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What would I do in Ellie Nesler’s place?

Submitted by on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 3 Comments

There are few issues in life where I’m indecisive. One is Ellie Nesler.

Nesler died last week of breast cancer at age 56. She’d twice served time in California prisons, the most recent as the result of a guilty plea in a 2002 drug case.

The first sentence, though, is where my dilemma comes in.

In 2002, Nesler strode into a Sierra Nevada foothills courtroom and shot Daniel Driver five times in the head and neck with a semiautomatic pistol, just before Nesler’s son was scheduled to testify in the preliminary hearing of the man accused of molesting him and three other boys.

She was hailed as a heroine, an avenging angel. She was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison, serving three before the conviction was overturned on grounds of jury misconduct.

The sane part of me — and the jury also found that Nesler was indeed sane the day she gunned down Driver — doesn’t understand why it was manslaughter. Under California law, that’s a “heat of the passion” crime. The fact that Nesler took justice into her own hands four years after the molestations would seem to negate that argument.

That sounds like first-degree murder – “willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.” What else could you call sneaking a loaded gun into a courthouse and firing not once, but five times. At someone’s head.

Apparently, though, jurors bought her lawyer’s explanation that she “snapped.”

There were a lot of rumors about why Nesler might have snapped: Claims that Driver had threatened to kill her and her son, rumors that she was high on methamphetamine the day of the shooting.

The emotional part of me does understand snapping, and I understand it much better now than at the time. I was a childless 20-year-old when Nesler was convicted. Not that you have to be a parent for child sexual abuse to upset you, but when you do have children, it’s a little less esoteric.

It could have been your little first-grader raped by the church-camp dishwasher with a prior conviction for child molestation. It could have been the baby who grew inside you now suffering nightmares from the recurring horror of the actions of a vile man. It could have been the innocence you brought into this world lost to an assault by someone who’d done it before.

Oh, I understand the impulse to shoot. I’d be more likely, though, to want to fly at the rapist in a fit of rage. Shooting would be a step too far removed to suit me.

What might stop me? The desire to not victimize my child twice, causing him to lose his mother as well as his childhood. The realization that the only real way to help my baby would be by being with him, not in a prison cell.

What would I do in Ellie Nesler’s place?

I wondered again tonight, as I sang “Hush Little Baby” and rocked Big Guy. At 5, he’s a little old for that, but he’s had trouble sleeping lately so I indulge him. It indulges me, too, truth be told.

At 5, he’s just a year younger than Nesler’s son was when Driver violated him.

I still don’t know what I would do in Ellie Nesler’s place. I  know now what I would want to do, and I’d pray for the strength to resist that urge.

l can’t imagine anything worse than having to find out if I’m strong enough.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Leslie K. said:

    Thank God that choice has never been given to you. I had to chose how to react towards the man who stabbed my 78 year old father and left him to die on a street in Livermore. I had to stand and give the Victim’s Statement, as my father had already died from heart failure by the time it went to trial. Every Irish bone in my body wanted to smash that kid in the face. Every Italian muscle I have wanted to strangle him.

    Having to make a conscious choice to do the next right thing? Hardest damn choice I had had to make, up until then.

  • Debra said:

    Oh my God, Leslie, I had no idea. The things you’ve gone through in your life … well, you’ve certainly had more than your share.

    Yes, I am very thankful I’ve never had to make that choice. If I ever do, I pray I can handle it with the grace you demonstrated.

  • Cynthia said:

    The question you raise comes alive in my souls every time I her Ellie’s name. When the event occured my first respose was “good for her”, but, I was working through intense issues from my past at the time and it just seemed fair that victims of sexual abuse should have to the right to stuff out their offender(s). But God in His great mercy helped my heart find a better way for me and my family to move on, one that didn’t involve prison time.

    I always felt sorry for Ellie. The drug issue is a moot point for me as the crime against her son was not related to drugs. Murdering the man that hurt her son was illegal but was it unjust? It’s a tough one for me.

    I am grateful for God’s grace in helping me choose an action that did not harm my family.

    God keep our children safe – please!