I’ve been thinking about something since the events of last week.
After Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, I saw different news articles refer to Sterling as a “convicted felon.” Several articles take pains to point out Sterling’s criminal record, which included battery, carnal knowledge of a teenager, and domestic abuse.
There’s no question that Sterling did those things. But what troubles me is the implication that his criminal record means that he deserved to die. I’ve seen a few Facebook comments that put it bluntly: “He was a criminal. Why should we be grieving for a criminal? He had it coming.”
I don’t know enough about Sterling’s past to discuss his story at length. I have a broader concern: I question the value of only reporting “convicted felon”, as if that is enough for us to see the whole picture of a person’s life.
Because do you know who else has a felony record?
The late Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint, pleaded guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice surrounding the Watergate scandal.
Martha Stewart, TV personality and businesswoman, was found guilty in 2004 of several charges regarding insider trading of stock.
Tim Allen, actor and comedian, pleaded guilty in 1978 to drug trafficking charges for possession of over 650 grams (1.43 lb) of cocaine.
Mark Wahlberg, actor and producer, who in 1987 (when he was 16) was charged with attempted murder for attacking two Vietnamese men. He was plead guilty to assault.
These are just a few of the well known people that I could find. There’s no question that these people did these things. But their lives are not defined by their misdeeds. They were found guilty, paid their dues, and moved on. They were not defined by their crimes.
There’s a lot to be said about the consequences of a felony record, which I won’t go into now. I’ll just say this:
If you read a news article about someone and it says “So and so was a convicted felon,” I ask that you resist the urge to immediately conclude “Well, then this person is a bad person and deserves bad things!” Look a little bit deeper. Try to see the story behind those words. Try to see the whole person.