Justice for Cesar

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August 24, 2012 by WAR

by Rachel Alexander

What’s the value of a human life?

According to Walla Walla prosecutor Jim Nagle, it’s less than a few belt buckles.

Last May, 22-year old Cesar Chavira broke into the New York Store on Issacs in the middle of the night. He was in the process of stealing belt buckles when he was confronted by the store’s owner, John Saul. Saul claimed Chavira threatened him, and responded by firing multiple shotgun shells. Chavira was taken to St. Mary’s hospital in an ambulance, where he was pronounced dead about an hour after the initial shooting, at 3:30 a.m.

Over the summer, the Walla Walla prosecutor’s office conducted an investigation into the shooting. Though Saul claimed he was defending himself, Chavira’s family members noted that no weapon was found on his body. Testimony from the Walla Walla Police Department during the inquest showed that Chavira was shot in the back, and that he was first shot 114 feet from the New York Store. In spite of this, the prosecutor announced on August 13 that he would not file charges against Saul.

Since the shooting, Chavira’s family and friends have held vigils to remember him and call for justice.

Kathleen Duchy, a local who runs the “Justice for Cesar ‘Guero’ Chavira” Facebook page, told me, “We’re fighting for justice. None of us have disagreed that he was wrong to break in, but he shouldn’t have died like that.”

Many Walla Walla residents appear to disagree. Chavira’s supporters have been harassed at rallies and vigils, often with racial epithets. Duchy said she’s gotten into arguments with white residents who have claimed proudly that they would have done the same thing in Saul’s position. Letters to the Editor in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin have suggested that Chavira was a gangster who got what he deserved. (Duchy said he was affiliated with a local gang, but that the theft had nothing to do with that, and that theft shouldn’t result in a death sentence.) Even the U-B’s initial coverage of the shooting felt compelled to mention Chavira’s prior convictions—cocaine possession in 2008 and several juvenile convictions from 2003 to 2007.

Legally, the main issue in the case is Washington’s definition of justifiable homicide. In Washington, you can legally kill someone to stop them from committing a felony against you. The entire statute says:

Homicide is also justifiable when committed either:

(1) In the lawful defense of the slayer, or his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, or sister, or of any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished; or

    (2) In the actual resistance of an attempt to commit a felony upon the slayer, in his or her presence, or upon or in a dwelling, or other place of abode, in which he or she is.

Chavira’s supporters have argued that shooting someone in the back multiple times with a shotgun to recover stolen property doesn’t qualify, and while I’m not a lawyer, I have to say I agree. The intention of the law as far as I can tell is aimed towards letting people defend themselves against immediate threats, and even if killing is defensible to protect property, shooting a fleeing thief in the back to recover a few belt buckles doesn’t strike me as particularly justifiable. The vitriol and hate that Chavira’s supporters have drawn, and the number of people defending John Saul vocally, suggest that many seem to believe a nonviolent crime and a history of gang affiliation are enough to pronounce a death sentence on a young man, to be carried out not by the state or a jury of his peers, but by 49 separate shotgun pellets lodged in his back.

Chavira’s family and supporters are continuing to push for prosecution, and anyone interested in staying on top of those efforts should go like the group’s Facebook page.

Beyond the specifics of Cesar’s case, though, it’s important to note that it’s technically legal to kill someone to defend your property. I’m not just saying that if you’re white and have money, you can get away with killing young men of color and claim self-defense, although that’s true more often than not. I’m saying that in some cases, it’s actually legal to take a human life in defense of private property.

Think about that for a second. I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t own anything I’d be willing to die for. If my house was burning to the ground and I had to choose between saving my laptop or getting out of the fire alive, I’d choose my own life every time. But if someone broke into my house and took my laptop, there’s a good chance I’d be found within my legal rights to shoot them in an attempt to defend my property.

I’m going to assume you don’t need me to explain to you how fucked up that is.

As you’re starting your first few weeks of college, remember that you now live in a town where a significant number of people believe the life of a young Latino man is worth less than a few belt buckles. And remember that you live on a campus where most students are completely unaware that things like this happen only a few blocks from their happy Whitman bubble.

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