Saturday, April 23, 2011
April Fools All Over Again
April Fools, All Year Long
On April 1, 2009, CNN reported that the felony conviction
of former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, meted out on the eve of
his re-election loss, would be voided due to prosecutorial
misconduct. A man who clearly used his elected position for
personal gain - the word "bribery" is the only one that comes
to mind - and got away with it.
At first I thought, This must be some April's Fool
shenanigans by those pranksters at CNN, but of course it is
the American criminal justice system which is a perpetual
laughingstock throughout the world. On April 7th, his conviction
was thrown out. Clearly, American justice is not about fairness
or proportionality in meting out retribution for misdeeds -
it is about power and money. One standard for those who have
it, and one for those who do not.
Prosecutorial misconduct is replete in our criminal justice
system. Black's Law Dictionary describes it best: A prosecutor's
improper or illegal act (or failure to act), especially involving
an attempt to persuade the jury to wrongly convict a defendant or
assess an unjustified punishment. Poor and minority accused
witness it everyday. Threatening defendants and their witnesses,
suppressing exculpatory evidence, inflammatory grandstanding
in front of the jury, improper manipulation of the press, and
numerous other means are so commonplace that they barely raise
an eyebrow as they are used to fill our jails and prisons. Using
practically any means necessary to gain a conviction is taught
to hungry young prosecutors with an eye on an important career,
though they would hardly admit it.
Of course, when it is an elected official with high-priced
defense counsel, the game changes. Unsurfacing these
indiscretions on the state's part brings a voided conviction
and freedom. With those of the lower classes, the convict must
appeal to the higher courts which invariably rule that the
prosecution's misconduct can be equated to only one thing:
"Harmless error." Yes, the courts say, this or that may have
been improper, but we can see all things, and this discovery
would not have changed the jury's decision. These harmless
errors, no matter how criminal, have landed many on death row,
and no one is moved until it is his or her own son or daughter.
"The Exonerated" is a production that has woven together
interviews with numerous members of the wrongly-convicted class.
Famous (or infamous) actors such as Danny Glover do an excellent
job of expressing the confusion and pain of these victims of
the criminal justice system. In one scene, Susan Sarandon
offers a superb performance as she recounts one woman's heart-
breaking story. Prosecutorial misconduct led to the wrongful
conviction of her and her husband, and to his unforgivable
state execution. When the truth finally surfaced of this
miscarriage of justice, the only apology which was offered by
the state was a commutation of her death sentence to Life and
Shouldn't the prosecutors who used criminal means to execute
an innocent man now be prosecuted for murder? Of course they
should. Why the double standard? The answer: Only in America.
The American landscape is full of similar accounts of injustice,
but few are interested in the uncomfortable truth. Scott Turow,
who wrote Presumed Innocent, is one of the few, as is John
Grisham, who wrote a scathing account of "small town justice"
in The Innocent Man. And though these and a few others hardly
make an impact on how the general public perceives our criminal
justice system, they do offer the blatant dichotomy: The fair
system which Americans believe punishes the criminal and
exonerates the innocent versus the dirty truth that there exists
one system for the poor and one for the rich; the ideal that
permeates prime-time cop shows which holds that the bad guy
goes to jail, and the reality that we merely are packing the
poor and ethnic minorities into our ever-growing prison systems.
When Harlem Representative Charlie Rangel was investigated
by private news organizations for numerous criminal activities,
which include tax evasions, improper use of his office, and
improper use of campaign funds, among other things, his
constituency rallied around him, as did Alaskan Republicans
who voted for Stevens on the eve of his felony conviction. It
reminds one of the loyal minions who prop up Third World despots
despite the murderous acts perpetrated against the citizenry.
These constituencies collude with these despicable characters
who preach Law and Order and virtue in government, and yet use
their trusted positions for criminal activity.
In March 2009
Fareed Zakaria invited former NY governor
Eliot Spitzer, the ersatz paragon of Law and Order, on his
Sunday talk extravaganza mere months after his disgraceful exit.
Mr. Spitzer built his political career by prosecuting
prostitution rings and those, particularly on Wall Street, who
used their positions of trust for wrong-doing. After being
elected governor, he then used his own position and its resources
to surreptitiously buy sex, even across state lines. By inviting
Mr. Spitzer to espouse his various political opinions, Mr.
