To Catch a Killer

Enforcing the small laws can lead to a reduction of violations of the big laws, not on the basis of “broken windows” theory but a Catholic theology of sin.

Max Emerson, a 25-year-old teacher from Kentucky, was murdered the morning of July 5 on Michigan Avenue in Washington, D.C., just next to The Catholic University of America. He was in town for a conference and sightseeing and on his way to the Metro, Washington’s subway. The nearest station is Brookland-CUA, just outside The Catholic University of America’s property.

America’s murder rate is on the rise, particularly in big cities. There were 203 murders in Washington in 2022. As of July 10, 2023, the city has posted 129 murders.  

The media touted the “drop” in Washington murders from 2021 to 2022. Proving that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” 2022 was marked as a “more than 10 percent decline” in murders over the previous year, though in both years, killings exceeded 200.  And while media outlets hawked 2022’s “decline” in murder rates over the previous year, not many people are mentioning that, as of July 10, Washington’s killing rate was 17 percent higher than the same time last year.  

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I want to raise a question. I don’t have answers to it but will admit I have suspicions.

Emerson was killed in broad daylight, in the morning, on his way to the subway. I want to know something: Did his killer ever evade paying his Metro fare?

Is there any video of the killer, whose picture has been released, either arriving at or escaping that fateful day via the Brookland-CUA Metro station? And, if there is, did he jump the fare gate? Does he ever appear anywhere on Metro videotapes?

There is no day that I don’t see people—especially young men—leaping over turnstiles.  It happens in the morning (along with some marijuana smoking) and afternoon. It happens with Metro officials standing right there, seeing it and doing nothing.

They don’t do anything because it’s not “worth it.” The D.C. City Council, in the name of “equity” and “social justice,” changed the law so that fare evasion is no longer a criminal but civil offense (something like a parking ticket), the penalty being $50.  (Virginia and Maryland still have $100 fines for beating the fare gate, but the majority of the Metro runs through the wannabe State “home rule” District).

An example of the absurdity is in Metro’s signage, pleading that you, “Please pay your fare before riding.” If you don’t, you’re told, “Metro Transit Police could issue you a fine, followed by ‘possible fines’” based on jurisdiction, D.C.’s disparity prominent.  Everybody knows it’s a ruse.

When he took office as New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani introduced a no-tolerance policy on fare-beating: turnstile jumpers were ticketed and even arrested. As they were processed, it became apparent that a lot of the free riders had other criminal records. By catching them on the “minor” act of fare beating, they were also held to account for more serious violations of the law.

Giuliani’s no-tolerance of fare-beaters and shake-down squeegee washers soaping your windshields was rooted in the “broken windows” theory of James Wilson et al. Put simply, the “broken windows” thesis holds that when anti-social behavior is tolerated, it metastasizes and expands. One broken window in the neighborhood exerts pressure on the homeowner to fix it. If left unrepaired, people get accustomed to the decline. 

More windows get broken, property values go down, and the likelihood of breaking and entering through those busted windows goes up. The way to avoid neighborhood decay is not the massive infusion of grant money after its decline; it’s in disincentivizing the beginnings of decline in the “little things.”  

Like stopping fare beaters before they push passengers onto the tracks.

Giuliani’s get-tough policies survived his administration and were kept, to some degree, in place by Michael Bloomberg. The return of the woke with Bill de Blasio in 2014 and Eric Adams today dismantled these policies over “social justice” and “equity” and “racism” claims. The rest is history.

I’ll argue for tough enforcement, not on the basis of “broken windows” theory but a Catholic theology of sin. One of the elementary principles the catechism used to teach was that venial sin can lead to mortal sin. It’s not that venial sins are “mortal sins that haven’t grown up yet” or that any number of venial sins will tip the scale into a mortal sin. 

It’s that venial sin affects the sinner by making him increasingly indifferent to the demands of charity, of love. Accustom people enough to indulge their own wants at the expense of love of other—God and/or fellow man—and eventually people will choose to ignore the demands of love in grave matters, too.  

Our moral lives are dynamic because they are built on love, and there is no point at which one can “love enough.” The moment one decides progress in charity suffices is when one begins sliding down a slippery slope. Evil begets evil because decay cannot fix itself. That is a real “social justice” matter, because people have a right—individually and as a matter of “the common good”—to live in safe communities governed by people whose policies actually bring that about.

Today’s turnstile jumper who wants to save $2 on the fare can be tomorrow’s gunman who supplements his income not just by pocketing the cost of his subway trip but also what he took from you at gunpoint.

And please don’t yelp about “poverty” and “injustice” and “inequity” and a thousand and one excuses to justify anti-social behavior. Kids in D.C. get fare cards to take the bus or subway to school. Many employers in Washington offer workers fare cards, which the federal government encourages to promote mass transit. And, if you can afford the weed that I whiff in the trail of no small number of leapers, you can afford the fare.

Part of the problem is that America suffers from “prosecutors” who are in violation of their oaths and obligations to execute the laws. I’ve watched no few number of Judiciary Committee hearings where nominees hem and haw to avoid criticizing district attorneys who have decided unilaterally to ignore the laws enacted in their jurisdictions, essentially nullifying those they disagree with by not prosecuting under them. They often dress up their negligence under the euphemisms of “prosecutorial discretion” and “managing resources.”  

The average American experiences the consequences of their “management” by the rise in “petty” crime (if you can call shoplifting short of four figures “petty”). But I’d challenge the sophistry behind this argument: does indulging “petty” criminals really lead to focusing on big criminals or—aware of the snowball characteristic of evil—does it in fact help petty criminals transition into big criminals?

That’s why I want to know whether our Washington murderer shows up on any Metro cameras.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

tagged as: Law Politics

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