Should Living Victims of Christopher Dorner Be Entitled to the Reward Money?

Christopher Dorner may be dead, but even from the cold grave he’s still causing trouble.  Recall that when the former Los Angeles Police Department officer was still on the loose (discussed here), a consortium of donors offered a $1.3 million reward for information leading to his “arrest and conviction” for the crimes he had committed, which at that point included three murders and two attempted murders.  Dorner went on to commit a fourth murder in the course of the final gun battle that saw him surrounded in a mountain cabin near Los Angeles, and when San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies deployed tear gas into the cabin, resulting in a fire, he took his own life rather than surrender.

Three people are making arguably legitimate claims on the reward: the couple Dorner briefly held captive in the Big Bear condo where he had been hiding, and the man Dorner carjacked shortly before the final shootout.

But not so fast, now say some of the reward donors.  Yes, Dorner was found, and the very real threat he presented was rendered null, but in a strictly legal sense he was never arrested, much less convicted, of the crimes that inspired them to pledge their share of the reward.  And it is in this strictly legal spirit that these donors are slamming shut their checkbooks.  Hey, they seem to be saying, the guy’s dead and gone anyway, why should we go into our pockets now?

Writing in support of those who say the reward should not be paid at all are the editors of the Long Beach Press Telegram, who in an April 2 editorial wrote that the three claimants did not “go above and beyond to lead police to a dangerous suspect,” but rather did only “what anyone would have after being victimized: call the police to report a crime.”

All of which is true, of course, but it is nonetheless the case that these people provided the information that led to, if not the arrest and conviction of Christopher Dorner, the cessation of his campaign against Southern California police officers and the calming of nerves throughout the region.  Certainly anyone who had been held captive or had his car stolen at gunpoint would report it to the police, but these were the people who were so treated by the man with the price on his head.  Should that price now be discounted because Dorner chose to commit suicide rather than surrender?

And while I’m not suggesting a police officer should be entitled to a reward for doing his job, what about a police officer’s family member?  Recall that one of Dorner’s first two murder victims was the daughter of a retired police captain who was among those Dorner named as targets, and that in his Facebook manifesto he threatened other LAPD officers and their families.  If Dorner had gone after another cop’s daughter, would she have been eligible for the reward if she managed to shoot and kill him first?

Why do authorities offer rewards?  In most cases in which a reward is posted, the identity of a wanted suspect is unknown to the police but not to others, and the reward is intended an inducement to the suspect’s associates to put aside whatever loyalty to him they might have and turn him in.  But in the Dorner case, everyone knew the person the police were looking for, and investigation into his family and friends had been fruitless in finding him.  It was hoped that a substantial reward would sharpen the eyes of people across Southern California, any one of whom might stumble across his path.  That those who did were so unfortunate as to also be victimized by him does not diminish the fact that it was their information that led sheriff’s deputies to him.

And to now argue that because Dorner was not arrested and convicted, as the legalistic terms of the reward required, opens an even more troubling avenue of discussion, one that was addressed in a March 31 editorial in the Los Angeles Times.  Writing to urge that the reward be paid, the editors concluded their piece with this chilling thought experiment.  “Finally,” they wrote, “there is this dystopian alternative to consider: If public agencies offer rewards for arrest or conviction and then withhold them in cases in which a suspect dies, they have, in effect, created a financial incentive for police to kill suspects rather than arrest them.  That’s a troubling bit of motivation.”

Troubling indeed, and just the sort of thing that would make for front-page, above-the-fold coverage in the Times should such a scenario or anything close to it ever unfold.  There has been no shortage of conspiracy-mongering in the Dorner case, but how much worse would it be if it had been the LAPD that cornered him rather than the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department?

And what if someone with a reward on his head is killed by someone other than the police?  Suppose Christopher Dorner’s whereabouts had been reported to the police by some acquaintance motivated by the reward.  But suppose also that Dorner had learned of it before the police could get to him, then sought retribution against the informant for the perceived betrayal.  If the informant lawfully defended himself by means of deadly force, would he be any less deserving of the reward, or should such an informant be forced to weigh the potential financial cost against the risk to life and limb?

So as to bring some objectivity into the process of parceling out the reward, a panel of three retired judges will determine which, if any, of the claimants will be paid from whatever remains of it, an amount that currently stands at $1 million.  All things considered, that strikes me as a bargain.  Let’s give the people their money and be done with it.