The mindless cruelty of the act gave the murder of Catherine Fuller a special significance. There is a nightmare quality to the event: a slight, middle-aged woman dragged into an alley, robbed of a trivial sum, and beaten to death with nauseating embellishments by at least six fully grown young men. Those six have now been convicted of the murder. The jury acquitted two other defendants, and is still out on the remaining two.

None of those six seemed to possess that internal moral compass that rules out certain actions -- that, even before any calculation of gain or of the risk of being caught and punished, simply refuses to take part in a crime because it is deeply wrong. Can there be a more rudimentary transgression than an attack on a defenseless woman on her way to the store?

No one can have been greatly surprised, as the trial developed, to learn the circumstances in which these young men were living. None was in school. None was employed. The testimony described a world of days spent sleeping, watching television, hanging around the neighborhood -- a world in which young men father children they have no means or expectation of supporting. It is possible to pity the futility of these lives. It is impossible to feel anything but revulsion at their assault on Mrs. Fuller.

Poverty and deprivation can be adduced as extenuation of some crimes, but not this one. The six young men were poor, but so was Mrs. Fuller. No doubt they lived in a neighborhood that you could describe as unwholesome. Mrs. Fuller and her family lived in the same neighborhood. Society has broad responsibilities to all citizens, and there are some parts of the city -- like the one where this murder took place, a few blocks northeast of Union Station -- where those responsibilities are fulfilled less well than in others. But surely there is no social responsibility more important than ensuring the physical safety of the individual. If there was a failure of social responsibility here, it was first of all a failure of responsibility to Mrs. Fuller. A woman ought to be able to walk to the store in peace.

The city and all the people who move through it every day are indebted to Judge Robert M. Scott for his firm and effective direction of a complex trial. The public debt is even greater to the jury, which carefully sorted through a great mass of evidence to arrive at the verdicts already delivered and which is still at work. None of the decisions in this case has been easy. Taken all together, this trial drew a portrait of a part of society in which many things have gone terribly wrong. Setting them right begins with a clear and unequivocal determination to enforce the law and its promise of protection to every person.