This column first appeared in The Danbury Newstimes Nov. 22, 2015
For nearly two months, Joey Meek sat in solitary confinement in a South Carolina jail cell. Meek, 21 years old, is a friend of Dylann Roof, the accused rampage murderer facing capital murder charges for the nine racially motivated murders committed this summer at the AME Baptist Church in Charleston.
In September, Meek was indicted on federal felony charges. The United States Attorney, a federal prosecutor, says Meek had actual knowledge of Roof’s murderous plans and failed to take any action to warn authorities. That charge, “Misprision of a Felony,” is a fairly rare and archaic crime. The second charge filed against Meek is that he made a false statement to the FBI. The federal prosecutor says, after the massacre, when the FBI asked Meek if he knew the specifics of Roof’s plans to shoot people at the church, Meek said he did not. For those two charges, Meek himself faces two serious federal felonies, many potential years in federal prison and sat in solitary confinement unable to make bond until last week. Meek was released recently on a reduced bond while his case continues to work its way through the federal court.
A few family members of the victims of Roof’s massacre opposed reduction of Meek’s bond and his pre-trial release by federal Magistrate Shiva Hodge. In effect, Meek has become a scapegoat for the anger and rage that Roof, no doubt, deserves. But how much blame should be focused on Meek? Meek, a childhood friend of Roof’s, let Roof sleep on the floor of the Lexington, South Carolina, trailer he lived in.
To Meek’s credit, after seeing news reports of the church tragedy, upon seeing Roof’s picture on television and recognizing him, Meek immediately called the police. When interviewed, he told the FBI that in the days preceding the massacre he was with Roof when Roof got drunk and went on a racial tirade, saying he was going to “do something crazy.” Joey Meeks and his girlfriend took away Roof’s gun and hid it from him. They returned the gun to Roof the next day, saying they didn’t take his drunken rant seriously.
In opposing Meek’s bond reduction and release it is easy to sympathize with the emotional response of the victims; if anything could have been done to spare the lives of their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters they believe it should have been done. But is Meek the right target of their anger and frustration?
Joey Meek is hardly the first non-shooter to be arrested in the aftermath of a rampage shooting. Police often make arrests of people they claim gave any help to the rampager. What makes the arrest of Joey Meek so unusual is that his isn’t an arrest for assisting a rampager, but for failing to take action to prevent it. There are always warning signs before rampage massacres are committed, warnings sometimes signaled to family members, friends, school officials, police or mental healthcare givers. Knowing when to take the warnings seriously is a significant challenge, even for trained, skilled professionals. For non-professionals it’s even trickier. For a 21-year-old high school dropout, should it be criminal?
In the wake of the rampage shooting epidemic, several states, like Connecticut, Indiana, Texas and California, have passed laws to allow for expedited seizure of guns from people who pose a threat to public safety. But even where those laws exist, somebody has to become aware of the threat and know when to take it seriously. If they report the danger, the case quickly goes to court where a judge holds a restraining order hearing, but the threat has to meet legal standards for action to be taken against the purported dangerous person.
Mental health scholars confirm the difficulty in predicting violent behavior. “On the face of it,” says Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist at the Duke University School of Medicine, “a mass shooting is the product of a disordered mental process. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist: What normal person would go out and shoot a bunch of strangers? But the risk factors for a mass shooting are shared by a lot of people who aren’t going to do it. If you paint the picture of a young, isolated, delusional young man―that probably describes thousands of other young men.”
Fueling the emotions expressed by family members toward Meek, Morris or Jourdain—anybody associated with a rampage or rampager—is not simply a desire to see somebody punished. They often cry out for any scintilla of information of how or why their loved ones died. They cry out in pain to make sense of a senseless killing. Having a conversation with somebody like Meek would be a positive step toward the individual or community healing that needs to occur after a mass murder rampage.
The United States Attorney prosecuting Meek may be pursuing a strategy of applying pressure on Meek to get him to help state and federal prosecutors make their cases in court against Roof, who faces the possibility of capital punishment. Arresting, prosecuting or imprisoning Meek makes any conversation or contribution to community healing much less likely.