Evil Isn't Private (and Neither Is Good)
For infecting at least 46 people with hepatitis C, David Kwiatkowski was sentenced to 39 years in federal prison with no chance of parole. Kwiatkowski was a hospital lab tech here in NH. An alcoholic and narcotics addict, he routinely injected himself with powerful pain killers meant for patients. He would then refill the syringes with saline solution, tainting them with the infection he carried, and send them off to be reused. Ten thousand patients who might have come into contact with the infected syringes were advised to be tested for the disease -- because NH was not the only place where Kwiatkowski worked. He had been fired from several hospitals in other states, on suspicion of theft and drug use.
About that sentence. According to The Union Leader, the government sought a sentence of forty years; the public defender asked for 30 years. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph LaPlante gave Kwiatkowski 39 years as "a token," he said.
"People do have a capacity for mercy. This isn't any generous helping of that. It's just a token ... It's important for me to recognize and remember as you'd spend the next 39 years of your life in prison, I hope you remember the one year you didn't get and remember and try to develop that capacity in yourself. I don't wish you death in prison, but to call this just a reckless act or the crime of a drug-addicted person would not be accurate and it would not be just," LaPlante said.
Why is this story interesting, beyond the horror factor of the crime itself? It draws out two truths:
One is that no sins are truly private. 21st century pop ethics says we have no right to call an act wrong, as long as it's consensual and doesn't hurt anyone. What a clever lie, tempting us to be blinded both to the evil we do and to the good we are capable of. The truth is, we are members of the family of man, and there is no such thing as a private sin. Kwiatkowski's offense is a spectacular illustration of this terrible truth, and he allowed himself to directly damage the lives of hundreds of innocent people. But if you look hard enough at any immoral act, you will see it rippling outward into the community. Sin is sin not because it breaks the law, but because it damages the body of Christ. All sin does.
The second thing that stands out in this story is the way the judge matched this crime against the community with a sentence on behalf of the community. He withheld one year of the maximum sentence as a way of reminding both the victims and the criminal that there evil does not get to have the final word -- not for the victims, and not for the criminal, either. Goodness and mercy ripple outwards, too.
In a radio interview, Kwiatkowski's defense attorney said, “When he was doing this, he was not himself. He was a drug addict that didn’t have the capacity to feel. The sad thing is, now he has it. But now he’s kind of destroyed his life.” Yes, and no. The mercy year deducted from his sentece reminds him that his life is not over. In this life, he cannot make up for the evil he did. But he can begin to live, if he chooses to accept the mercy that the judge extended to him with that token year, on behalf of a community that survived his crimes. For many years, Kwiatkowski allowed himself to kill and maim innocent people just to feed his drug habit. He behaved as if his need was the only real thing in the world -- as if he were alone. He may not have been in prison, but he was a lost soul. In being convicted, he has a chance to repent -- to regain his life, to become part of the community, albeit with anguish and regret.
Where Kwiatkowski has landed, we all must arrive at some point: at the inescapable truth that we are all part of the family of man. Evil ripples outward; but good does, too.