We have become so accustomed to law enforcement successfully convicting suspects that one of the country’s core principles – innocent until proven guilty – no longer holds. Instead, with the 24-hour news cycle, tabloid magazines and “Judge Judy,” it seems as though our country operates on the principle of guilty until proven innocent.
If you’re one of those wide-eyed optimists who think that I am in left field about this change in principle, consider these two examples – the Duke lacrosse rape case and the Scooter Libby trial. In both of these cases, lies started by law enforcement officials and then propagated by the media have wiped away any chance of a fair trial.
Last spring, three members of the Duke lacrosse team were at a party. Later that evening, one of the strippers from the party was admitted to a hospital and claimed that she had been raped by white men at the party. Once word of this reached the media, a liberally delicious narrative was created: Poor black woman raped by rich, white males in a gender, race and class-oriented attack. Almost instantaneously, liberal members of the Duke faculty threw the students under the bus and the lacrosse season was cancelled. The problem for the liberals in the media and Duke faculty was that it wasn’t true.
Over the past few months, we’ve learned that District Attorney Mike Nifong purposely withheld exculpatory DNA evidence from the defense. Nifong also ignored evidence that seemed to prove that two of the suspects could not have been physically present at the scene during the alleged rape. We’ve learned that the alleged victim has changed her story about the night’s events at least three times. The lineup Nifong arranged – during which the victim identified her attackers – resembled something out of “The Usual Suspects.” Yet the three men charged with her rape are still under indictment. What gives?
Sure, Nifong has dropped the rape charges, and he has asked the North Carolina attorney general to remove him from the case, but the damage has already been done. The three men awaiting trial must now decide between paying large sums to their lawyers to clear their names or accept a plea deal that would make them guilty in the eyes of the public. So much for innocent until proven guilty.
The Scooter Libby case held even greater promise for liberal America when it was first being investigated by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush announced that British intelligence had evidence that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger so that Iraq could build a nuclear bomb. Shortly thereafter, Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times explaining that he had been sent to Niger by the CIA and had found no evidence of the Niger-Iraq yellowcake transaction.
Then in the summer of 2003, in an effort to discredit Wilson, columnist Robert Novak wrote that Wilson was sent to Niger by his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA. Leaking the identity of a covert CIA operative is a federal crime, so Fitzgerald was dispatched to find the identity of the leaker. Liberals hoped that the leaker was White House chief advisor Karl Rove, so that the mastermind of Bush’s presidential campaigns could be publicly discredited, but the problem this time was that Plame did not meet the criteria for a covert CIA operative.
Last fall, Fitzgerald announced that the only person who would be indicted in relation to the investigation was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, “Scooter” Libby. Fitzgerald indicted Libby for obstruction of justice – lying to investigators about a crime that was never committed. Fitzgerald realized that Wilson was not protected by federal statute as a CIA analyst, but he couldn’t end a three-year investigation without indicting anyone, so he indicted Libby over a he-said, she-said squabble with “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert. This was supposed to be the “worst scandal since Watergate,” but the larger injustice is that even if Libby is exonerated, he will be always be guilty in the public eye.
How do we fix the system? Some think the direct election of district attorneys brings a necessary accountability component to the job. But overzealous prosecutors like Nifong have shown how directly elected officials can abuse the biases of the electorate to get re-elected. Alternatively, appointed prosecutors should be able to pursue justice without concerning themselves with public perception. Fitzgerald shot that theory to shit.
With the core of our criminal justice system undermined, I guess we all must hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
John Stiglich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.