The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Two families, two empty chairs

I‘ve been working on these thoughts since a couple nights ago, when our son was perusing his smartphone and reported a police officer had been ambushed and killed. My first thoughts were several, wrapped in “if you felt a driving need to kill someone, probably a cop was not the best choice.”

A fellow columnist led me to Cpl. Bryon Dickson’s Facebook page. Dickson’s profile picture is of Abraham Lincoln, possibly referring to an interest of Dickson’s, and possibly to avoid putting his picture online for bad guys to use to identify him. When your job is putting bad people where they cannot injure other citizens, you sometimes make enemies for whom vengeance is a serious mission. Not many, but it only takes one.

The top pictures on the trooper’s timeline are of his two sons, shaving cream lathered on the faces of lads far too young to shave. It’s one of those moments a dad often dreams of, when his son asks, “Dad, I want to shave, too.” You tell him he’ll hate the idea when the time really comes. He can’t dream of that much future and insists you spread the cream over his face.

Another picture, this time labeled “Letting the boys help out on the weekend project,” is a video clip of one of the lads trying to wield a 16-pound hammer against a concrete step. The hammer appears about the same weight as the kid trying to swing it.

Facebook notes the pictures are only more than a month old. One wonders how many other memories the youngsters had before the last one – standing with their Mom and other family members as a parade of fellow officers and color guards render a final salute to the latest member of the uniformed family to be murdered while trying to keep bad guys away from our doors.

Several years ago, I wrote of  Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who had spent decades on death row before the State of California finally exacted its penalty by lethal injection. I made clear that I did not support the death penalty.

As a reporter, I had covered the November 2010 funeral ceremonies for Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove. Grove, 31, had attempted to arrest a man suspected of poaching. The man fired at the game warden, killing him.

Through it all, I kept thinking: This isn’t supposed to happen to a game warden. It doesn’t happen often; Grove was the first Pennsylvania WCO to be killed in the line of duty in 95 years.

A few months ago, when Grove’s killer was declared guilty and assigned to die in a state chamber, I reaffirmed my belief that legal execution is harmful to the rest of us.
When I wrote of Tookie Williams, I found myself soon after explaining to a police officer with whom I was on friendly terms that if someone entered my home and attacked my family, I would do my best to attack back, possibly even killing our assailant. If he ran off, I would feel committed to leaving his capture and disposition to the legal system.

Cpl. Bryon Dickson was leaving one family at the end of his shift to go home to his other family when, according to the arrest warrant, 31-year-old Eric Matthew Frein, from his hiding place among some trees, killed the 38-year-old officer and wounded another. Two families now sit with an empty chair once occupied by their fellow officer and husband/father.

I still abhor capital punishment.

But some days are easier than others to understand why some of us think it appropriate.


  1. Sad stories like this tend to make us vengeful, but we must stay on the high ground. I firmly believe the death penalty is wrong. We can not harm our psyches by doing what the perpetrator did. However, I’m not above thinking life in prison without parole is appropriate, even knowing that the perpetrator may be killed by another inmate.

    From a purely economic standpoint it costs less for the state to incarcerate a killer for life than to pay for multiple appeals, even up to the Supreme Court.

    • That cost thing is pretty well established, Sharon, though too many of us still don’t believe it. Trouble is, the cost rarely is quantified. In fact, I’ve yet to see a prosecutor able to quantify the cost of any prosecution. Everyone is either on wages or salary and paid just to do their part. If there were may of determining the actual costs, it might make more impression.

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