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Lily Burk, 17

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You just have to see the picture of her: a girl on the verge, finding her style, raising her voice, about to embark on a life she could barely yet imagine. This summer she was supposed to volunteer helping homeless drug addicts on Skid Row. Instead, according to police, she was killed by one.

Her mother is a lawyer and law professor, her father a journalist. She was driving a Volvo.

Forgive me for identifying: When my daughter was her age, barely two years ago, she got an advance for her first novel, "Hancock Park," about a girl like Lily. Many of the girls at her school drove expensive, not to mention dangerous (in my book), cars. I smiled because the other used Volvo belonged to a girl whose mother is also a sensible lawyer, which is what I like to think I am. Like Lily's mother.

A man abducted Lily across the street from her mother's office in what was once the Bullocks Wilshire, which Southwestern Law School converted into classrooms, offices and an impressive library.

Lily called both of her parents to ask how she could withdraw money from an ATM with her credit card so she could buy shoes.

Her parents said she sounded rushed, not scared.

She was dead in her car before her parents got home from work.

The guy they picked up, with her car key and cell phone, was arrested because he was clearly a junkie who'd done something wrong. While being held on unrelated charges, 50-year-old parolee Charlie Samuel was tied to Lily's murder two days later by fingerprints at the scene.

Some people (many of them formerly liberal) are screaming that he's a repeat offender and parole violator who should've been locked up, demanding to know why he was out free, pretending to get drug rehab, when police knew he was a lowlife. (According to the police, he was leaving a clinic when he abducted Lily, and was drinking from a paper bag with a drug pipe in his pocket when he was arrested not even two hours later.)

Others (trying still to be liberal) respond that his record didn't include anything remotely as violent, and that if every lowlife were locked up forever, there'd be no room for anyone else. It's a hard one because a lot of these people knew Lily Burk and her parents.

The truth, for what it's worth, is probably somewhere in between: What shows up on a person's criminal record is generally the "bargained down for a guilty plea" version of what he's actually done. The issue facing the system now is not who to hold longer, but who to let go. This guy, if the police are right, will be lucky to rot in hell. What we do with tens of thousands of others, one or more of whom could turn into him, depends on whether we're willing to swallow hard and let out the white-collar scumbags who don't threaten our kids in order to keep in the lowlifes who do.

But none of that will bring back a girl with a sparkle in her eye, who was on her way home on a Friday afternoon after picking up her mom's exam papers.

Her parents, in a very graceful statement, asked people to enjoy every day. That must, of course, be the lesson. But the other one, the one that no parent can miss, is that we can't protect our children. She drove away in her black Volvo, and she never came home. She called her parents, but she didn't want to scare them.

May she rest in peace. May God grant comfort to her family.

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