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The Man on the Porch

01/30/08 5:55PM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) Commentator Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, and a few weeks ago, she had an experience that has made her re-examine how Vermonters are reacting to the high-profile murder cases recently in the news.

(HANNA) I was home one afternoon with my two young children when there was a knock at my door. A slightly disheveled and distracted man stood there. I left the screen door locked.

"Can I help you?" I said.

"Can you call me a cab?"

"Excuse me?"

"I need a cab." He wasn't demanding but spoke with a sense of urgency.

"O.K." I said, and then shut the door. Something didn't seem right, so I called my husband.

"Does he seem dangerous?"

"No. But he could walk a few blocks to downtown."

"He's probably just cold," my husband advised.

So I called a cab and then told the man that it would be about 20 minutes. He nodded a thank you.

Every few minutes I looked out the window. He sat huddled on the porch, watching the street.

Then I heard a siren and someone shout, "Police. Get your hands up!"

Two officers handcuffed the man and put him in the back of the police cruiser.

They told me that he fit the description of a man who'd gotten kicked off the bus a few blocks back for allegedly harassing some women.

"Should I have called you?" I asked.

The officer's reply was both understanding and nonjudgemental.

"There was no way for you to know if he could be dangerous. I probably would have called him a cab, too. But it was good to keep your door locked."

I went to my children, who, thankfully, were too absorbed in a Disney movie to have noticed anything.

I gave them an especially long hug as frightening "what if's" ran through my mind.

And although the man on my porch didn't threaten me in any way, I couldn't help but think about Michelle Gardner-Quinn and Laura Winterbottom and all the women whose names I know from the headlines just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the wrong person crossed their path.

Then it occurred to me that I can no longer remember a time in Vermont when a high-profile murder case wasn't in the news. These cases, I think, have impacted us in more ways than we may yet understand.

Murder suspects Brian Rooney and Christopher Williams will stand trial this year, and, whatever the outcomes, the hearts and minds of Vermonters will once again be tested.

We'll again be confronted by the difference between optimism about human nature and naivete about the world as we now know it; between acting out of a generosity of spirit and acting out of a spirit of distrust; and between bravery and stupidity.

How we decide these questions will define the kind of community we'll become; and personally, I hope we'll make decisions not out of fear, but out of aspiration. I know hindsight is 20/20, but I've made peace with myself for calling the cab.


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