sometimes join us. They had formed a tight bond with each other as they lived with the sad man-sculpture that had once been their dad.
They were close to one another, warm, and only once in a while shoot frightened, concerned glances at the lonely, quiet person on the couch. It was if the man had already died, but his corpse was being stubborn and refused to leave
He was being charged with manslaughter.
The family was paying for his defense, not going with the public defender, and the slow trudge through the New Jersey legal system was quickly bankrupting them. When I went to play at Richard's my mother would send me with a bag full of my own clothes to give to Richard's mom. Sometimes the bag was full of clothes I still liked. My Star Wars t-shirt, the one with Chewbacca on it, for example. Richard and I never spoke of it, a strange display of good manners in naive children, of instinctual human discretion I and so many of my peers would lose as we got older.
I don't know if Richard's father's actions would have become national news today. It's conceivable it would have, as it has all the ingredients of a major story: white man, black juvenile, a gun, a murder.
I don't know if the man was racist. I don't know if the dead kid was a criminal in the making. I do know what the debate would sound like today. I doubt its helpfulness.
Richard's father was not convicted of manslaughter. Even then it felt like a horribly biased verdict. It was especially bad for him. I believe official punishment from the justice system would have relieved some of the man's guilt over committing murder. Killing a kid no different than his own stupid kids.
As it was, he was left to his freedom, unpunished.