Three stories in the past several days have given me hope that perhaps, just perhaps, justice is beginning to make a comeback in America. First, O. J. Simpson was sentenced to a minimum of nine years in the Nevada State Penitentiary for “just attempting to get my things back.” On Sunday it was announced by President-Elect Obama that he will appoint Retired General Eric Shinseki to be Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs. Then this morning it was reported that the prosecution of the thugs who worked for Blackwater Security in Iraq was starting. All three stories made me feel more hopeful for our nation’s future, each in its own way.
I will start with the appointment of General Shinseki. For those who don’t remember or didn’t know to begin with, the good General was Army Chief of Staff under George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. By failing to march in lockstep fashion behind Rumsfeld into the mess that has become Iraq, he was dismissed from his job at the end of the first Bush term. In a time when military leader after military leader told the President what he wanted to hear and the Congress what the President wanted them to hear, Shinseki bravely stood up and testified before Congress that more troops were needed in Iraq than they were being told. He proved to be right, but not before he was long gone.
President-Elect Barack Obama, on Sunday, gave the General his rightful due by appointing him to oversee the Veteran’s Administration. In so doing, Obama strengthened his position of appointing people who will tell truth to power, and over at VA we really need that. While the Bush Administration and Republicans in general have paid much lip service to supporting our brave military, both active status and veteran, they have done little to help those poor souls who have returned from foreign wars with the funding to provide them with the medical care they need. It has been shameful! President-Elect Obama has made a good first step in the direction of righting this wrong by appointing a man who is not afraid to stand up for those of us who served. This old veteran salutes General Shinseki and the man who brings him aboard, President-Elect Obama.
I also want to salute the Justice Department for finally getting around to pursuing the criminal thugs of Blackwater Security who gave our country another black eye in Iraq and the world with their heavy-handed tactics. Blackwater is just another sorry chapter in a war gone wrong. It is another reminder of how the current Administration allowed its no-bid contractors to rip off not only our country but terrorize the citizens of Iraq. In a total disregard of the part of the mission where we were supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis and others in the Arab world, Blackwater ran wild ignoring Iraqi law and international law, not to mention U.S. law. It’s time for the accounting to begin of this rogue company.
But, last, and not least, I was gratified to see O. J. Simpson standing before a judge sadly pleading his case for leniency. Why? Not for the reasons you may suspect. I was glad because I feel that O. J. Simpson has done more to undermine any sense of fairness in the American justice system than any other individual. Perhaps Michael Jackson
and Kobe Bryant also belong in this category, but I’m not quite as sure in their cases. The acquittal of O. J. Simpson by a jury in Los Angeles 13 years ago in the case of the cold-blooded murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman sent shock waves through the nation. I contend that there are possibly hundreds if not thousands of men in prison today because of the belief spawned by the O. J. acquittal.
Perhaps you feel I am giving too much importance to a single jury verdict, but I do not base this solely on the O. J. murder case. I also have 14 years of experience of sitting quietly in the court reporter’s chair in criminal courts in the District of Columbia, Mississippi and Texas. Conservative Republicans have made great noise about crime and how the soft-on-crime Democrats can’t be trusted to protect the population from bad guys. In my region of the country they have ridden the coattails of this mythology to the District Attorney’s offices and Judge’s Benches in great numbers in election after election. They continue to assert that criminals are pouring out the back doors of courtrooms across the country in large numbers because of liberal judges and liberal-minded juries. I offer one bit of personal experience in rebuttal to this point. In 14 years in the court reporter’s chair in two states and the District of Columbia, I never saw one – not one – criminal defendant not get indicted or convicted in a trial. Isn’t that astounding?
Now, I will admit that in other courtrooms in jurisdictions where I worked, occasionally a defendant would be acquitted in that period of time, but statistically the number of criminal defendants who are acquitted is incredibly low. Now, any D.A. will claim that such a statistic points to the validity of their prosecutions. But the Innocence Project, a program started at Northwestern University in Chicago, has turned up hundreds of cases where defendants were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison. A lot of those cases have come out of Texas and more than a few out of Harris County, Texas. Yet, every time that one of these cases turned up out of Harris County, the District Attorney’s office continued to deny that it made any sort of mistake. Well, the voters in Harris County voted for change in that office this year, replacing the Republican District Attorney as well as a number of Republican Judges. It was long overdue, but probably more attributable to a heavy African-American voter turnout for Barack Obama.
But back to O. J. Simpson and why I find him responsible for much of the continuing problem of real criminal justice in our nation. When a rich man like O. J. Simpson – or Michael Jackson or Kobe Bryant, for that matter – can afford to pay a high-profile criminal defense team headed up by the likes of Johnny Cochran, the dynamic is changed 180 degrees. Most criminal defendants end up represented by court-appointed lawyers fresh out of law school. Oftentimes it is their first case at trial. They are no match for the well-funded-by-the-taxpayers team they are up against in the courtroom. When it comes to the practice of criminal law, most lawyers make more money at the DA’s office than they do out on their own. And when a promising young lawyer shows up on the other side from the DA, you can just about bet that within the year he will be working for the DA.
I saw this happen with an old friend of mine. His name is Bill May and he practices in Corpus Christi, Texas. I said that I never saw a defendant acquitted in a criminal case that I was working, but ONE TIME I saw a hung jury. Don’t worry, the guy fell in the next round when the DA tried him again. But my friend Bill May was right out of law school and was the court-appointed lawyer for a young man accused of robbing a convenience store. May put up a valiant fight resulting in the hung jury verdict. Within a year’s time Bill May walked into the courtroom where I worked as the Assistant DA assigned to my court. He was a truly remarkable and talented attorney who needed a steady paycheck to support himself and his new bride. I was happy for him, but I was also sad for the system that lost a crusader for the downtrodden defendants that I continually saw march through the courtroom on their way to prison.
I lost touch with Bill when I left Corpus Christi some years ago, but he turned up on an episode of City Confidential that I saw recently. I was glad to see that he had returned to the defense side of the Bar. He is greatly needed in a system that is swayed by TV personalities like Nancy Grace who never gave anybody the benefit of the doubt in her life. The American public is constantly being bombarded from the conservative side of the Bar with a mythology that vicious criminals are being walked out of courtrooms every day. All one has to do is to look at the high number of inmates incarcerated in the prison systems of every state from coast to coast to know this cannot be true. Most are there for victimless crimes involving drugs, but the jury pools they face have lost any sense of tolerance and are basically led exactly where the DA wants them to go. I have seen it firsthand.
So I am glad that O. J. Simpson will be joining some inmates at the Nevada State Penitentiary. Perhaps some of them are there because he poisoned the water for them at their own trials. Perhaps some of them are truly innocent but were not believed because of the outrageous defense put on by Johnny Cochran on behalf of O. J. on live TV. I watched in amazement as Simpson all but cried as he denied knowing that he was doing anything wrong when storming a hotel room with armed henchmen to “get his things.” BULLSHIT! Good-bye, Mr. Simpson, and good riddance.
As for everybody else, all I ask is that the next time you get a jury summons, that you don’t dodge out, and when you get to the courthouse and are selected to be one of the twelve people who sit in judgment of another, that you hold the DA to his or her charge: to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
KEEP FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT!