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Fair Is Foul
A murder sits in a courtroom awaiting the judge's verdict. The judge was quick to reach her decision. She gives her verdict and the courtroom is up in arms. The murder has just gotten away with his despicable crime, even though everyone in the courtroom knows he is guilty. The judge could not convict him because the one piece of evidence, the murder weapon with his fingerprints on it, was obtained through an illegal search. This safeguard put in place to offer a fair trial to accused persons has just precluded justice. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.
Many of the safeguards put in place to provide a fair trial for every individual accused of a crime have created unfair trials in which the truth is excluded. The American Judicial System is focused on the ideal of giving everyone accused of a crime a 'fair trial,' and Congress and the Supreme Court have taken steps to try to make this ideal a reality. But as a result, criminals are freed because the government cannot provide sufficient evidence proving they committed their crimes. The ideal of guaranteeing accused persons a fair trial was created as a reaction to the many injustices perpetrated by early American courts. The government has made changes since its foundation to further protect individuals from being convicted of crimes they did not commit. Now, determining and honoring the truth is no longer the sole purpose of the courts. Trials have become unjust in a different way than the trials of early America.
The courts of America's early settlers were in no way the institutions of justice they were supposed to be. The only requirement for a conviction was frequently an accusation. Evidence was little more than rumor and most people accused of a crime were seen as guilty until proven innocent. Some quintessential examples of early-American 'justice' are the Salem Witch trials. People were convicted based solely on the accusation that they sent their spirit, or specter, upon someone, an accusation that could not be proven past the testimony of a victim. But even during these trials, people spoke out against the injustice of the proceedings. Increase Mather warned the people and judges of Salem that ' Convictions whereupon [persons] may be Condemned as Guilty of Witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more [considerable], than barely the [Accused] [Persons] being [Represented] by a [Specter] unto the Afflicted' (Mather) to be sure that justice was being served in these trials. The version of justice dispensed in these trials was not forgotten upon their conclusion.
During the 'Red Scare' of the 1950s, playwright Arthur Miller revisited the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible. Intended as an allegory for the trials and hearings fuelled by McCarthyism, Miller dramatizes the injustice, inhumanity and hysteria of the witch trials. He also makes several attacks on the judicial hearings of his time. One of the most powerful positive characters in the play, Nathan Hale, attacks the lack of evidence in the trials, stating 'I am a minister of the Lord, and I dare not take a life without there be proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of conscience may doubt it' (Miller, 92). The government of the United States has taken similar stance to that of Nathan Hale throughout its history.
Since their inception, Congress and the Supreme Court have set out to protect the rights of individuals accused of a crime and provide everyone with a fair trial. One of the first and most famous acts of Congress was the passing of the Bill of Rights, which basically 'commands (the) government to prove its case against the accused beyond reasonable doubt' ('The Revolution in Criminal Justice'). But that is not the only step taken by the government to protect the accused; Congress and the Supreme Court have also established acceptable and unacceptable ways of obtaining the truth. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. exemplified the rational for these measures when he said that it is 'less evil that some criminals should escape than that the government should play an ignoble part' ('The Revolution in Criminal Justice'). But this stance is not universally held.
Law enforcement officials have criticized the safeguards instituted to protect the accused because they limit the measures that can be taken to uncover the truth. Chicago Police Superintendent Orlando W. Wilson went as far as to say that measures taken to provide every accused individual with fair trial are merely 'devices for excluding the truth from criminal trials' ('The Revolution in Criminal Justice'). The once common practice of physically abusing a suspect in an attempt gain a confession now renders such a confession worthless as evidence, angering many police officers because, according to former New York City Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Dougherty, 'most crimes are not solved by fingerprints and wristwatch radios and the skillful assembling of clues. The suspect confesses, voluntarily or involuntarily' ('The Revolution in Criminal Justice'). This discrediting of certain confessions has left law enforcement agents helpless to present the truth in court in some instances. Consequently, fair trials can involve someone who is known to be guilty not receiving any punishment for their crime.
The result of a fair trial does not always include honoring of the truth. In the article 'Why Do We Defend Guilty People,' Larry Frieling, a defense attorney with three decades of experience, wrote that his goal 'is to reach a fair result for my client' (Frieling). He also explained that a fair result is not necessarily punishment for a crime. He gave the example of an illegally searched marijuana farm and said ''fair' might mean a complete dismissal' (Frieling). That instance illustrates just how far the focus of the American Judicial system has shifted from seeking and honoring the truth.
A 'fair' result of that trial would not be punishment based on the truth; instead, it would be no punishment for an illegal act.
Frieling, Lenny. "Why Do We Defend Guilty People." The Docket May 2006 21 Sep
Mather, Increase. "Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits." 11693 21 Sep 2008
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. 4. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
"The Revolution in Criminal Justice." Time 16 July 1965 21 Sep 2008