Wrong and wronger: Understanding the beating of Josie Lou Ratley

By Rafael Olmeda

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

5:37 PM EDT, March 26, 2010


In covering the assault on Josie Lou Ratley, I've had the opportunity this week to talk to several friends of Wayne Treacy, the 15-year-old boy accused of trying to beat her to death.

So brutal was the violence allegedly committed by Treacy that I was stunned, more than once, to hear Treacy's friends trying to make sure I knew that he is not the only one who was in the wrong.

You see, Ratley, also 15, sent a text message containing some kind of "disparaging" reference about Treacy's brother, who committed suicide last October. It was Treacy who found Michael Bell hanging from a tree. The text message from Ratley, investigators said, infuriated Treacy and sent him out in search of Ratley. When he found her, they said, the beating began.

I struggled with this comparison of "wrongs." You see this comparison in the comments that accompany the articles and on the Facebook pages that have sprung up to support Ratley. Yes, Treacy was wrong for what he did, they say. But so was Ratley! Don't forget that Ratley was wrong too!

Have our kids lost all sense of perspective? Is the wrong of an insult, however cutting, even in the same league as the wrong of beating someone to within an inch of her life?

Turns out it's not unusual for friends of a criminal suspect to try to make sense of the allegations (and we need to remember at this point that these are allegations) by pointing fingers at whatever instigated the crime.

"Young children see things as black and white, right and wrong, good guys and bad guys," said Dr. Eugenion Rothe, an forensic psychiatrist who teaches at Florida International University. "Adolescents start to see ambiguity. They see how two people on opposite sides can, in a way, both be wrong."

Jan Faust, director of the Child and Adolescent Traumatic Stress Program at Nova Southeastern University, said friends of suspects are confronted with allegations of violent behavior and feel the need to explain it to validate their friendship.

"My friend couldn't possibly be responsible for this heinous act," she said. "Otherwise, how do you rationalize having a friend capable of doing something so horrendous?"

I think I understand Treacy's friends a little better. I'm sure they understand that two wrongs not make a right. I hope they grow to appreciate that not all wrongs weigh the same. Some are as light as a text message, and others as heavy as a steel-toed boot.

It should be noted that the exact content of Ratley's text message has not been disclosed, so we have no idea how insulting or innocuous it was. But how much does it matter? What level of insult does it have to contain to justify what was done to her? Can we feel compassion for a traumatized and troubled boy without resorting to an attempt to hold the victim partly responsible for an injustice committed against her?