Sir William Blackstone, the famed British jurist, stated in 1766 that-“Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” That concept was woven into British criminal law, and then, of course, was interjected into U.S. criminal proceedings. When the U.S. Constitutional Convention met during the summer of 1787, nearly every delegate was familiar with Blackstone’s commentaries and the principles of English common law. Ben Franklin decided to up the ante by a decimal point by stating that 100 guilty should go free rather than one innocent suffer. Hence, our Constitution and all subsequent criminal statutes were geared toward preventing the guilty conviction of someone who was, in fact, innocent. Which, naturally made it that much more difficult to convict the guilty. After all, who wants to send an innocent man or woman to prison if they didn’t commit the crime. Nevertheless, innocents have incarcerated, and sometimes given the death penalty, while many of the guilty wind up with a free get-out-of-jail-card.
There are so many things wrong with our so-called criminal justice system that it’s hard to know where to begin. As I wrote in my last posting, if you possess the financial resources to hire a crack legal defense team, it’s highly likely you can avoid conviction, no matter how guilty you may be. Especially if you’re up against a weak prosecuting attorney. On the other hand, if you’re poor, as most defendants are, and have to settle for someone from the dregs of the legal community to defend you, there’s a good chance that your goose is cooked. No matter how innocent or guilty you may be. Especially, if you’re unfortunate enough to face a reasonably competent prosecuting attorney. That’s why there are lawyers out there doing pro bono work trying to free innocent victims of our so called justice system.
One such group is called the Innocence Project, which was started in 1992 by two high profile defense attorneys, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. It’s a national organization dedicated to exonerating those that have been wrongfully convicted, usually through the use of DNA testing. Many of these victims of our justice system were poor, forgotten and had used up all other avenues of legal relief. They were usually convicted in a time before DNA testing was available, but items remained in the case files that contained DNA. In numerous cases, when that DNA evidence was later tested, the guilty were found to be innocent. Some of those victims were incarcerated for over 20 years before DNA testing became available to set them free. So much for letting 10 or 100 guilty go free rather than locking up one innocent.
One of the flaws in our justice system is the notion of trial by juries of one’s peers. Really? If you are brought to trial, do you really want to have Brenda, who works behind the perfume counter at Macy’s, sitting on the jury and deciding you fate. Or Fred, who hauls heavy cargo off ships down at the docks. Aside from the fact that one’s peers usually are clueless about the machinations of the justice system, and can be easily bamboozled by the more effective attorney, is it really wise to have juries populated with people that have no knowledge of the law. Wouldn’t it be better to have professional juries who know the ins-and-outs of the criminal justice system, rendering impartial opinions. I have always believed that a jury consisting of legal professionals could render a much more accurate decision.
Of course, as I wrote last time, it appears to be easier to get a not guilty verdict in high profile cases when the defense can hire some hot-shot lawyers. Besides the reasons that I previously wrote about, new statutes have also come into play. About 20 states have now passed “stand-you-ground” laws, which essentially states that one can throw common-sense out the window, and thereby get away with murder. Stand- your- ground means that when confronted by someone that intends to inflict bodily harm, instead making a safe retreat (if one is available), one can stand there and duke it out with the bad guy. Including a shoot-out similar to the gun fight at the OK Corral. Although not used by the defense, the stand-your-ground law in Florida was included in the the judge’s instructions to the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial. I’m sure it entered the jury’s thinking process in deciding to acquit. After all, why should George Zimmerman have had to retreat to his truck, when he could stand his ground and shoot an unarmed teenager.
What’s next. I’m waiting for the first state to enact a “Shoot-First-And-Ask-Questions-Later” piece of legislation. Perhaps it will be Wyoming, or Idaho, or maybe Alabama or Georgia. That annoying next door neighbor still in the habit of blocking your driveway with his truck? Bam. Shoot first and ask questions later. It’s all part of our gun culture. Gun ownership in this country has now moved beyond the point of being a fetish, to being an out-and-out addiction. Like a heroin or cocaine addiction, or worse. We’re supposed to be having a hard time in this country financially; yet there always seems to be money available for ordinary people to acquire some very expensive hardware and ammo. How hard can financial times be when gun stores can’t stock enough guns and bullets to satisfy their customers. And of course, any political movement toward sane gun-control laws has long been destroyed by the NRA and its millions of followers. It appears that when sanity comes up against paranoia, it’s sanity that gets blown away.
Australia has enacted some very strict gun control legislation, and has seen their homicide rate drop to less than half of what it is in the U.S. A case where rationality actually triumphed over insanity. But don’t look for that happening here, anytime soon. The gun addiction is just too powerful.