By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
It has been hard to read the news and avoid discussing the criminal law in these past few weeks. Take that situation in Russia, for instance. An American basketball player was caught with marijuana at an airport over there and they arrested her. After an admirably quick trial (getting her case to a judge would have taken many months in our system), a Russian court found her guilty and sentenced her to nine years in prison.
That’s pretty steep for a weed conviction, but I suppose every nation has its own hang-ups. There are countries in this world who arrest their women for having abortions. Who knew.
Anyway, our federal government has been up in arms about this business. Even though the defendant actually entered a plea of guilty, accepting the fact that she broke a local law, there’s a sense that this was a show trial; that the prosecution wasn’t truly interested in a neutral investigation of the matter; in short, that the outcome was pre-ordained. Perhaps the police even tried to hide evidence that would have been helpful to the accused, or at best, they ignored it. They do that sort of thing over there.
And it’s no surprise when it happens. Russia has a long history of show trials. The Soviet era featured them regularly. Nor has the Russian state been alone in actively guiding the administration of justice. The czar sure didn’t invent that routine. France had its infamous Dreyfus case in the 1800’s, in which a Jewish army officer was accused of treason. The French army hid evidence that would have acquitted him to keep its own reputation intact, and it was considered unpatriotic to question those military types. So an innocent man was condemned to Devil’s Island. He sat there for years. Tragic.
Of course, this whole canard of believing that you need to support your military types or else you’re unpatriotic: that ancient and obscene thought has the same relationship to real patriotism that pornography does to real love. Not only does it fly in the face of reason and fact. It also often leads to prejudice against people who stand out in some way; people who don’t belong to the establishment, people who are new or different somehow. They might have a last name that’s difficult to pronounce, or an accent, or a different-colored soul. The stuff of hatred, world-wide, dressed up in uniform and placed on parade.
It’s strange to listen to progressives rage against that Russian trial system, though, because they often rage against our own system too. Leaving matters of guilt and innocence in the hands of a jury requires having real confidence in your fellow citizens; it is a statement of faith in democracy itself, which explains not only why Russia can’t manage it, but also why America likes it so much. (Ever see the movie Twelve Angry Men, or better yet, The Ox-Bow Incident?)
But when Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted in Wisconsin a little while ago: an awful lot of left-wingers took exception to that verdict. Even Joe Biden spoke against it, though he was careful to couch his protest in vague and plaintive terms. And when Derek Chauvin went on trial in Minnesota, the entire left wing of our country held its breath and prayed for the right thing to happen. They apparently knew what the right thing was, before any evidence had been heard. I wish I had that ability, but I’m just a lawyer.
Funnily enough, though, our Republican friends have been doing the same thing lately. What’s good for the goose, you know. Donald Trump’s house was just searched pursuant to a search warrant duly issued by a judge. Right-wingers have called that a political decision and they have threatened to punish those responsible. Tails, I win. Heads, you lose.
Again, I’m just a lawyer. I know how hard judges and juries work to do their jobs. I have seen the effort and I have seen the results, over and again, to the point where I trust how our system works. But again, I’m also thankful that I live in New Hampshire, where our jury system is still respected. Our prosecutors still have integrity. Our police can still be trusted. Our governor still disfavors the Soviet brand of justice. Right?
New Hampshire hasn’t always been such a terrific place, though. Back in the 19th century, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson liked our mountains but considered our politicians to be hacks. “God taunted the lofty land with little men,” he wrote. I wonder what he’d think today.
He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project, The Book of Order, and his most recent one, The Hunter of Talyashevka . They are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.