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Between Two Truths

In his book Loving God, Charles Colson draws attention to an incident involving an Indiana judge named William Bontrager. Bontrager had to pass sentence on Fred Palmer, a decorated Vietnam veteran who was found guilty of burglary. The crime was caused partly by involvement with drugs and alcohol. Indiana law required a sentence of ten to twenty years for Palmer’s offense. However, new regulations designating a lesser penalty had gone into effect eighteen days after Palmer’s arrest. To complicate matters, Palmer had become a Christian in jail and seemed to have changed. Should the judge sentence Palmer, a man who had never been in jail, to ten years or more? Or should he declare the older statute in violation of Indiana’s constitution and give him a lighter sentence? Bontrager did the latter. Fred Palmer was out of jail in seven months, had a job, and was paying back his former victims.

The events that followed received national attention. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the judge’s decision and ordered Fred Palmer sent back to prison. The judge’s attempts to fight the court’s decision during the next two years led to his own indictment for criminal contempt of court and, finally, his forced resignation. Fred Palmer was sent back to prison, only to be released twenty months later by the governor. Bontrager’s convictions cost him his job, but not his integrity.

Between Two Truths - Living with Biblical Tensions, Klyne Snodgrass, 1990, Zondervan Publishing House, p. 40.