President Bush pledged today that those responsible for suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia that left dozens dead would “learn the meaning of American justice.”
Let’s explore that for a moment.
What I know of American justice can be boiled down into a few basic precepts. This is strictly off the cuff, you understand, but see if it doesn’t ring true.
If you want a big trial with all the trimmings, you have to think big
This observation comes from a number of recent “spectacular” crimes that have resulted in big-budget defense teams or unheard-of indulgence from the court for the accused. For whatever reason, it seems the amount spent on the trial is in direct proportion to the amount of damage you do. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was provided a crack defense team and a trial that dragged on for months. Several million dollars later, he was convicted and executed, to no one’s surprise. The trial of the D.C. snipers promises more of the same. Accused 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui has enjoyed every amenity in his never-ending trial, including numerous breaks and advice from the court in spite of his regular digressions into delusional nonsense and anti-American screeds, coupled with his complete lack of expertise regarding court procedures. His lawyer (himself) may have a fool for a client, but the joke is on the taxpayers who are funding this big-budget fiasco.
Contrast this to the regular Joe who guns down his wife or co-workers. He gets a sleepy public defender and the thing is wrapped up in two weeks.
If you’re famous, you can’t be jailed for drugs unless you really want to
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of entertainment types being dragged into court for serious drug crimes, only to be sentenced to ‘”community service” and fines that are meaningless to millionaires. Eventually, after their fifth or sixth arrest, the judge gets mad and “threatens” actual jail time. But it rarely comes to pass. (Exception: Robert Downey Jr..)
But don’t try this at home. Non-famous people are regularly thrown in the pokey for simple possession.
Murderers are more important than their victims
Some ancient–and modern– justice systems, when dealing with murderers, prescribed restitution as a first remedy. Sometimes the killer was allowed to work in order to pay the family for the loss. The entire tribunal revolved around the wrong done to the victim’s family (acknowledging that the actual victim was beyond such concerns). The family was often consulted for their judgment on what should be done with the guilty party, and their wishes carried out.
Now, the victims’ kin are allowed to sit in the courtroom and watch, but that’s about it. Murderers no longer commit crimes against people – they commit them against “the state.” And the trial is centered around the accused, who is the subject of all aspects of the trial and the main focus of the state’s efforts.
After the trial and sentencing, the killer becomes of even more concern to the state. They house, feed and clothe him. They monitor his behavior. They provide endless appeals. They stage elaborate parole hearings that concentrate on the killer’s progress, the killer’s behavior, the killer’s future. When he’s finally released, they have other folks check in on him, monitor his progress, help him “assimilate.”
The family of the victim gets a letter once in a while.
Some murderers get famous for their inventive crimes. They get clever nicknames like “Son of Sam” and “The Preppy Killer.” Books, movies, cults sometimes follow. I recall that Ted Bundy, who may have killed dozens of young women, supposedly received a bulging bag of love letters and marriage proposals every day in prison. Over time, a killer’s “evilness” can be all but washed away and replaced by a kind of pop culture icon status (as with Charles Manson). But I can’t recall any victims ever being immortalized or lionized, I guess because being killed doesn’t make you interesting. Just dead.
If you’re a lucky killer, Norman Mailer will find you “intriguing,” and he’ll write a book about you. Then they’ll let you go and you can kill again. Yeah, it happened.
Actual innocence of the condemned is not sufficient reason to stop an execution
This was one of the Supreme Court’s shining moments. Back when I did research for a living, I came across this nugget, which involved a man in Texas who was convicted of murder in your standard non-famous-person trial (see above). The appeals process was exhausted, but new evidence came to light that appeared to exonerate the man. The prosecution, on seeing the new evidence, agreed. So there was really no one in Texas who wanted to carry out the execution anymore. But the “process” took over, the governor refused a stay, and the Supreme Court, answering a final emergency appeal, refused to halt the execution because “actual innocence is not sufficient reason for this court to delay the timely carrying out of the sentence,” or words to that effect.
So they executed him.