I've spent about half of my life pondering the American legal system, from civics classes in high school to the law firm I work at today. I've worked for the "People", interning for a District Attorney's office and representing various municipalities in civil contexts, and I've also worked for the "people", doing criminal defense work, workers compensation, forcing a local auto dealer to buy back a "lemon" at full purchase price, and other examples of trying to help the common man caught in a pickle. I've seen legal problems from both sides of the fence. And when you switch viewpoints like that enough, stuff that once made sense may seem less clear. This has happened, for example, to my sense of justice.
"Justice" was once a banner held out by childhood heroes. Superman, the Lone Ranger, G.I. Joe, all fighting for justice, all with their heads held high. Justice was a code to live by, and justice was always right.
Law and Order's Jack McCoy puts the bad guys away; C.S.I.'s Lt. Horatio Caine follows the clues back to the criminal. As portrayed on shows like those, good and bad are clearly defined and divided; justice is easy to root for. Even today, my cell phone is programmed to make the gavel sound from Law and Order when I get a text, hoping that justice is right around the corner.
Only as I experience it in real life, justice is not always so easily divisible. First, even the most fundamental legal concepts are subject to the occasional tweak. Just this year, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the right to remain silent cannot be assumed, but must now be explicitly invoked. Counter-intuitive much? The Supreme Court also ruled this year that a suspect's request for a lawyer may be disregarded in as few as 14 days after a person is released from custody, after which they may be approached and questioned by officers again. These are barriers protecting innocence until proof of guilt, being blurred ever so slightly.
Police officers, even those well intentioned and honest, can make mistakes during their attempts at crime solving. Constitutional rights are sometimes misplaced, innocent people wrongfully arrested, prosecuted, and sometimes even unjustly convicted. Jabbar Collins, for example, wrongfully spent 16 years in prison for murder before the Brooklyn district attorney's office admitted that the case had been mishandled and should be thrown out. The killer's status is unknown, and this guy has lost a huge chunk of his life. Justice is hard to find in that instance.
On the other hand, justice sometimes is a killer stupid enough to leave a dead body in a hotel room registered in their own name. Of course, that now-confessed killer Joran van der Sloot was only caught after acting again, five years to the day after previously (allegedly) murdering another young woman. Justice may have been late to the party in that case.
Then, there are those who justice found somewhere in between, like Robert Blake and O.J. Simpson, both held not criminally guilty of killing their wives, but subsequently found responsible for their deaths in civil court. Simpson didn't do so well the next time in criminal court, and is now in jail, guilty of robbery related charges. Incidentally, he was found guilty 13 years to the day after being found not guilty in the criminal trial for murdering his wife. One things seems sure: justice has an interesting since of timing.
Still, when you look at it long enough, justice doesn't always add up. I started considering this in a more literal sense, as it were, when I was imagining Justitia, or Lady Justice personified while thinking about a troubling case. Justitia is most commonly depicted carrying a sword and scales, and wearing a blindfold, meaning that justice should be applied evenly to everyone. But, I was imagining Justitia actually receiving evidence on her scale, when it occurred to me: (1) if she's blindfolded, how can she accurately judge what is being offered on each side of the scale; and even if she does, (2) how does she know who she's hitting with that sword?
In considering this, I realized that the problem with Justice, both personified and in real life, is that each is entirely dependent on the perception of others to function.
Unfortunately, perception is not constant. What is at one moment seen as just may change. Take, for example, twenty-nine people convicted of felony witchcraft in what we now know as Massachusetts a little over three hundred years ago, after which some were hanged, and one crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force a plea. These trials are not seen as legitimate through the perspective of today. As such, "justice" changed with the times.
Closer to ten years ago, however, American operatives used water boarding and other torture methods on suspects trying to get them to admit to terrorism. Some see this as illegitimate justice now, while other see it as justified. Who knows what we'll collectively think of it a hundred years from now.
Both before and after these examples are hundreds of other questionable notes in the history of American justice, such as America's sordid history with regards to slavery and racial relations. Add to this the current questioning of suspected illegal aliens in southern Arizona, and the dozen or so other states considering following suit, and one can personally witness Constitutional protections in the process of being sidestepped under the guise of further justice.
The sad part about all this? My sense of justice, once thought to be a super-hero force existing independently of all of us, an unwavering code that we could strive to meet and surpass, turned out to be a foolish misconception. Justice exists solely as a line drawn between us, by us, and done under our watch. Worse, not all justice immediately deemed valid always remains so deemed over the test of time.
The happy part about all this? As any episode of Cold Case teaches us, justice and truth continues to exists, unseen, and it out there, if we can just manage to assemble and understand the clues. Eventually, hopefully, we should achieve it.
A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.16.10 @ 4:35p
I have not had very good experiences with the criminal justice system. I work at a psychiatric hospital and am privy to much information about people in the community with mental illness. I actually helped solve the most watched episode on America Most Wanted, about a couple who was killed 15 minutes from my house. It was linked back to a patient I worked with, and because a murder occurred, I was not obligated to keep confidentiality regarding the murderer. The police department acted horribly towards me, saying things like, "what are you psychic or something," in a demeaning manner. I still help in unsolved crimes and murders, but now I take my information to the defendants attorney in most cases.
6.17.10 @ 12:44p
everything is about money, even the witch trials. Most of the accused were also landowners. Victimless crime like seatbelt laws are meant to generate money. The government doesnt care if we die in car crashes, its just a way to get our money & conform us.
I think you would like readin Gerry Spence. He's a lawyer from wyoming & has alot of the same veiws we do.
6.17.10 @ 3:39p
I am having a difficult time understanding what the purpose of this book is. Are you critiquing the criminal justice system and pointing out flaws? Or is this a story about a boy who dreamed of being a Super hero? This boy decides to be a part of the criminal justice field, only to discover that he could never be a hero? Could you please help me to understand the direction you are going with this writing?
6.17.10 @ 4:07p
thanks everyone for their discussions. Kailey, thanks for the author suggestion. And Brandi, there is no book. This is it - just a column (I am on staff here at IM and am expected to churn something out each month -ergo, this piece is June's). The piece is not intended to be anything more substantial - It's purpose was simply to illustrate that what I believed justice to be through t.v., etc., was far from accurate. I suppose that's not groundbreaking insight, but it also could be to some people. And, to those some people who might still view our justice system with rose colored glasses, I suppose this writing is simply too pour a bucket of cold water on those persons' heads.
6.21.10 @ 2:15p
I hope that justice shows up and smacks Joran van de Sloot. Justice is as fickle as she is, but that one seems like an odious case of spoiled, entitled punk.