Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Question of Justice

The story of Michael Brown's death is tragic. There is no question of that. An 18-year-old shot dead, a police officer in the spotlight.

The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is a tinderbox. There have been protests, violent at times, for almost 2 weeks, and there is no sign of it letting up.

The family of Michael Brown has lost a son, brother, friend.

The family of Darren Wilson has lost the comforts of security. He, and his family by association, fear for their lives and Officer Wilson has not left his home (if, indeed, he is still there; media dogs have led cameras and protesters to his address, an irresponsible deriliction of journalistic integrity).

The city is at the center of a federal investigation. I will address that at another time; but suffice it to say that with all the murders that take place every single day in every single American city, why this one has gotten the attention of the feds is solely based on the constant and escalated race-related issues that have only worsened. I do not believe the feds have any business making this case their pet cause.

And as I write this, reports are coming in with more veracity than not, revealing that Darren Wilson suffered an orbital blowout fracture (that's a fracture to the bones around the eye socket), and was severely beaten in the incident, to the point where he was nearly unconscious when taken to the hospital after the shooting. Should this prove to be true, it is what the media have been calling a game changer: he will have had sufficient fear for his own life, and justifiable force would have to exonerate him.

Michael Brown had been involved, just moments before the shooting, in a "strong arm robbery" where he stole from a convenience store and physically intimidated the clerk. Witnesses say that he was also involved in a physical altercation with Officer Wilson when Wilson confronted him and a friend in the street. Michael Brown was 6'4", 290 pounds, and could very well have injured the officer to such severity.

These details are being downplayed because it "disparages the dead" or "assassinates the character of the victim". The video of the robbery was withheld for days before the police department finally released it. This is all evidence that speaks to the officer's actions that led to the fatal shooting. Evidence is about facts - and those are only disparaging when assigned emotion.

The governor of the state has overstepped his office, and the very clear lines of his legal profession, with an egregious breach of prosecutorial discretion. He made a statement, in the heat of riots and tensions in the streets, that called for "Justice for Michael Brown", "Justice for this family", and "Justice for Michael Brown and his family" (as well as a call for "vigorous prosecution" - a rush to judgment if ever there was one).

This is where it sticks most in my craw. If I've learned anything at all about the American justice system, from my reading, from listening and watching news and trials over the years, from listening to legal experts and analysts, it's this: people who cry for "justice" are only looking for the results that will satisfy their side. Those who call for "justice for Michael Brown" are only looking for an indictment, and that prematurely mentioned "vigorous prosecution" of a man who has not even been seen since the day of the shooting, 11 days ago. A man who has not, to date, even given his side of the story. Those who call for "justice for Michael Brown" are looking not only for prosecution, but conviction, and sentencing - most likely, a death sentence. Because - for the record - Missouri does have the death penalty.

Those calling for "justice for Darren Wilson" are looking for him to not be indicted by the grand jury; if he should be, they are looking for a judge to determine there is not enough evidence to go forward with trial; should that not happen, they are looking for an acquittal.

Those people parading with signs and t-shirts, and yelling for justice do not understand one key premise to the American justice system:  justice is not a verdict; justice is the process.

The Sixth Amendment in the United States Bill of Rights states the following:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

That is what defines justice. Justice is due process. Justice is the right to a trial, a jury of one's peers, the right to confront one's accusers and have counsel represent the defendant. Justice is the right for said counsel to obtain and use evidence in presenting his/her case, question witnesses and obtain testimony of supporting witnesses. Justice is an impartial judge. Justice is using facts to present and argue a case, in a Constitutionally mandated, courtroom adversarial setting. Justice is the process, not the verdict.

In fact, nowhere in the Amendment is the verdict addressed. Nowhere is the verdict disparaged as fair or unfair. Yes, there are factors that could be considered unfair - jury tampering, witness tampering, judicial bias, the list goes on. It happens. We've all seen episodes of The Good Wife, Law and Order, or read a few John Grisham novels.

But when the word "justice" is used, it is not supposed to be used in conjunction with "for the victim/family" or "for the defendant", or even "for the community". As I was reminded by Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, justice is supposed to be for everyone. Justice is supposed to be blind.

When the word "justice" is used in cases such as these, it should always refer to the process that must always be followed. Justice is the beauty of freedoms afforded in the American - and Canadian - system of law.

Investigation - including gathering of all evidence, interviews with all parties as is possible, and with witnesses. Presentation of said investigation before a judge, or a grand jury. And only then does it move forward, or end with a non-indictment.

The protesters, the agitators, the social media activists and the news media opiners have all lost sight of what justice means. There have been statements made by protesters and media alike, threatening that the violence seen in the streets thus far would be "a picnic" compared to what would unfold should the officer be acquitted, or not indicted at all.

What will be the denouement? Will there be an indictment/prosecution/conviction because those who cry for "justice" are actually hitting emotional heartstrings? Or out of fear for that threatened increased violence in the streets?

No one is diminishing the pain of a family whose son is dead. Nor should any diminish the anguish of the officer who shot him.

After all the evidence has been weighed and properly considered, should Darren Wilson be found to have unjustifiably fired his weapon to deadly consequences, I will be the first to say that justice has been served. Based on the evidence.

But if an officer is wrongfully indicted, tried before what could well be an already-tainted jury pool, and convicted because due process was denied?

If an officer is indicted and convicted because the court of public opinion has already rendered its verdict and sentence and the "justice system" follows suit?

And if an officer is wrongfully indicted because the true meaning of the word "justice" and the Sixth Amendment have been diluted to generate a result that would appease the masses?

That would be the truest tragedy of all.

Let justice be served. And when I say that, I mean let the process take its proper course. Investigation first. All evidence. Fairly, impartially.

And no matter how it bears out, if all steps have been taken properly, then - and only then - will justice have been served.

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