The U.S. Marshals Museum is “a living monument to women and men, who are willing to risk their lives” for the rule of law.
That was the message from an emotional U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina’s 4th District, who closed his keynote in the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series with a message of thanks and gratitude to Fort Smith for taking on the U.S. Marshals Museum project, which is set to open in downtown Fort Smith on Sept. 24, 2019.
Gowdy’s address from the Fort Smith Convention Center to more than 1,000 attendees focused on the importance of law and those who risk their lives for its enforcement. Gowdy, known nationwide for his role in the Benghazi hearings and questioning of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, opened by sharing a personal connection he had with the U.S. Marshals Service. As a federal prosecutor, he was targeted with threats in a narcotics case following the murder of a federal witness. As a result, a federal marshal moved in with him and his family for protection.
“What makes people sit in other people’s dens and stay up all night while the owners of that house sleep, protected, peacefully? If the law is special and what sets us apart (as a nation), so, too, should the people be who enforce it.”
“What wires people toward danger as opposed to away from it? It’s a special quality, and I want to say thank you to Arkansas and thank you to any of you helping to build this monument,” he added.
‘I WAITED TOO LATE’
Further expounding on how a society should respect law enforcement personnel in harm’s way, Gowdy struggled through the story of a former patrol officer and deputy in Spartanburg, S.C. Gowdy was lead prosecutor in a murder trial where the defendant had shot his wife to death in a domestic disturbance in front of two officers.
One of the officers at the scene who returned fire and injured the suspect was Deputy Kevin Carper. One of Carper’s bullets tore through the couple’s mobile home and struck one of two children inside. The child lived, but the incident stuck with Carper – a husband and father of three – who broke down on the witness stand in recounting the details.
“I had never had a police officer break down in tears on the witness stand, but how could you not? If you’re a husband and a father, it doesn’t matter how many times people tell you you did the right thing, you hurt a child. But he was fantastic,” Gowdy said, noting the suspect was convicted of murder and moved immediately to sentencing as per state law. “Sometimes in life you don’t say thank you on the day that you should have said thank you. You don’t tell them on the day you should have told them,” Gowdy said.
And even though Carper slipped out that day before the congressman had a chance to thank him, “I made a note to myself to tell Kevin what a fantastic job he did and how much I respected his professionalism and his humanity.”
But Gowdy would never get his chance because the next time he saw Carper, “he was laying on the roadside having been shot and killed by a man he was trying to serve with a warrant — a man with 30 previous arrests and convictions.”
“I waited too late,” Gowdy said. “And I’m really grateful to you all for not waiting too late.”
NECESSITY OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
Most of Gowdy’s time on Thursday was spent addressing the importance of a nation’s laws and the necessity of enforcement. Gowdy acknowledged the law isn’t perfect, stating, “You can’t live in a country that has our gender and racial past and argue the law is perfect.”
He continued: “I will never argue that the law is perfect. Here’s what I will argue. The best way to see the imperfection of the law is to enforce it. And you may think, ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’ It makes perfect sense. If you have a law on the books that you think is inhumane or wrongly decided, what is your motivation to change it? The enforcement of it.”
An individual is free to have their own personal justice system, Gowdy said, “your own personal code of conduct in how you treat others.” But a citizen is “not free” to have his own personal law. “The law is our collective way of dealing with issues. It has to be respected. It has to be enforced.”
“I can tell you in South Carolina we have some crazy laws that are still with us. When I was a district attorney, there was a law that said you can’t ride a horse in a certain direction on Sunday. The fact we all kind of smirk and laugh at that law — it should have been off the books decades ago. We should have enough respect for the law that we would update it, not just ignore it. It disrespects the law for us to not take the time to change it. Amend it. Make it reflect whatever your collective conscience is today. Just don’t ignore it. Don’t fail to enforce it because it is politically advantageous to fail to enforce it.”
One surprising example the Republican used as a case where it is not okay to skirt the law played out in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. While Gowdy did not mention court clerk Kim Davis by name, he shared her story: “I want you to assume the Supreme Court redefined marriage in a way you might not agree with, and I want you to further assume that you’re a clerk of court in a nearby state. You are free to disagree with the Supreme Court decision. You are free to have someone else carry out that decision because you don’t want to. You are not free to ignore that law. You’re welcome to resign. You’re welcome to provide other accommodations. But you do not have the luxury of ignoring the law just because you disagree with it.”
He continued: “You are free to criticize our law. You are free to advocate to your member of Congress or your Senator that the law should be changed. You are not free to ignore it. You are not free to not follow it without consequence.”
Gowdy said the one thing the law cannot withstand is a citizenry that doesn’t respect it.
“So I would caution, especially to young people: you may benefit today from the non-enforcement of a law. Tomorrow you will cry out for the enforcement of a separate law. Once you have weakened this thing we call the law, you have weakened it forever.”