Ever wonder about the accuracy of Charles Dickens’ observation through Mr. Bumble that sometimes “the law is an ass” and what that costs Americans in both taxes and justice? Well, take a look at some current examples and make up your own mind.
For months now, the federal prosecutors and courts have been dithering with the case of the would-be 9/11 participant, Zacarias Moussaoui, first to convict him in a showcase trial and then to determine whether to give him the death penalty or life in prison without parole, all at millions of dollars in cost to the taxpayers. Clearly he revered the death penalty as a means of gaining the importance that he never really had in the scheme that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and brought about the crash of another airliner in a Pennsylvania field.
In reality, Moussaoui was a small figure, if even that, in the entire affair. He may or may not have known what he claims to have known and the jury refused to grant him the privilege of martyrdom. After lengthy deliberations, it came up with the right decision, life in prison. Why give this nitwit what he wanted? Make him live every day of his miserable life on bread and water in total isolation, a long way from Paradise.
Then there is the case of the snipers who terrorized the Washington area four years ago _ the deranged Svengali, John Allen Muhammad, and his young disciple, Lee Boyd Malvo. Muhammad has been convicted and sentenced to death and Malvo to life in prison without parole for slayings in Virginia. But that hasn’t stopped ambitious prosecutors in neighboring Maryland from trying them all over again at a huge cost to taxpayers, all on the pretext of bringing closure to the families of victims in their state and discovering the real motives for the killings of four years ago. What motives?
The prosecutors aren’t going to ask for the death penalty for Muhammad, presumably because they realize that it would be difficult to fry him twice. Besides, executing him in Virginia and then hauling the body to Maryland for a second shot would be just a bit too ghoulish. As for his sidekick, he now is expected to plead to another life term in prison without parole and maybe even testify against Muhammad. When he dies in Virginia, they could haul him to a refrigerated cell in Maryland.
But Mr. Bumble’s assessment of the law was always about justice found or denied. A panel of experts in Texas has discovered that faulty evidence in two separate arson cases sent two men to death row and one of them was executed. The other received $430,000 in 2004 for 17 years of false imprisonment. In a report for the Innocence Project that is being turned over to the newly established Texas Forensic Science Commission, the experts said that prosecutors used the same faulty scientific theories to mistakenly convict and then ultimately exonerate one man and then convict and execute the other.
Once again, the system failed because of bad investigators, prosecutors and judges. How many other such cases exist in Texas alone is anyone’s guess since Texas leads the nation in arson convictions as it does in executions.
At the same time the arson report was being released, the Maryland state judicial commission filed misconduct charges against a judge who it claimed has shown a disturbing pattern of abusiveness toward women appearing before him. This is worth mentioning because he is the very same jurist who, in a ruling that has drawn national attention on the Oprah Winfrey Show, dismissively rejected a woman’s plea to keep in place a protective order against her estranged husband who three weeks later doused her with gasoline and set her on fire.
The commission officially charged that Prince George’s County judge Richard Palumbo engaged in a broad pattern of misconduct when considering protective orders in domestic violence matters, including inappropriate remarks to those seeking relief. According to local news reports, this charmer, who stands a magnificent 5 feet 4 inches tall, allegedly refused to listen to the burn victim-to-be when she appeared before him. When she said she wanted a divorce, he replied, “And I would like to be 6 foot-5.” Wonderful. He would do well in an Islamic country.
One could only wish that there were some test to determine the fitness of those we elect or name to the bench or to the prosecution. But built-in systemic incompetence, alas, is a cross democracy must bear.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)