How much is a person's life worth? In elementary school, we used to say 98 cents since this was the purported value of chemicals in the human body. In Virginia today, the figure is $1,000 since this is the amount of the fine levied on Theodore C. Gregory for killing his estranged wife's lover. Given the rate of inflation since I was in elementary school, not much has changed. In Virginia, life remains dirt cheap.
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances. Gregory caught his wife, from whom he was separated and later divorced, in bed with another man. He did not find them this way at his own home, though, but at someone else's. And he did not come upon them by accident. He stalked them and then shot at both of them with a pistol he just happened to be carrying at the time.
There are elements of the John Hinckley case here. Instead of someone stalking Jodie Foster, we have someone stalking an estranged wife. Instead of someone saying he could not stop himself from squeezing the trigger, we have someone saying he could not remember what he had done. There are some differences, though. With Hinckley, no one died. In Virginia, there is a body in the ground.
It's difficult to second-guess a jury. It heard all the testimony and had the opportunity to eyeball the witnesses as they testified. It had to sit through the usual contradictory testimony of both prosecution and defense pyschiatrists, and it listened as the defense lawyer tried to turn a murder charge into a variation of rape. He attempted to make the moral character of Gregory's ex-wife a factor in the case. You cannot escape thinking that had she been pure, Gregory would now be in the clink instead of free and a thousand dollars in the hole.
It would have been one thing if the jury found Gregory not guilty by reason of insanity -- temporary or otherwise. He was, after all, in quite a state. Just about everyone who knew him said that, and the fact that he eventually wound up doing something violent seems to have come as no surprise to residents of the Virginia hunt country where Gregory, his estranged wife and her lover, Howard LaBove, lived.
But the jury made no such finding. Instead, it chose to convict Gregory of voluntary manslaughter -- the intentional killing in "the sudden heat of passion upon reasonable provocation." That there was passion, sudden or otherwise, there can be no doubt. But just what was the "reasonable provocation?" There were at least two, but they are not "reasonable" excuses.
In fact, the case reeks of antiquated values. The first is ownership of woman by a man. For Gregory, the fact that his wife had left him seemed to matter not at all. It was as if the decision was his alone and she had no say in the matter -- an article, a possession. Some man had taken his wife. He could then take that man's life. Sure, he was heartbroken, but life can be a succession of people saying no. If you want to avoid that, stick to horses. Getting dumped is no excuse for killing someone.
But there was something else at work here. This was no ordinary affair. The hunt country is no big city where a person can walk the street anonymously. It is a one-industry place of relatively few people where everyone knows everyone. The crime here may not really have been about adultery, but of forcing someone to lose face.
Gregory was twice the loser -- once for his wife having left him, once more for her having taken up with his erstwhile best friend. The two walked down the street together. She put her head on his shoulder in public. Gregory saw them. So must have others. The affair was an open secret. It is under those circumstances -- loss of face -- that men are likely to turn violent. It is under those circumstances that they start to pack a gun. It is when faced by a crime involving these circumstances that men, but sometimes women too, are most likely to be forgiving. It as if the killer should not be held accountable for passion in a silly cause.
So Theodore C. Gregory has 12 days to come up with his $1,000 fine and it is a wonder that the jury does not chip in and help him. He was all but acquitted for killing a man -- "reasonably provoked," the jury said. Loss of face was chosen over loss of life, and Gregory walked away a free man. Now justice has lost face.