Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing on Sept. 5. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Even if it weren't for Carlton Franklin, Lena Triano probably wouldn't be alive today; she was born around 1920. But if it weren't for Franklin, Triano probably would have lived much longer than her 57 years. In 1976, Triano, a legal secretary, was found dead in her New Jersey home. She had been tied up, raped, strangled and stabbed multiple times by an unknown assailant.

There were, as one paper put it, "no suspects, no clues, nothing left behind," and for decades the case sat unsolved. Until the police department's cold-case investigators decided to check Triano's clothing for DNA. Franklin, who had previously been incarcerated for kidnapping and robbery, came back a match. In 2012, he was arrested, tried and convicted for the decades-old crime.

So far, this sounds like a fairly usual case of DNA turning a cold case hot. What makes it interesting is that Franklin was ultimately tried in juvenile court and sentenced to 10 years in prison. At the time of Triano's murder, Franklin had been only 15 years old.

The episode seems newly relevant in light of the accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. Christine Blasey Ford recently came forward to say that while they were in high school, some 35 years ago, Kavanaugh shoved her into a bedroom during a party, locked the door and attempted to rape her. Many of his defenders are asking a good question: Even if Kavanaugh did it, how much weight should be attached to the behavior of a teenage boy when doling out consequences for the 53-year-old man he is now?

But Kavanaugh has precluded that defense by unequivocally stating that he didn't do what Ford alleges. If evidence comes out to contradict him, he will be guilty not merely of whatever happened in that room decades ago, but also of lying about it now, suggesting both a deceptive character and a lack of remorse. So pondering the case of Franklin won't tell us whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed despite Ford's allegations. But pondering our intuitions about Kavanaugh might tell us a great deal about how we should think about people such as Franklin.

What Franklin did is, of course, much worse than what Kavanaugh stands accused of. And yet he was even younger than Kavanaugh at the time of their alleged crimes. If you were tempted to say about Kavanaugh, "he was just a boy!," what should you say about Franklin?

The answer depends on what you think punishment is for. If punishment's primary purpose is to make the community safer, then the appropriate sentence for Franklin was probably zero years in jail. No 15-year-old is going to be deterred from criminal acts by the prospect that he might go to prison in his 50s. Nor is prison going to rehabilitate Franklin, because news reports suggest that the prison term he had already served on unrelated charges had rehabilitated him; at the time of his arrest, he seems to have been quietly working at the same job driving an oil truck for more than a decade.

The alternative is to see punishment as a form of balance, or to use a less lovely word, "vengeance." From this vantage point, it's irrelevant whether Franklin was still a risk to the community. What matters is doing justice for the victim, giving closure to the family and delivering just deserts to someone who committed a crime of unfathomable evil.

  Vengeance may be an unlovely word, but it is part of what we want from our justice system. What else but vengeance drove the decision in 2009 to sentence the reviled but elderly financier Bernard Madoff to 150 years for his epic fraud? He couldn't have repeated the crime because no one would have given him more money, and other Ponzi operators wouldn't be extra-deterred by a longer-than-life sentence. The justice system did it for the victims, on behalf of a public that wanted to tell them: If we can avenge your abuse, we will.

One way to read this case is to note that Franklin got away with murder for decades and, even when he was convicted, still didn't confess or apologize. On that reading, his 10-year sentence might well seem far too short to atone for Triano's suffering, or for the agonizing years her family spent wondering whether her killer would ever be brought to justice.

But we could also question whether vengeance is even possible in Franklin's case. We can argue how much to punish a 15-year-old boy who raped and murdered, but we should be able to agree that some punishment was due. Unfortunately, that boy is no longer available. As best I can tell, the Carlton Franklin we have today is quite a different person.

So another way to think about this is that the new life Franklin started when he got out of prison — all those boring and apparently unobjectionable years as a truck driver — was nearly as long as the one that led up to his murder of Triano. In a sense, we have punished one person for the crimes of another. And whose idea of justice does that serve?

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