Today’s New York Times runs a front-page story entitled Jury Trials Vanish, and Justice is Served Behind Closed Doors. The article describes the current state of our prosecutorial system, whereby judges rarely hear a case; rather, convictions and sentences are settled around conference tables, by prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Judges lament their reduced role in serving up justice. Cases are brought by aggressive Assistant US Attorneys or District Attorneys, eager to make their bones by building a tough-guy reputation, to employ when they pursue political office. Too frequently, they lack the experience—and compassion—to consider the broader societal issues relating to a case. Considerations like a defendant’s childhood or mental state of mind are given short shrift, losing out to chalking up another case for the win column. This is professional sports, played out with human life.
I was indicted for securities fraud in 2002. I was accused of many things, many true and many not. I had only one discussion with my attorney regarding fighting the charges in court. He quickly disabused me of this option. Almost everyone settles, he explained. Those who don’t settle are fighting the US government, which has limitless resources (which I lacked), and almost never win. And if you lose, my sentence would be much, much more severe than had I settled.
Since I was guilty enough—and eager to publicly admit it—I knew settling was my only choice. And in all honesty, I must also admit that the “system” treated me fairly and with respect.
But I couldn’t help but think about those wrongfully indicted. “Wrongfully” might be the wrong word: “incorrectly” is probably better. In many cases, including those drug-related, merely hanging around during a crime’s commission can make one a party to a conspiracy. These distinctions rarely are considered in a sweeping, expedient settlement.
As the Times article points out, a jury trial is one of the lynchpins of our democracy, yet about the only place to watch a trial is when it’s enacted on TV. Judges, who presumably have the insight and wisdom to render “justice” are relegated to roles of mediator and rubber-stamper.
And human lives are herded from one holding cell to another, never to have their day in court.