Closure to a painful murder case?

Last week, a four-and-a-half-year odyssey for the friends and relatives of Donald Claude Arnder may have come to a close with the conviction of three people in the May 25, 2012 murder of Arnder.

Owner and manager of Eddie’s Zip Foods in Mount Airy, Arnder was by all accounts a small business owner working hard to make a living for himself and provide work for a handful of others in his store. He took care of his mother and family when he was younger, looked out for the elderly and those on a fixed income as much as he could through his store; strove for a productive, positive life, and spent his time on earth making positive contributions to his community. He was a man that many called friend. In short, the kind of person that makes up the backbone of the community.

That’s one of the reasons the crime struck such a chord: A man simply working, going about his business when armed, spineless cowards walked into his store late that spring evening, shooting Arnder, leaving him to die while they escaped to a get-away car outside, where an equally cowardly accomplice sat, ready to speed off into the night.

The two men, Joshua Robert Berry, 32, and Emmanuel William Foster, 27, were sentenced to roughly 61 years and 62 years in prison, respectively. Sarah Looney Berry, 28, the woman waiting in the car, was sentenced to 34 years.

Even under the best of circumstances, Joshua Berry and Foster will not be able to knock off more than five years of their sentence under federal good behavior standards. For all practical purposes, the two received life sentences without possibility of parole.

Sarah Berry potentially could be out in a little more than three decades, as she approaches her 60th birthday.

Because the three were engaged in a multi-state crime spree at the time they killed Arnder, the cases were handled in federal court. While a life sentence is the most severe punishment the feds will pronounce on a subject, we still can’t help but feel there’s something amiss here.

In some ways, it would seem a little more satisfying if the three had been convicted in a North Carolina court — specifically in a Surry County courtroom, since that’s where the murder took place.

And it would be even more satisfying if the sentence had read “life” than a given number of years, assuring that they would pay for taking a life with a true, undisputed life sentence. There is still a possibility, however remote, Joshua Berry and Foster could see freedom — albeit as old men past their ninth decade on earth. Sarah Berry has a better chance of seeing freedom.

We believe that’s wrong — that all three should have been locked away without ever having any hope of release.

That could still happen. The Surry County District Attorney’s office could still try the three in state court, but we see that as problematic for two main reasons.

First, as a practical matter, it would be spending tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of taxpayer money without significantly changing anything. The three are locked away, effectively for life. Do we really want to spend local and state taxpayer money, and place such a complicated case in an already clogged court system?

Second, from a more philosophical standpoint, we don’t like the idea of individuals being tried twice for the same crime. The U.S. Constitution strictly forbids that, but along the years some creative prosecutors have managed to get the right judges to side with them, establishing precedence for allowing individuals to be tried in both state and federal courts for the same crime.

Perhaps the most infamous example of this was the Rodney King beating case of 1991. In that incident, a video surfaced of four Los Angeles officers mercilessly beating an unarmed King with batons, repeatedly striking him even after he was on the ground and helpless.

The four officers were tried in state court, but prosecutors failed to gain a conviction. To appease the crowds literally rioting in the streets, federal authorities went after the officers, charging them with the federal crimes of violating King’s civil rights, ultimately sending two of the policemen to jail.

It might seem that justice was finally reached, getting the guilty in jail, but the means left much to be desired. Essentially the government didn’t get the verdict it wanted in state court, so the feds stepped in and went after them.

Prosecuting individuals twice for the same crime, even if in different courts, is contrary to what the framers of the Constitution envisioned when they included an amendment prohibiting this very type of behavior by the government.

On a visceral level, many of us would like to see the three murderers tried in Surry County and then thrown in jail for the rest of their time on Earth. From a practical and Constitutional manner, however, we believe it best to let the federal sentences be the end of the case.

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