Speaking of dirt digging and background checks, this lesson in morality occupied three-quarters of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s front page yesterday.

Stanford A. Douglas Jr. told police that, for seven years, he thought about killing William L. Berkeyheiser over a perceived racial slur when the two men worked together at a care facility in Philadelphia.
On March 27, he finally did so, riddling Berkeyheiser with bullets from a semiautomatic handgun on the porch of Berkeyheiser’s Upper Makefield Township home, Bucks County District Attorney Diane Gibbons said yesterday.
“That’s the reason he gave us for it, that he was offended by a seven-year-old joke,” Gibbons said. She called it the strangest murder motive she could recall.
The Northeast Philadelphia truck driver was charged yesterday with killing his former coworker, a retired health-care executive, outside his upscale Bucks County home on Easter Sunday.
Douglas, 29, of the 3800 block of Woodhaven Road, was being held without bail on first-degree murder and firearms charges. He was arrested late Sunday night after a tense standoff at his residence, Gibbons said.
Douglas would not repeat the 1998 joke, Gibbons said. At the time, both men worked at Baptist Home in Philadelphia, now known as Deer Meadows Retirement Community.
Nor did Douglas say why, after seven years, he allegedly decided to act on his ire. “There is absolutely no justification for his conduct,” Gibbons said.
On March 23, court records say, Douglas hired a private investigation firm to produce a report on Berkeyheiser, which included his home address.
Four days later, Berkeyheiser, 62, had just finished Easter dinner when Douglas appeared at his door, authorities say. Berkeyheiser’s wife, Viola, heard her husband invite the man inside.
“I heard my husband talking to him, and it was kind of like, ‘How do I know you?’ ” Viola Berkeyheiser said yesterday.
William Berkeyheiser stepped outside, and a series of shots were fired. Felled by six bullets, Berkeyheiser died moments later.

It turns out that the killer located his victim with the help of a private investigator:

At A-Plus Investigations in Levittown, president Philip Olshevski expressed “shock and amazement” yesterday that Douglas had used his agency to help track down the victim.
Gibbons said the firm had charged Douglas $150 for its work. Olshevski declined to discuss particulars. He said there was nothing illegal or improper about the work done for Douglas.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family,” Olshevski said. “It sickens us that this sort of thing could happen.”

It also shows how easy it is for anyone. To get anything. On anyone.
The remarkable thing about this case is the plaintive way the family has been forced to defend the victim of a murder:

Gibbons and family members belittled the notion that the victim was racist. They pointed out that Viola Berkeyheiser is of part-Asian descent.
“My dad was known for making jokes – not racist jokes – stupid jokes,” his daughter, Jennifer, said. “But nothing that would offend someone for, like, seven years.”
A racist would not have invited Douglas inside his home, Jennifer Berkeyheiser said.
…The lack of a clear motive, she said, did not surprise her.
“I knew that there wasn’t a real motive,” she said, “because my husband would never do anything to anybody that would warrant getting murdered, or get someone that angry.”

For his part, the accused murderer has for the past two days steadfastly refused to disclose the joke. Obviously, that’s why the story only made the section B in today’s paper. People want punchlines, and if they don’t get them, they begin to bore. (However, I did find this attempt at psychoanalysis.)
To stir up speculation about the relevance of a racist joke as a defense to murder is one thing. There’s the old “fighting words” doctrine, but I don’t think there’s a “killing words” doctrine. In the heat of passion, might reduce a first degree murder to second, I suppose. But seven years later is a stretch, by any standard. However, I recall a case involving a child molester who was murdered many years after his crime, and the jury refused to convict. These are ultimately questions for the jury, and juries have been known to disregard instructions. I don’t like the idea of being murdered because of an old joke, no matter how “offensive” it might have been. I guess Howard Stern needs bodyguards, for some people take comedy very seriously.
But how could Berkeyheiser have known that he needed a bodyguard? For that matter, how is anyone supposed to know whether the man ever told a racist joke? He’s dead, and his murderer is alive. So, while the murderer has the media advantage, the victim must content himself with a hole in the ground. They worked together for ten months, and it all comes down to a single joke? What if Berkeyheiser was a nice guy who never told this or any other racist joke, and his killer is a psychopath who hated him for reasons known only to him?
Is there a morality lesson here? We will never, ever know. It isn’t even one man’s word against another.
The only moral lesson I can see is that there’s a distinct advantage to being alive. Wars of words are won by the living.
It’s an old moral lesson many people forget. A lesson Josef Stalin knew better than most people.
Whether in politics or in life, you’ll win the debate if your opponent is dead.