By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
It has been difficult to read the news and avoid discussing criminal law over the past few weeks. Take this situation in Russia, for example. An American basketball player was caught with marijuana at an airport there and they arrested her. After an admirably speedy trial (bringing 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 guess every nation has their own hangups. There are countries in this world that arrest their wives for having abortions. Who knew.
Be that as it may, our federal government has spoken out against this case. Even though the defendant did plead guilty, accepting the fact that she broke a local law, it feels like a show trial; that the prosecution was not really interested in a neutral investigation of the case; in short, that the outcome was predetermined. Perhaps the police even attempted to conceal evidence that would have been useful to the accused, or at best they ignored it. They do that stuff there.
And it’s no surprise when that 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 Tsar certainly did not invent this routine. France had its infamous Dreyfus Affair in the 1800s, in which a Jewish army officer was accused of treason. The French military hid evidence that would have acquitted him to keep its own reputation intact, and it was considered unpatriotic to question these military types. Thus, an innocent man was sentenced to Devil’s Island. He sat there for years. Tragic.
Of course, all that duckiness of believing you have to support your military types or else you’re not patriotic: that old, obscene thought has the same relationship to real patriotism as pornography has to real love. Not only does this go against reason and facts. It also often leads to prejudice against people who stand out in one way or another; people who are not part of the establishment, people who are new or different in some way. They may have a hard-to-pronounce last name, or an accent, or a different colored soul. The stuff of hate, worldwide, dressed in uniform and on parade.
It is strange to hear progressives ranting against this Russian trial system, because they often rant against our own system as well. Leaving the questions of guilt and innocence in the hands of a jury requires having a real confidence in one’s fellow citizens; it’s a statement of faith in democracy itself, which not only explains why Russia can’t handle it, but also why America loves it so much. (Have you ever seen the movie Twelve Angry Men, or better yet, The Ox-Bow Incident?)
But when Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted in Wisconsin a short time ago: a lot of leftists opposed that verdict. Even Joe Biden opposed it, though he was careful to phrase his protest in vague and plaintive terms. And when Derek Chauvin was put on trial in Minnesota, the entire left wing of our country held their breath and prayed for the right thing to happen. They apparently knew the right thing to do, before any evidence was heard. I wish I had that ability, but I’m just a lawyer.
Curiously, however, our Republican friends have been doing the same lately. Which is good for the goose, you know. Donald Trump’s home has just been searched under a search warrant duly issued by a judge. The right called it a political decision and 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 job. I’ve seen the effort and I’ve seen the results, time and time again, to the point where I have confidence in how our system works. But again, I’m also grateful to live in New Hampshire, where our jury system is still respected. Our prosecutors are always honest. Our police can still be trusted. Our governor still disapproves of Soviet justice. Right?
However, New Hampshire hasn’t always been such a great place. Back in the 19e century, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson loved our mountains but saw our politicians as hacks. “God mocked the high ground with little men,” he wrote. I wonder what he would think today.
He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and publicity which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project, The Book of Order, and his most recent, The Hunter of Talyashevka. They are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.