“ASSUMED? Brother, I’ve seen all kinds of dishonesty in my day, but this little display takes the cake. Y’all come in here with your hearts bleedin’ all over the floor about slum kids and injustice; you listen to some fairy tales; suddenly you start gettin’ through to some of these old ladies… well, you’re not getting through to me, I’ve had enough! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? You all know he’s guilty. He’s got to burn! You’re letting him slip through our fingers.” Juror Number (Lee J Cobb) Three Twelve Angry Men
I have had a very busy and stressful few days and I am finishing this article before boarding a flight home to the United States from Europe. In that time I have come to appreciate our system of justice especially that found in our civil and criminal courts. I have also come to believe over the course of years that no matter what court system, civilian, federal, state local or military that sometimes there are situations where injustice occurs within the system because people are people. No matter how hard we try to make the system perfect and just there are times when it doesn’t fully work. Innocent people are jailed and guilty people go free. It happens at every type of court of justice simply because imperfect people with all of their attendant life experience, prejudices and emotions must determine the guilt or innocence of people beyond a reasonable doubt.
Those prejudices can be seen all the time. Some people because of race, gender, status in life or sexual preference do not receive the same measure of justice as others. Certain ethnic groups can receive different measures of justice based on where the trial is held while others may not even be prosecuted for crimes that elsewhere would land people in jail. Prosecutors and media can demonize the accused before and during a trial process so badly that even if the accused is acquitted he or she may still bear the guilt the rest of their life in the eyes of his or her fellow citizens.
Sometimes our justice system works well and sometimes, at least in some of our views it doesn’t. At the same time it is usually far better than the systems of most of the rest of the world. For the most part our judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys and juries selected from our peers do a good job and try hard to find a good and just verdict. At the same time our system is not perfect. As I mentioned sometimes the guilt go free while innocent people are convicted. Other times certain prejudices override the nature of a crime while even more common now are the mandatory sentencing guidelines that condemn people convicted of certain crimes, even when those crimes have little impact even on the alleged victims to consequences that last far beyond the actual sentence imposed. Of course those guidelines, regardless of the type of crime committed usually were legislated because someone got away with something and legislators decided that they would shackle courts with guidelines which took away from judges and juries any leeway to do differently.
This week I saw some very good men and women in our military justice system wrestle with the guilt of an officer and a friend. I think that the judge and members of the jury took their job seriously and worked hard to do the best that they could with what was a very convoluted and complicated case, one that I think never should have gone to trial. I think that with what they had as evidence they did their best and acted with integrity. I cannot question the integrity or honor of the military judge or the jury, but I do wonder about the case itself and the motivations of the young prosecutor who I think was out not to serve justice but to build a resume. However, my friend was found guilty but the prosecutor did not get nearly what he asked, and that was a good thing, and hopefully as he gets older, becomes more experienced in life and law he will be more judicious in how he handles such cases. I do think that my friend stands a good chance of prevailing in the appellate process do the elements involved in the case and how the government put it together, but in the interregnum my friend will have a difficult time. Thankfully he will not be alone. As a Christian, friend and Priest I cannot abandon someone simply because they have been found guilty of a crime.
Back when I was a young Army Officer I was a company commander and served as a personnel officer. In both capacities I was involved in the military justice system. As a commander I actually had to make decisions about the guilt or innocence of soldiers or refer their cases to commanders or courts higher than my level of authority. As a personnel officer I was often involved in the administrative and investigative process. In those days as a young officer I saw things in a very black and white manner, no shades of gray. The prosecutor in those days was was always my friend and defense attorneys were simply impediments to convictions.
I have grown up and in life have discovered that things are not nearly as clear cut as I would have like to have believed when I was young. In fact now I am a big fan of defense attorneys because in many cases good defense attorneys are a last bastion against a society and criminal justice system that is ever more ready to presume guilt even before a case is adjudicated. Sometimes even after an acquittal the public will never be persuaded that someone is innocent.
There are shades of gray that sometimes are not addressed in the system and sometimes do to well meaning legislation keep judges and juries from making decisions in those gray areas because elected officials have decided that there can be no gray areas. I think that such laws sometimes do more harm than good to our justice system. But then what do I know?
Sometimes I hate being a historian. I know that in other countries where people are frustrated and use the law as a tool for vengeance, retribution and settling scores with people, parties and groups that they blame for their own woes, real or imagined. So I do worry about the future of justice in our country when I see laws passed that bind judges, juries which seek not only to ensure that a person convicted of a crime repay his or her debt to society, but suffer for it the rest of they lives even after the actual punishment is served.
But then what do I know?