Monday, March 13, 2006

Oops, They Did It Again... 

One favorite conservative shibboleth is the myth that any sort of enforcement of Constitutional Rights just frees criminals. You'll hear them bitch and whine constantly about someone who got off on a technicality.

And they'd be the first ones screaming to high heaven if they got pulled over for speeding and a cop decided to look in their trunk without a warrant and found the illegal (fill in the blank) here.

Which brings me to the grim but amusing boo-boo committed by the US Government today in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th highjacker. The short version is that, in preparing witnesses for trial, the US broke the rules. They coached prospective witnesses with transcripts of prior witnesses' testimony. Consequently, the whole thing might be declared a mistrial, or the death penalty may be removed as a sentencing option.

This is where the conservatives start screaming about constitutional rights for terrorists and how the ACLU is the spawn of Satan, blah blah blah, quite missing the point of the whole thing.

First off, if the person on trial is a criminal and the prosecution has evidence, they'll usually get a conviction -- if they do things properly on the way to that conviction. All those requirements and procedures and so forth aren't designed to give clever defense attornies a way out for their clients. They're designed to protect the innocent citizen from abuse by the system.

If you don't think that happens... well, no, wait, that's right. Conservatives don't get pulled over for "Driving while Black". Okay, maybe a very few rich, conservative African Americans have gotten that treatment -- although, since they're rich, they have easy access to the lawyers and contacts who will get them off, and/or the lawyers and contacts who will get them a buttload of money should they have been on the receiving end of a nightstick. (I have a friend who's an African American doctor. He's been subject to the getting pulled over part more than twice -- although the cop's attitude usually changes the second he identifies himself as a doctor, and he gets some bullshit excuse about "stolen car with similar description, move along, nothing to see here.")

As for the poor folk in the same situation? They'd better be lucky enough to have some citizen armed with a video camera nearby. (This is actually a great argument in favor of public surveillance cameras -- they can help protect people from the authorities.)

Secondly, when the government cheats, not only does it not protect the innocent, it flings the door wide open for the guilty to go free. If the case is strong enough, there's no reason to cheat -- and didn't Moussaoui confess, anyway? There was absolutely no reason at all for the government to taint their witnesses. In so doing, they've invalidated that testimony, period.

Why? The reasons should be obvious. One witness should never know what another has said, because the witness is supposed to give their own, honest testimony on the stand, free of influence. That way, if one witness says it was Tuesday and another says it was Wednesday, there's an avenue for the defense to explore or the prosecution to explain. But if witness B reads a transcript in which witness A says "Tuesday", witness B's recollection is instantly compromised; perhaps they'll suddenly remember that it was Tuesday, when they'd been absolutely sure previously that it was Wednesday.

And, once again, if the case is strong enough, there's no reason for these shenanigans to be going on.

Also note: four of the witnesses in question were defense witnesses -- "'It's half our case,' a member of the defense team said."

So, class, that's why Constitutional protections and legal procedures are very important, and must be followed for everyone, from the great-grandma accused of littering right on up to Charles Manson, or Zacarias Moussaoui or George Bush.

Do I think Moussaoui is guilty of something? Hell yeah. Do I think the government totally fucked this one up? Hell yeah. Could they have avoided it? Yes -- but they won't avoid this kind of screw up as long as they're playing the "Protecting Us from Terrorists" card. When it gets to the trial point, it's "Trying to convict a criminal". That's where the focus should be, and that's why the procedures should be followed to the letter. That is the real way to protect the Homeland.

But don't worry. If Moussaoui walks or isn't sentenced to death, I'm sure he'll get a little Milosevic medicine in his coffee one day.

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