by | Jan 21, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The convicted man admitted this much: He grabbed his wife by the sweater and pushed her against the wall.

That was enough for the jury to find him guilty.

What happened after that — and whether it was justice served — depends on where you sit. From where the judge sat, the whole thing was a sham. So he called the man before him, made him hold out his hand, slapped him on the wrist and said, “Don’t do that again.”

And he set the man free.

Of course, once the story hit the news wires, Judge Joel Gehrke felt the kind of media hurricane that rarely hits rural Montcalm County.

“I was not prepared to become the celebrity or the pariah that I have become,” he admitted. “But I can’t afford to think about that when I’m doing justice in court.”

Of course, whether he was doing justice is the issue. A slap on the wrist? Is that any way to treat spousal abuse? The punishment for the convicted man, Stewart Marshall, could have been 90 days in jail. But according to Gehrke, neither he nor the jury felt any real sentence was appropriate.

Part of the reason for this: Marshall’s wife, Chris, had an affair with his brother. And they had a child together. Yet Marshall stayed with his wife through the birth, and it was in an argument over whether they would keep the baby that the pushing incident occurred.

Ah. The plot thickens. Biblical laws

I came to this case the way many of you probably did, by reading about it in the newspaper. What struck me was Judge Gehrke’s references to “the laws of Israel.” He said in biblical days, had the husband come home and found his wife an adulteress, the question wouldn’t have been whether he hit her, but if he wanted her stoned to death.

Of course, as I said to Judge Gehrke when we spoke, these are not biblical times.

“Well, even 100 years ago,” he said, “there was a law on the books, the adultery statute, and if we enforced that, (Chris Marshall) would end up in jail.”

Perhaps. But, this is also not 100 years ago.

“So you don’t think that’s relevant?”

No, I do not. If we let 100-year-old laws guide our decisions today, many of us would be in jail. And minorities, such as blacks and Mexicans, should not even bother going to trial.

Besides, I get awfully nervous when a judge starts quoting the Bible. This is still a country that separates church and state, and to even make a statement invoking religion when you are on the bench sends a chilling signal.

But I don’t want to paint Gehrke as a zealot. True, he is the son of a church pastor, but his reasoning is not based solely on holier-than-thou attitude. Listen:

“I did not slap (Stewart Marshall) on the wrist because his wife committed adultery. I slapped him on the wrist because he did not commit a substantial violation of her personal dignity. He had no history of violence. The whole thing was staged by her; the jury believes this and I believe it. She did it so she could walk into divorce court and say, ‘Judge, I may have been unfaithful, but he’s a wife beater. Are you gonna give him the kids?’

“My message is not: ‘If you commit adultery, you deserve what you get.’ My message is: ‘If you are in a divorce case, don’t stage a token offense, unless you want a token conviction and a token sentence.”

Ah. The plot thickens again. Political correctness

Judge Gehrke is drilling the nerve of two sensitive issues: spousal abuse
— which there is far too much of — and political correctness for personal gain — which there is also far too much of.

He is right. There are women who use the slightest touch to scream “abuse” and reap financial rewards. But there are more women who never say a word, who swallow beatings with two aspirin and a box of tissue. And for all women like that, a slap on the wrist by a judge might as well be a slap to their faces.

Besides, the judge seems quite convinced by the husband’s side of the story. I can’t help wondering whether he doesn’t doubt the wife because he seems so put off by her sexual habits.

Gehrke says he is not. “You know, my wife once threw a Honey Bear at me. Hit me in the arm. If I wanted to be a jerk, I could have taken her to court. I could have manufactured that into something.”

True. But there aren’t many documented cases of men suffering Honey Bear injuries. There are plenty of abused wives out there. So for the sake of appearance — even if he didn’t buy the woman’s story — the judge should have given Marshall something, maybe probation, or a few days in a work crew.

As for the slap on the wrist? Well. The judge should have kept his hands to


That is what this is all about, isn’t it?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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