Zakaria colludes with a corrupt- system which allows the rule
of law to only apply to mere citizens, and not to the likes
of Mr. Spitzer. Only one question need be asked of Mr. Spitzer:
"Why aren't you sitting in jail?"
U.S. prisoners who see their numbers drawn from the poor
and growing exponentially, are baffled by the dichotomous system
of American justice where elected officials seem to pay enough
for their criminal acts simply by experiencing the shame of
being caught, while those of the lower socioeconomic stratum are on
the fast track to prison for low level property crimes and
personal drug possession. And with our nation's love affair
with habitual offender laws, the poor should expect to experience
not mere years, but decades or the remainder of their lives
behind steel and concrete.
Congressmen like Rangel (NY-D), Doolittle (Calif-R), Hunter
(Calif-R), Renzi (Ariz-R), Weller (Ill-R), Fossella (NY-R),
Jefferson (LA-D), and others being investigated or who have
been investigated seem to get a pass. Is it self-interest on
the part of government? Definitely. “My Friend – Tom Delay or Charlie
Rangle… I might be next.” And voters who clamor to elect any "Tough
on Crime" politician that they can, and then they wilt when "their
guy" gets caught. The worst that happens to the bulk of these
crooks who bilk the system which their offices have sworn to
uphold and protect is that they may not get re-elected,
The politicians are not the only ones who get a pass. Let
us not forget the everyday citizen, "Joe Six-Pack." When we
question the general public about their own "foibles" (because
they don't commit crimes), attitudes change. The middle- and
upper-classes may "fudge" on their taxes, smoke a little
marijuana at a Sunday barbecue in the suburbs for old times
sake (just don't let the kids see), take a few odds and ends
from work, a little price-fixing "to help stay competitive,"
inflate insurance claims (heck, I've paid enough over the years
- it's my money), or commit any number of criminal offenses. The
general public does not equate these crimes as criminal at all
although they carry a much heavier societal burden than the number
one index crime (i.e., "street crime"): property theft. Not only
do attitudes about these crimes act as protection, these offenses
are also difficult to detect.
Equally important, low level government employees seem
immune to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. When a police
officer is observed committing a criminal act in the commission
of his/her duty, the usual solution is a quiet resignation. When
a prison guard is caught bringing drugs into a jailor prison,
he or she is simply asked to not return to work. The prisoner
receiving the drugs can most assuredly expect outside charges
which will be prosecuted to the fullest extent and another conviction
with more time in prison. The list goes
on and on. The majority of Americans believe in the Tough on Crime
mindset when it is the poor, who are made up predominantly
of racial minorities, but not themselves.
Old Ted Stevens had the audacity to tell the waiting press
that he had a renewed faith in the system. I bet he does as
he sits in his home newly refurbished with bribe money. But
what about the millions of America's poor who will be convicted
using the very same illegal methods which snared slippery Ted?
If what we so foolishly call "misconduct" is' a "harmless error"
in their situation, should it not be a harmless error for all.
Or rather should we not stop these illegal tactics to win
convictions, and prosecute the prosecutors who trample our civil
rights to further their careers and reassure the voting public
that the "bad guys" (Read: the poor) are put away for good.
We must stop claiming that we are a nation of laws, or
we should become one. If stealing a twenty from a convenience
store merits prison, so does cheating on your taxes, employee
theft, smoking pot in the dorm room, or misusing campaign funds.
Crime is crime, and fairness in prosecution applies to all
equally. When prosecutorial misconduct frees a senator, yet
causes men like Thomas Martin Thompson to be executed (Thompson
v. Calderon, 120 F. 3d 1045), we must admit the harsh truth:
we are using America's criminal justice system as America’s "Final
Solution" to address the issue of our poor and racial minorities,
and we have done so for decades - arguably much longer. With a new
political psychology in America today, let our voices and votes
be heard and let us wipe away the travesty we have endured for
far too long. Until we do, one of the oldest truism in our
culture shall remain: "American Justice: The Best Money Can Buy."
P.S. April 2011 – and it’s the same old story. Eliot Spitzer ended up with
his own talk show on CNN. All I can say is WTF?
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