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© Copyright 2000, Jim Loy
The American justice system is a really amazing idea, and it works most of the time. By that I mean that criminals normally go to jail, and innocent people normally do not go to jail, and people's rights are not usually abused. But nothing is perfect. Not only are mistakes made, but some features of the whole system invite and cause mistakes and abuses. I would like to comment upon the American justice system, and see what issues come up here.
The truth: The courts do not want juries to know what the truth is, they want juries to know some of the truth, the admissible evidence. You are innocent, and the police beat a confession out of you. This confession is inadmissable, and will be suppressed. Should it be suppressed? Or should it be admitted, along with the court's assurances that it was obtained by violence (or threats of some kind), and let the jury decide what value to place on the confession? If a criminal has prior arrests (but not convicted) for an identical crime, this fact is often inadmissible. Should it be? The jury is not told the truth regardless. Someone else hears the truth, and decides that it is none of the jury's business. I don't know what is right, here. If you don't allow coerced confessions, then presumably the police will not use coercion. Of course, the police are not Nazi storm troopers, and do not normally beat up suspects. But sometimes they do. And we have to prevent that sort of thing. Lie detector tests are not normally admissable evidence. Should they be admitted, with the court's explanation of just why such tests are controversial?
Legally guilty or actually guilty: The courts do not prove your guilt or innocence. In general, this is not possible. The courts deal with "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." A jury (and sometimes a judge) is asked to decide if they really are sure that you are guilty. Normally this works well. But once you are found legally guilty (but perhaps innocent), the government seems to mistake legal guilt for actual guilt. The government is interested in keeping you in prison (and maybe putting you to death), and will usually not listen to any evidence or reasoning which may say that you are innocent. I suppose, you cannot expect prosecutors to actively try to shoot down their own successful convictions. But some part of the government should be actively trying to identify and clear innocent people, after they have been convicted.
Discrimination: Blacks are convicted of some crimes much more often than are whites. And they get longer prison terms. Are they guilty more often? Is this effect entirely a result of the fact that more blacks are in poverty? Rich people are seldom convicted of crimes, and seldom get long prison terms.
Eyewitness identification: Criminal justice depends heavily upon eyewitness identification of criminals. It has been shown hundreds of times that eyewitness evidence is in general very poor. Witnesses in general cannot identify the color of your clothes, what you are carrying, the color of your hair, etc. They cannot identify you. They will point at you, in court, and say he/she did it. But sometimes they can identify you. That is what lineups are for, to verify whether the witness can identify the criminal or not. If the witness can pick the person that the police already suspect of being the criminal out of a fair (it can certainly be unfair in a number of ways) lineup, then that is strong corroboration of the identification.
Plea bargaining: Making a deal, a guilty plea (perhaps on lesser charges) in exchange for a lesser sentence is necessary with the overworked courts; the existing courts do not have enough time to try everyone charged of crimes.
Your Miranda rights: You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to the presence of an attorney. If you do not have an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Etc. It is much harder to get a conviction if the suspect demands a lawyer and will not talk to the police. Should everyone know that he/she has these rights? I think so. It certainly tends to prevent abuses like beating or otherwise coercing confessions out of people.
Ignorant jurors: I understand that lawyers cannot serve on juries (in at least some states they may be jurors, but are often excluded); they would dominate juries, and besides, the jury should get explanations of the law from the judge, not from one of the jurors. Fine. But for a similar reason, potential jurors who have some expert knowledge that pertains to the case (medicine, science, DNA) will be excluded from the jury. They might tend to dominate the jury. But also, many lawyers do not want a jury that can understand the evidence in any way.
Technicalities: They throw out convictions, based on "technicalities." They didn't read you your rights. You got an unfair trial for one reason or another. Somebody made a mistake, and you get a new trial, or even go free. Should that be? In general, these technicalities are abuses of the defendant's rights. How do we prevent such abuses? We can't just warn judges, prosecutors, and the police. That won't stop the abuses. As far as I can see, the only way to prevent these abuses is to throw out convictions on "technicalities." What other way is there?
Presumption of innocence: You are presumed innocent until proven guilty. This means that the prosecution has to actually show evidence and prove you guilty, for you to be found guilty. Sometimes prosecutors don't seem to realize this, and don't bother to prove their cases. The defence doesn't actually have to prove its case, except to make the jury doubt the prosecution's evidence. Of course, this only applies to the jury; the police and the prosecution do not presume that you are innocent.
Expert Witnesses: Expert witnesses can state their opinions on the witness stand (other people cannot). And juries are often encouraged to believe them without real evidence. Some of these expert witnesses are not real experts. I think an expert witness should be a person who can explain something technical so the jury can understand it, not someone who is believed without explanation.
DNA fingerprinting: DNA evidence is perhaps the best thing to come along in the cause of justice (convicting guilty people and freeing innocent people) in the history of the world. It is more distinctive than fingerprints. It is much more reliable than photographs and video tapes. It is more reliable than a confession. It is much much more reliable than eyewitness evidence of any kind. And it is sometimes suppressed. It is not perfect. The tests can be botched. Test results can be switched. Expert witnesses can lie about all of this. The same is true of any kind of evidence, however.
Lawyers: Nobody likes lawyers, more or less. One of my observations is that lawyers sometimes lose because they insult the jury's intelligence. There was a case of a little girl (teenager, I forget her name) who killed her boyfriend, who she was living with, by stabbing him in the back repeatedly with a knife. He had abused her, it seems. On the witness stand, she told (in tears) how he had torn up her teddy bear. Wrong! She had obviously been coached to be as pathetic and helpless as possible (and she wore clothes and hairdo which made her look as young as possible). I don't think a jury is going to buy that. The William Kennedy Smith rape trial should never have been held. Guilty or not, there was no case. But, he was tried because he was a Kennedy, the public demanded it, reverse discrimination. In her summation, the prosecutor asked the jury how they could possibly believe that Smith would have consensual sex just outside his mother's window. The case was already pathetically lost, but that was a mistake. The defence lawyer was alert enough to ask the jury how they could possibly believe that Smith could get away with rape just outside his mother's window. In O.J. Simpson's murder trial, O.J.'s glove (which didn't fit his hand, for whatever reason) was a blunder, whether it was really his glove or not. The prosecution should have forgotten about the glove, because it insulted the jury's intelligence.
Plea bargaining (making a deal) gets a little bad press. After thinking about it for a while, I finally realized why I am in favor of such deals. I object to so many guilty criminals pleading "not guilty." It is an insult to my sense of right and wrong. I would wish that more criminals would own up to their mistake and plead guilty. And offering them a lesser sentence is the incentive for this guilty plea. Certainly they have a right to plead "not guilty," and face a trial. But we need to give them the option of pleading guilty.
A friend of mine saw a bike leaning against a building. He was concerned that someone might steal the bike, so he moved it inside the building. He was charged with stealing the bike. Upon his lawyer's advice, he pled guilty. Now he has a felony conviction on his record. It would seem that he had a really stupid lawyer. There was never any intent to steal.
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