updated 6/10/2009 9:12:04 PM ET 2009-06-11T01:12:04

A dozen neighbors were so outraged by the brutal rape of an 11-year-old girl that they gave chase to a suspect and beat him, holding him until police arrived. Two of them were honored with an $11,500 police union reward only days before DNA proved the mob's instincts may have been right: Jose Carrasquillo was charged Wednesday with the attack.

Hailed by their community as heroes, none of the neighbors are being charged. But police officials, acknowledging the fine line between praise and prosecution, warned against vigilante justice in general.

Indeed, 25 years after Bernie Goetz spawned a nationwide debate on vigilantism, the case shows how police, prosecutors and the public struggle with whether to punish otherwise law-abiding citizens who take the law into their own hands, often violently.

"It's something that we certainly don't want people taking the law into their own hands," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If they intervene to stop it, then you have to make a judgment. ... It's a very fine line."

'Savage beast off the street'
John McNesby, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, was more direct, while also saying he didn't condone violence.

"We put out a call to bring this savage beast off the street and they stepped up," McNesby said of the decision to hand out reward money to Fernando Genval and David Vargas. "I think that these two guys did an outstanding job."

On June 1, the fifth-grader had just dropped off a sibling at day care and was walking to school. A man started following her, threatened her, and said he had a gun; he took her to a nearby back yard and raped her repeatedly, police said. The child was so severely injured that she was hospitalized for surgery.

Police distributed a photo of Carrasquillo, 27, calling him a "person of interest" in the case. A day later, neighbors in a struggling section of the Kensington neighborhood went looking for him.

They roughed up the first man they targeted — not Carrasquillo. Later, in an altercation caught by a store surveillance camera, they found and confronted Carrasquillo, beating him with their hands, feet and what appears on the videotape to be a board or a large stick. Carrasquillo was taken to the hospital in serious condition and released into police custody two days later.

Beating stopped when police arrived
Ramsey, in deciding not to pursue charges, determined the neighbors' intent was to make a citizens arrest. He said he considered community anger, the fact that the man's head and face injuries weren't life-threatening and the video showing that the beating stopped when police arrived.

In addition to rape and related charges in the girl's attack, police charged Carrasquillo on Wednesday with a separate indecent assault on a 16-year-old girl earlier the same day. Carrasquillo, police said, was well-known to them: he had had 17 prior arrests, many of them on drug charges.

The American Civil Liberties Union has decried the commissioner's decision not to file charges against the neighbors, saying that sent the wrong message to the community.

"It's shocking that the police are not going to do anything in response to what is essentially mob violence against this guy," said ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper. "This went beyond apprehending the guy."

At a weekend barbecue, the family of the rape victim, who has been released from the hospital, thanked the community for their help.

Goetz earned praise and condemnation
In 1984, Goetz earned praise from some and condemnation from others when he shot four black youths who tried to rob him on a New York subway. He was convicted of a gun charge but acquitted of attempted murder.

His lead attorney, Barry Slotnick, said the Philadelphia case shows some of the same forces at work, with the justice system taking intent into account: both Goetz's self-defense and the vigilante neighbors who wanted to turn a man over to police.

"It's clear that the local neighbors were trying to maintain this person in custody so they could turn him over to police," Slotnick said. "They had every good reason to believe that he was being looked for, and they acted accordingly."

Vigilante cases are rarely simple, whether it's a homeowner who kills an intruder, a robbery victim fending off his attackers or neighbors making a citizens' arrest.

Last month, an Oklahoma City pharmacist pulled a weapon from behind the counter and killed a would-be thief. He was charged with first-degree murder; prosecutors said he fired additional shots at the thief after he was down. Oklahoma is among states with laws protecting homeowners who use lethal force to protect themselves from intruders.

Sex offenders frequent targets
Sex offenders, whose addresses are often listed publicly under Megan's Law statutes, are often a frequent target for vigilantes, as evidenced by cases from Maine to Tennessee to Washington.

In 2007, authorities said two Tennessee men set fire to the home of a suspected child pornographer, killing his wife. Both were charged with murder and arson.

Richard Maxwell Brown, a professor emeritus at University of Oregon who has published several books about vigilantism, said the Philadelphia case was a difficult one.

"They were in no doubt that what they were doing was correct in punishing him," Brown said. "If they were assisting the police, they really crossed the line when they laid a hand on this person."

The Kensington neighbors patrolled the streets for more than a day before they found Carrasquillo. They had handed out the mugshots to everyone on the street, from drug dealers to business owners, said Louis Valentine, who was there when the group found their target. Scrawled in marker on the photo handouts was "Known For Rape!"

But Valentine was hesitant to call the Carrasquillo case vigilante justice.

"We had to get this guy off the street," he said. "Was it justice? He hasn't gotten justice yet."

Efforts by The Associated Press to interview Genval and Vargas were unsuccessful.

"Our society does not countenance vigilante justice," said Jim Fox, the district attorney in San Mateo County, Calif., and chairman of the board of the National District Attorneys Association. "That's not a civilized society."

'Wrong message to send'
In all cases, authorities must consider the message a decision will send.

Philadelphia police will have to deal with fallout from their decision, Fox said, whether perceived or real.

"By not charging, I'm sure that some will argue that that will just give carte blanche to people who engage in vigilantism," he said. "It certainly is the wrong message to send that people will seek justice on their own outside the system."

But Ramsey said his decision should not be interpreted that way.

"I just think you have to look beyond the emotion on either side," he said. "I don't suggest people get out here and think they can beat the crap out of people for no reason."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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