John McGrath

John McGrath: Luke Heimlich forces us to grapple with ‘When has a criminal paid their debt?’

Hours before his scheduled start in the NCAA Super Regional, Puyallup product Luke Heimlich removes himself from roster after newspaper story reveals sex-criminal history as a youth.
Hours before his scheduled start in the NCAA Super Regional, Puyallup product Luke Heimlich removes himself from roster after newspaper story reveals sex-criminal history as a youth.

Until his secrets were revealed, Oregon State ace Luke Heimlich, a former Puyallup High School star, projected to be a first-day selection in the major league amateur draft. Those hopes were put on indefinite hold last week when The Oregonian published a story detailing sex crimes Heimlich committed as a juvenile.

It’s a heartbreaking saga with no easy conclusions.

Heimlich was 15 when he pleaded guilty to molesting a 6-year-old girl. Major league teams will be reluctant to select him both for pragmatic reasons — steering clear of a public-relations firestorm — and the more noble cause of showing sympathy for sex-crime victims.

The draft begins Monday afternoon, and if the name of college baseball’s top left-handed pitcher remains on the board when the draft concludes Wednesday, neither apologies nor explanations will be necessary.

But what does this accomplish?

Heimlich went through the legal process, which entailed probation and two years of sex-offender treatment. In a statement released before he volunteered to sit out his Friday night start against Vanderbilt, Heimlich noted that he was “grateful” for the counseling he received.

“Since then,” the statement continued, “I realized that the only way forward was to work each day on becoming the best person, community member and student I can possibly be.

“I understand that many people now see me differently, but I hope that I can eventually be judged for the person I am today.”

And so the question persists: How does denying a young adult his chance to pursue a baseball career help the community that perceived him to be public enemy as a juvenile?

I am reminded of two University of Chicago scholars whose lives were spared by defense attorney Clarence Darrow’s eloquent repudiation of capital punishment. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb had pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924. Their motive — the thrill of pulling off the perfect crime — was so sick and ruthless, it made them candidates for death row.

Darrow argued that the ages of the 19-year-old killers were relevant.

“You may hang these boys,” Darrow told the judge. “You may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it, you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it, you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the maze which only childhood knows.”

Darrow’s plea for “life, understanding, charity, and the infinite mercy that considers all” was successful. The pair was sentenced to life in prison, plus 99 years.

Loeb died behind bars — a fellow inmate murdered him in 1936 — but Leopold managed to contribute to the world upon his 1958 parole. He relocated to Puerto Rico, worked in a hospital, and researched leprosy at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.

Leopold’s productive life as a free man justified his attorney’s belief in the power of forgiveness.

“You may save them,” Darrow said in his summary, “and make it easier for every other human being with an expectation and a vision and a hope and a fate. I’m pleading for the future. I’m pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men — when we can learn by reasoning and, judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”

Mercy is the highest of attributes because it often is at odds with those primal instincts we interpret as common sense. Leopold and Loeb killed an innocent kid for the fun of confounding the police. Redeeming any purpose out of their lives, common sense insisted, was a waste of time and resources.

Heimlich molested a child. That he’s eligible to earn millions of dollars as a big-league pitcher, while his victim grows up with permanent emotional scars, also defies common sense.

But he’s fulfilled his court-ordered counseling, and has shown a determination to assimilate into the community as he moves forward.

What comes to mind is a compromise requiring Heimlich to donate a chunk of his contract to a charity assisting sex-abuse victims. This won’t erase the past — whatever the pitcher accomplishes, in baseball or out of baseball, can’t erase the past — but an inability to erase the past should not define the future.

I hope there’s one major-league team capable of offering Luke Heimlich a second chance this week. It’ll take some guts, for the backlash will be loud and angry, and yet there’s a payoff less about baseball than Clarence Darrow’s plea for “life, understanding, charity, and the infinite mercy that considers us all.”

The words still sing, more than 90 years after they were spoken.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune

  Comments