News that a jury deadlocked on the fate of Roger Burns surprised me. It probably shouldn’t have.
His deeds are a mere flicker from a distant history of women who periodically disappeared off Metro East streets and turned up dead. Burns was responsible for one of them — and on his way to a second, had a kidnap victim’s dress not jammed the latch of his car trunk, making it possible for her to lift the lid and escape.
That was in 1965, the year the Gateway Arch was topped out, President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed the first U.S. combat troops in Vietnam and “The Sound of Music” debuted in movie theaters.
And we’re still trying to decide what to do about Burns.
There’s no uncertainty about what happened 47 years ago in Belleville. That second woman was abducted from a gas station on North Belt West. It wasn’t hard to track down Burns, an airman who also worked there.
He gave police details about the murder of Rose Ann Curran, 24, a prize of opportunity when he grabbed her from a laundromat in the 700 block of East Main Street four months earlier.
Burns claimed he shot Curran through the heart by accident in a struggle while trying to rape her in his trailer near Swansea. He told of dumping her body off Green Mount Road, returning to take her clothes, out of fear of fingerprints, then following a sexual urge to take a knife to her breasts. He even directed police to a pond where he threw the pistol.
The cooperative defendant backslid a few days later when he and four others sawed their way out of jail. Captured within hours, Burns returned to his helpful ways, eventually pleading guilty of murder and receiving a 199-year prison sentence.
Yet here we are, still trying to decide what to do about him.
Under the math of Illinois punishment at the time, 199 years didn’t mean two centuries. Not even half of one. About
43½ years after a state prison door locked behind Burns, it opened in front of him. On Nov. 3, 2008, he was placed on parole, returned to prison and paroled again in 2010 with supervision until Dec. 21, 2157. He would be 215 years old then, and obviously no threat.
But what about 2010, when he was only 68?
Parole was neither a success nor a disaster. Officials noted his propensity for lying, including claims of combat in Vietnam, and sometimes strange behavior, such as an obsession with a dead opossum. Living at a veterans home, he made officials uncomfortable with his interest in a young female worker. He had earned two college degrees in prison and, as far as anyone knew, hadn’t hurt anyone else. But “hadn’t” isn’t “won’t.”
To try to hang onto him, the Illinois attorney general’s office filed a civil action that holds Burns in mental heath care pending a decision of whether he is a “sexually violent person.” Such a declaration would mean perpetual confinement, subject to reviews. Missouri has a similar law.
Burns was entitled to a trial, which was finally held last week. It took several days to lay out the arguments and evidence — including diametrically opposed testimony of psychologists who could not agree about the risk he poses. Jurors needed several hours to report themselves hopelessly unable to agree.
After contemplating how easy it would be just to vote for throwing away the key with Burns locked inside, I developed a strong respect for the two jurors who took the harder path. I’m not saying I would have been among them; I never saw all the evidence. But this situation is worthy of careful thought by those who treasure the law.
Burns did a terrible thing. Hardly anyone would have lamented a full life sentence, but that’s not what he got. He paid the prescribed price and qualified for parole.
The question of whether he remains a slave to some sadist urge was the subject of educated debate in a court where the burden required by law was proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Sure, Burns scares me. But so does the power to confine someone not for what he did but for what he might do. The law is built to err on the side of the defendant. Common sense here might lean otherwise.
It is a slight comfort that I don’t live in St. Clair County, and thus have no possibility of being called to help decide what to do with Roger Burns.