Monday, April 27, 2009

Stuck in the Tread of the Wheel of Justice

I'm thinking about a criminal trial that happened a few years ago, here in Shasta County.

A woman was accused of altering her child support checks. Her first court-appointed attorney yelled at her that her only choice was to plead guilty. She sought the advice of another attorney. Her new attorney believed her story. She had a polygraph administered, and the client passed convincingly. The attorney hired one of the top handwriting analysts in California to determine whether the alterations had been done by the client. She determined that the alterations almost certainly weren't done by the accused, and probably were done by the ex-husband, who was unhappy with the child custody arrangement.

The attorney presented the polygraph results and the handwriting analysis to the D.A.'s office. She was dismayed to learn that the D.A.'s office had every intention of going forward with the prosecution of her client, even though the D.A.'s office had used the same handwriting analyst to prosecute cases. The case went to trial.

The jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict after thirty-five minutes in deliberation. The judge stated, on the record, that he was surprised that the jury had taken more than five minutes.

The Deputy D.A. was unmoved. "Your client is guilty," he hissed at the defense attorney. Our tax dollars at work.

Still, it all came to a happy ending, right? No, not really. The accused woman was a teacher. Simply being accused of a felony is enough to have a teacher's credential stripped away in California, and a "not guilty" verdict isn't enough to prompt the restoration of the credential. No, the accused must be found "factually innocent" of charges to resume his or her livelihood.

As far as I know, the woman was never declared factually innocent, and is thus still banished from her chosen career.

Today on the website A News Cafe, there was an article about the former CEO of our local Haven Humane Society, who is accused of taking money from the animal shelter. I wrote a comment: I hope the guy gets a fair trial. I often think that publicity can create some really rocky detours on the path to justice.

Perhaps in response to my comment, another reader wrote: . . . It’s about time that Mr. Ryan faces the charges against him. The wheels of justice move way too slow in metting out a sentence against the accused.

That sentiment disturbed me, because it provides one more example of how many in our nation feel that the notion of innocent until proven guilty is just a pesky impediment to slamming people in jail. I thought about responding to Mr. Law and Order, but thought better of it. My gut feeling is that nothing I could write would sway him. I feel reasonably certain that the wheel of justice will always turn too slowly for his liking.

Sadly, he's only likely to be swayed should he find himself or a loved one caught in the tread.


Algernon said...

It's true, and reminds me of a visit to a Los Angeles deli and bakery in 2001, when the United States was rattling the sabre over Iraq and the United Nations was busy debating the matter and the best course.

While I was buying pastries, the news was on (it was an exciting time and many storekeepers were watching television through their workday). The U.N. was negotiating, debating, talking over what was at stake, what was known, and so on.

The woman behind the counter said, "Look at them. All they are doing is talking."

I said, that is what gives me hope. She was eager to see someone get bombed. I was eager for something else.

She got what she wanted. She usually will.

Pam said...

How sad for that teacher. How sad that a disgruntled whoever can ruin someone's life by mere allegation.

It's probably best if the wheels of justice move somewhat slowly.

Politics often leaches much of the 'justice' from the justice system. This leads to mistakes not being acknowledged unless pressure is brought to bear or caught in the glare of the public spotlight.

Debby said...

That is really sad, and it has nothing at all to do with justice.

Lydia said...

I have found this to be true as well. I know that we have the premise of being "innocent until proven guilty" but all too often our small communities (I live in the Dakotas) or media have a person tried and hung before they even have the data before them.

It can ruin a person's life.

Dean said...

This is a really tricky subject for me since justice means so many different things to so many different people. One thing is true though, and that is that all people deserve the same treatment.

Does the law really show us that we're "innocent until proven guilty" if we're locked behind bars until our trial?

I'm not sure that the justice system works. The numbers don't add up. Huge numbers of repeat offenders, death penalty not a deterrent for example. When we face facts and admit that we judge people for revenge and not rehabilitation (mob justice?) I think we'll all be a lot better off.