Justice to Appease

December 1st, 2010

By R.B. Parrish

We usually depict Justice as blindfolded, but we never show her as deaf; we know that she — and prosecutors — sometimes dance to the tune of the mob.

A few years ago in an eastern city activists demanded action after police had been unable to stop a rash of assaults against gays. Police finally thought they had a suspect for one incident — a student at a university — and without investigating they arrested him in class during an exam. He was handcuffed and taken to jail late on a Friday afternoon — meaning he would have to remain locked up through the weekend. He was offered release if only he would sign an admission of guilt. He refused; he had been across town at the time of the assault and had video surveillance tape to prove it.

But the prosecutors couldn’t release him without going back to square one. The arrest had galvanized the activists and they were already demonstrating and demanding (and receiving) concessions from the university. So they stuck to the charges, and for the next nine months the student faced the rigors of the justice system — endless postponed hearings and appearances — while his name was dragged through the mud. Finally — after public interest had dissipated — the charges were dropped and the prosecutors stated they were unable to place the suspect at the scene of the incident — an adroit way of saying he was innocent, without saying so. But what future employer won’t pause before taking on anyone with even so tiny a blemish on their record?

In the Duke lacrosse case, two students received worse treatment. One spoofed a book assigned for reading at Duke — one that was considered an outrageous and over-the-top look at stockbrokers. He sent a parody of a particularly outrageous passage in the book, as part of an email discussion, which was recognized as a parody and responded to as such. But police, wanting to coerce witnesses to testify for Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong (several other potential witnesses in the case faced similar pressure) threatened to release the email publicly unless he agreed to alter his testimony. He refused — he would not lie — and so the email went public as though it had been written as a genuine threat. Now his reputation is tarnished for acting honorably, and his name will forever be associated with a concocted police lie.

A second student had been involved in a minor sidewalk scuffle a few months earlier. By some reports he had only been intervening to try and separate two quarrelers when he was himself attacked, struck from behind, and knocked down. When he got up he hurled some epithets at his assailant and waved his fists in the air but did not strike anyone. When the lacrosse charges were made, Lady Justice lowered her blindfold and he was ordered to stand trial for the sidewalk incident — which otherwise would have been dismissed with a diversion agreement.

When the trial began — three months after DNA testing had proven every member of the lacrosse team innocent of the charges in Durham — some witnesses changed their testimony; police now swore to convenient new facts which had not been recorded in their notes; the chief defense witness was not allowed to testify; and the student was given a harsh sentence to the harrumphing of the media. For a preppie student accused of raping a poor working woman of color (as she was portrayed at the time), the public would accept no less. The crowd had roared. (And better this, some no doubt thought, than the turmoil and criticism which would have resulted had there been an acquittal in such circumstances.)

Nor was this all; the student was subsequently harassed repeatedly by the judge with threats of incarceration — as when he ‘missed’ a curfew at home because he was — with the permission of the court’s own supervising agency — absent and in Durham working on his defense there. Many observers believed such harassment might have disappeared had the student been willing to turn and lie for Nifong.

Three students, therefore, inscribed on the public record as troublemakers — branded, but not with Cain’s mark (the mark of Cain was to preserve him from harm, not make him an object of scorn).

Zola, defending Dreyfus, said that should the interests of the state — the appeasement of the crowd — became more important than those of justice, then we would be more honest to just drop the use of the word “justice” and give as the reason for convictions simply “public policy.”  Perhaps we should append those words to the base of Lady Justice’s statue? At any rate, we can only wonder whatever happened to innocence before guilt, and a justice system which was supposed to be the ultimate refuge of those who were falsely accused.

R. B. Parrish lives in Arizona and is the author of The Duke Lacrosse Case: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Modern ScottsboroR.B. Parrish may be contacted at muddlark77@gmail.com.

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2 Responses to “Justice to Appease”

  1. JGalt |

    Sad but true. The saddest part is that the people who should be ashamed are not even concerned. The Love of Justice, Truth and Equality in the eyes of the Law is a rare emotion these days in Government officials and prosecutors but still exists. I believe it is what so many mean when they say they love America. What ever happened to “I could not love you, Dear so much, loved I not Honor more.”

  2. Tom Carter |

    Sometimes it’s hard to find positive things to say about our justice system. One thing that’s certain, though, is that problems with police and courts are worse in most other countries, sometimes far worse. What it really comes down to is the system is run by human beings who have all the strengths and weaknesses the rest of us have. They make mistakes, they respond to public and political pressure, and sometimes they’re pushed too hard to resolve cases. Worse, prosecutors and judges are usually elected officials at state and local levels, and that fundamentally compromises the system.

    Beyond the human factors, the hard reality is that justice comes in different levels of quality. If you have the money to hire good lawyers, your chances of a positive outcome (even if you’re guilty, e.g., O.J.) go up dramatically. The young men charged in the Duke lacrosse case had the family support necessary to buy better justice; I wonder how it would have gone otherwise.

    These problems are part of the reasons that underly my firm opposition to the death penalty.

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