Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Case That Will Not Die

Much to your surprise, that was the title of a book, one of many, about the Sacco-Vanzetti case. As with the Rosenbergs, the best assessments today come down with the conclusion that one was guilty, the other wasn't. I'm glad the one they still say was innocent was Vanzetti; after all, he penned that fantastic letter, the one with "I might have lived out my life, standing on streetcorners, talking to scorning men, I have might died unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. The taking of our lives, a good shoemaker and a poor fishpeddler, all. That final agony is our triumph!"

And of course, the Rosenbergs, where it now appears pretty clear that Julius was a spy and they went after Ethel to try to turn Julius. Sam Roberts' book adds, of course, that what Julius stole, the Russians doubtless already had, through Klaus Fuchs, a far more sophisticated spy as a physicist himself. And also that (1) the Rosenbergs did not get a fair trial and (2) the death penalty was unjustified even if you are not opposed to capital punishment because the crime was hardly the Crime of the Century (J. Edgar Hoover's appellation) since Fuchs had stolen the major secrets.

All this brings me to what I have studiously avoided to the extent possible these past weeks--the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial. What a simple, easy explanation there is: the prosecution failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. End of argument. All the rest is persiflage: yes, she was a bad mother, she lied, she didn't do much after her child went missing for a month. All likely true, but beside the point. It should take an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence to prove a crime of malicious intent--I think of that English case where they did manage to prove the murder when there was no body, no corpus deliciti, because they closed down every other rational explanation.

The TV "experts" of course staked their reputations on her being found guilty. Thus all the yelling and screaming by people as to whom there's little reason to watch or listen. I see people online saying they watched the whole trial and "read between the lines." Reading between the lines fortunately has not yet become part of our system of justice...yet.

I don't even think this was an O.J.situation: where that rarest of rarities--a really competent defense goes up against an inept prosecution--made the difference. Here, the prosecution only had circumstantial evidence and got cocky. Normally, the system gives the prosecutor theedge; we tolerate this because many more defendants are guilty than are innocent. But our system is designed to make it harder to convict an innocent person--and tell me you want to be judged by jurors who "read between the lines" instead of listen to the evidence and listen to radio screamers or TV ones rather than listen to what goes on in the courtroom.

Sacco-Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs, inmy view, help make the case against the death penalty--being right 50% of the time isn't good enough to justify killing people in the name of the law. And when you see the kind of representation that Texas historically provided indigent defendants, for example, you're hard put to defend capital punishment purely on grounds of getting the right person.

But we live in a country where Texas decided, and this Supreme Court let it get away with, not complying with international treaty obligations. The treaty says a U.S. court must ensure that a foreigner gets to see his consul when accused of a crime here. You're in some other country's jail and they say you don't get to see the American Embassy rep or a lawyer or anyone because Teas didn't allow Mexicans to see the Mexican Embassy rep. Both Bush and now Obama are trying to keep Texas for executing yet another defendant who did not get that right. The Supreme Court let itslide, saying Congress has to act and now that's what's happening. But until they do, we are becoming America the outlaw.

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