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Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

October 08, 1995|PETER H. KING

Let's just do away with juries. Let's let prosecutors tell us who did it. Or let's give the system over completely to judges, or even to the police. If we trust police officers enough to empower them with badges and guns, why not trust them as well on questions of guilt and innocence? Or maybe we should try something more creative, more in tune with modern times.

Say, let's call in the pollsters and let their high science decide these cases. Majority rules, right? Or let the media commentators make the call. Tell us, Dunne. Tell us, Rivera. Does the defendant walk or go to jail? Whatever we do, let's shove jurors out of the process. What do they know? They miss all the news stories. They miss all the instant analyses. They miss, even, Larry King. How can a jury make a reasonable decision when it is deprived of Larry King?

Look at this Simpson panel. Nine months of testimony, three hours of deliberation and then, bing, bang, boom, not guilty. Clearly this was a wrong decision, the result of haste. Every commentator in the land said so, and said so within seconds of the verdicts.

No, the system is junk. Forget about the national conviction rate, which runs consistently at about 95%. Remember Twilight Zone, McMartin, Menendez, the Rodney King cops and Simpson. Now, yes, it may be that in frenzied, high-profile cases, prosecutors move too fast, overfile. And, yes, it may also be that media coverage attracts top-flight lawyers, publicity presenting its own form of remuneration. So what? The world is laughing at us.

*

"They are laughing at us in Europe!" That's what the anguished caller told Rush Limbaugh on radio after the acquittal came down. Imagine the shame of it. Although here, fairness dictates I must share a family secret. We have a relative who has spent his life caught in the maw of British "justice." His crime was being Irish Catholic in Belfast. Think they bothered with a jury in his case? Not a chance. Those Europeans, they could teach us a thing or two.

Face it. Our constitutional framers were out to lunch. The powder in their wigs clouded their brains. Take the ideal of a presumption of innocence. Now why should prosecutors be forced to prove a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Let's transfer the burden. O.J. wants to claim he didn't do it? Well, require him to prove who did. Force him, in other words, to prove his innocence. It's just a subtle shift in semantics, no?

And the old notion that it's better to let 10 guilty defendants go free than to lock up one innocent. What sentimental rot. Most of these people would be better off in jail anyway, guilty or innocent. They would have been up to no good sooner or later anyway, right?

Let's set some standards. Let's say that if you beat your wife, and she turns up murdered, you are more than just a suspect. Let's say you are automatically guilty of the murder. Ipso facto, Ito. Let's also say compassion for victims no longer will be measured by how severely we punish the convicted. Let's say the test of compassion will be how swiftly and surely we convict the accused.

*

Let's support Gov. Wilson. He wants to forbid defense lawyers to ask jurors to send "the system" a message. Presumably, prosecutors could continue, as they always have, calling on jurors to send a message that society is sick of crime. But anyway, Wilson's idea is battle-tested. A legal expert attests that similar restrictions were laid on defense lawyers in Franco's Spain and also in East Germany. And not too many O.J.s ran free behind the Iron Curtain, no sir.

Post-O.J., it also has been suggested by crime victim advocates that the state should provide defense attorneys. This--the theory goes--would ensure that both sides are equally bad. Thus, the state will arrest you, prosecute you, "defend" you, judge you and deposit you in prison. Who can't love that kind of system? And cameras in the courtroom? Why? Whose business is it, anyway?

Finally, let's talk race. Didn't nine black jurors seem excessive? I mean, they're always welcome in the defendant's chair, but come on. And what was all that rejoicing about? It seemed like the flip side of the anger that followed the Rodney King verdict--and equally baffling, no? What's their problem with the system, anyway? Didn't they listen when, as the King riots broke out, we all so calmly and coolly explained that justice is not a single result, but a process? Why can't they understand that?

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