by David Sisler
"‘Write that down,'" the King said to the jury, in Lewis Carroll's classic, "and the jury eagerly wrote down all three dates on their slates, and then added them up, and reduced the answer to shillings and pence."
Somehow, that made sense to Alice, from inside Wonderland, but with American society increasingly threatened by revolving justice, plea-bargaining and arbitrary sentence reductions, it makes little sense today.
Unfortunately, revolving justice is not a new concept, but one that is increasing by frightening proportions. To define simply a complex problem, an individual may commit the same crime three separate times, and be placed on bail three separate times, before he is ever brought to justice for the first crime.
Even then, the offender may escape the full weight of justice through plea-bargaining. An accused criminal is frequently allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in return for his cooperation, or he may receive complete immunity from prosecution if he will provide evidence against others who participated in the crime.
Plea-bargaining allegedly speeds up the docket because there are so many crimes in our society, but it can also be a cop-out for a lazy district attorney who is unwilling to do his homework. In Alaska, before plea-bargaining was abolished there in 1974, the head of one large law firm bragged that one of the top trial men in his office, who dealt only with serious felony cases, did not try a single case for a year. Attorneys learned that they could get rid of any case when the right bargain was struck with the prosecutor. The experiment was later deemed a failure, not because of backlogs, but because of complaints from criminal defense attorneys: "We can't manage without plea-bargaining."
Amendment VI to the United States Constitution says, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial." Today we no longer seem to search for justice, but rather a "magic bullet." Someone has suggested that since we have replaced the Pioneer Spirit with Pioneer Stereo, a change in the Bill of Rights might be in order. Accordingly the sixth amendment would read: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to avoid prosecution by exhausting the legal process and its practitioners. Failure to succeed shall result in speedy plea-bargaining resulting in lesser charges."
There is no humor in revolving justice. Crime seems to increase in direct proportion to the rate with which we release criminals without conviction, or bargain away serious offenses, thus rewarding criminals with token sentences.
Consider the case of Gillian Harper.
Harper shot Roberto Clarke three times in the back and then continued to fire until his pistol was empty. Amazingly, Clarke did not die and Harper was charged with attempted murder. Almost immediately Harper's attorney worked out a plea-bargain: first-degree assault, which carried a potential 15-year prison term. Incredibly, the judge who was scheduled to hear the case said that since Harper had not intended to kill Clarke, he should be allowed to plead to third-degree assault, which carries a maximum 5-year sentence. The judge later reversed herself and accepted the original plea.
From The Virgin Islands Daily News comes an even more incredible story.
Winston "Vibert" Tutein is a professional criminal. In less than eight years he has been arrested 24 times on 43 charges, but he has spent less than 14 months in jail. Arrested six times in one year, he was released -- after the sixth arrest -- by the territorial court on his own recognizance! In one case alone, he pleaded from a 20 year sentence to a six month jail term. If he had been convicted on all 43 charges, Tutein would have faced almost 300 years behind bars. Instead, he served less than one-half of one percent of the time his charges could have brought him.
One more case, and in this litigation, no plea-bargain was allowed.
The woman was unquestionably guilty, guilty of a death penalty offense. The law under which she was accused, demanded that her accusers had to be her executioners. That particular provision was an assurance against the lies people tell when they think they will not have to stand good for them.
The verdict was delivered by an itinerant preacher, Jesus of Nazareth. He said, "The one of you who has never, in his heart, wanted to do the same thing, you cast the first stone."
Human laws and court proceedings change, but there is an eternal court where all of the defendants are guilty and plea-bargaining is never allowed. Once guilt is determined, execution of the sentence may be delayed, but it is always carried out. In this court, however, where by no stretch of the imagination do you deserve mercy, mercy is yours for the asking--through that same Jesus, God's Son.
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 10/5/96
Copyright 1996 by David Sisler
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