I trust the American justice
system. I know it can be imperfect
, subject to the whim
s of conservative or liberal judge
s, uninformed juror
prosecutors, and outgunned or devious
defense attorneys. People have been imprisoned for year
s – even executed
– for crimes they did no
commit. This, of course, is a serious
matter that must be attended to if the American public is to continue to have any trust
in our judicial procedures.
Those who have money can sometimes "buy" lesser sentences or even acquittal, while the poor and underprivileged must often deal with the harshness of our penal system. Nevertheless, this country's criminal justice system is among the best in the world in weighing facts and coming up with largely impartial verdicts.
The "court of public opinion," however, is another matter altogether. Time and time again, we hear pundits on television give their opinions on highly charged criminal cases, and the general public then tends to form their own opinions regarding the innocence or guilt of a particular defendant. In many (if not most) cases, the opinions are formed by evidence taken out of context or by preconceived notions of guilt or innocence based on race, gender or other biases. Instead of waiting for the verdict to be decided, many will proclaim their feelings about the guilt or innocence of the accused for the whole world to dissect. Unlike jurors, attorneys and judges, there is no "gag order" on the dissemination of these opinions, and hostile actions can then result if the actual verdict goes against what the public has already decided.
The inference of guilt actually begins the moment someone is charged with a crime. Of course, police cannot just book anybody they choose and pin crimes on people willy-nilly; the resultant uproar would lead to open rebellion and riots that would make the Los Angeles uprising look like a party. There must be evidence that points to the individual being charged, and the evidence must be provable in court. Thus, if there is no corruption (as in the Rampart police situation), the cases against those charged with crimes are usually pretty strong.
There is just one problem, however: police, along with all other humans, are fallible. Even if everything else seems to fit, their conclusion can still be wrong due to missing evidence, leading to the caveat that a person is "innocent until proven guilty."
But is a person really treated as innocent until proven guilty? The person charged is booked and thrown in jail. If bail is granted, that person must then provide certain items as collateral to produce the amount of bail that can free them. If bail is not granted, the defendant can languish in jail for over a year before the start of a "speedy" trial. Whether or not bail has been set, the person is liable to be fired from his or her job and made into a monster (especially in high-profile cases).
For instance, in the case of Mark Chmura, a football player accused of raping a minor, his team released him as he waited for his trial date. There was nothing in his performance before the arrest that would have induced his team to drop him, but the arrest indicated to his team that he was a "bad person" who would cause negative publicity. When he was later found innocent(not just “not guilty”, but innocent), his life was still irreparably damaged.
The recent discovery of questionable FBI files in the Oklahoma City bombing case brings forth a scary thought: what if Timothy McVeigh, the person unanimously fingered (and convicted) as the bomber, was denied his rights when the case was being compiled?
An even more sobering question is what if the FBI documents lead to a realization that there was little actual evidence to convict him? Millions of people have already consented to his impending demise, with many of them wishing for more heinous action to be done to his person.
I fear that if McVeigh was to be set free due to FBI mishandling, he would not live long, for vigilante justice would see to it that the sentencing bungled by the government would be carried out anyway. It's not that I like McVeigh, but his guilt has been seared into the minds of the American public so that his possible freedom would seem a blatant travesty of justice, proof that the American system of justice is bankrupt.
The victims and their families are the ones who become scarred most by this process. In most instances, the police close a case when the accused is arrested, booked and brought to trial. Therefore, it behooves them to be extremely sure they have the right person. If it happens that the arrested person is not the actual perpetrator, valuable time has been lost. The trail of the actual murderer/robber/molester turns ice cold, and those most affected by the case are now left in a state of confusion, depression and outrage.
Some cannot believe that the "monster" has been allowed to go free and blame the underhanded defense attorney, the ignorant jurors, the incompetent lawyers, the bumbling police – and vow to make sure the defendant gets "his just desserts." Others who have pinned their hopes and beliefs on the conviction of the defendant become lost and confused, their trust in the legal system (and even in life in general) shattered.
Another factor contributing to convictions in the court of public opinion is the tendency of people to gossip. Invariably, few rumors trumpet the goodness of others, but many document the decadence and depravity of even the most well-mannered individuals. Coupled with our desire for closure (we hate open-ended issues – they're too complex and messy), we are ready to convict and execute anyone once even a little evidence is broadcast to the world.
Opinions then become fact in the minds of involved parties as well as the uninformed, and we have a ready-made candidate for the needle. In the old days, this would be referred to as lynching.
Finally, reality shows such as "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted," as well as dramas like "Law and Order" and "Homicide" show the humanity of law enforcement and legal officials, but tend to paint defendants as monsters and animals. Although both types of shows have a place, the tendency is to demonize anyone who shows up as a suspect or fugitive.
I am in no way calling for an expansion of criminals' rights, but I do wonder whether if I was ever falsely accused of a crime, would I get any consideration to prove my innocence, or would I be portrayed as a sociopath based on circumstantial evidence?
An ongoing case sums up the tendency to convict before trial. A professional football player and his girlfriend were recently charged with murdering their son due to child abuse and neglect. Shortly thereafter, a sports-talk host referred to him as a "scumbag" and other less-flattering names – before any conviction was made!
So why should we even waste taxpayer money to put anyone on trial? All defendants are guilty, so fry them all now and worry about innocence later – at least that's how it is in the court of public opinion.