A mass at Historic Church of St. Patrick in Toledo last week celebrated the lives of fallen city firefighters Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman.
The tragic deaths of two Toledo firefighters nine days ago, as they battled a North Toledo apartment fire, have soaked this community in sorrow. Toledoans have made an open and dignified show of collective grief, the magnitude of which the community has not seen in years.
With the arrest of property owner Ray Abou-Arab, 61, who is charged with two counts each of aggravated murder and aggravated arson, the community faces another test of its character.
Nothing is more sacred to the U.S. judicial system, or the American way of life, than the presumption of innocence. That principle — so fundamental that it should be self-evident — bears repeating now: The fact that Mr. Abou-Arab has been arrested and charged with a crime, however horrific, does not mean he is guilty.
Respecting the judicial process can test the temperament of an individual and an entire community, especially when emotions run high. But the failure to do so, by the community or the criminal justice system, has resulted in some of the most shameful chapters in American history.
Mr. Abou-Arab, of Oregon, is accused of a horrendous crime: setting fire to a two-story apartment building he owned at 528 Magnolia St. on Jan. 26. Responding to the blaze, Pvts. Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman were pronounced dead that day from burns and carbon monoxide exposure, after they became trapped inside the building. Investigators said they found an ignitable liquid in a garage.
Arson always carries the potential for death and horrible injury, especially when it is committed with people in the dwelling. If he is found guilty, Mr. Abou-Arab will face extreme penalties.
For now, however, the charges against him are allegations, nothing more. He too is a member of the greater Toledo community. Legally, he is as innocent today as he was two weeks ago.
Mr. Abou-Arab, wearing a suicide gown, was arraigned Monday in Toledo Municipal Court. Judge Denise Ann Dartt set his bond at $5 million: $2 million for each murder charge and $500,000 for each arson charge.
The courtroom was packed with 50 firefighters from Local 92 and their supporters, who met at the union hall on Washington Street and walked together to the courthouse. Union president Jeffrey Romstadt noted that firefighters have felt much anger since last Friday, when Mr. Abou-Arab was arrested.
Such anger, coupled with bottomless grief for two fallen brothers, is understandable. But all those who feel such emotions, whether firefighters or anyone else, must temper them with a respect for the judicial process, including the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
In the past week, the greater Toledo community, in honoring two fallen firefighters who served their community so splendidly, has exhibited the character and sentiment that hold people together. Toledoans have shown the stuff that makes them more than residents of a city or a particular ZIP code, but rather citizens of a community who are bonded by compassion, loyalty, and duty to one another.
Permitting the wheels of justice to operate unfettered, and without undue pressure, will now pose an even great test of community character.
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