Our judicial system needs more respect. Like it or not, in the United States many criminals believe that they can commit crimes and get away with them. They believe that they can effectively argue their innocence at trial, even if they are, in fact, guilty. Where did they get this idea?
Though our judicial system is reasonably effective, a handful of high profile miscarriages of justice can severely damage its credibility. The O.J. Simpson trial, which was characterized by intense national media coverage, is a noteworthy example. The evidence in the case (i.e. Simpson’s DNA at the crime scene, numerous blood stains in Simpson’s home and car, and the bloody leather gloves — one found at the crime scene, the other at Simpson’s estate) overwhelmingly indicated that Simpson had murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Yet Simpson’s team of highly-paid attorneys was able to weave a story of police corruption and incompetence that yielded a verdict of not guilty.
Many criminals believe that, like Simpson, they can discredit overwhelming evidence at trial and get a verdict of not guilty. Right now, John A. Muhammad is on trial for the Oct. 9, 2002 murder of Dean Meyers. Muhammad is alleged to have used an assault rifle to kill Meyers while he was pumping gas at a Sunoco Station in Manassas, Virginia. Though Muhammad is only on trial for the murder of Meyers, prosecutors believe that he is responsible for the wave of sniper killings — 16 in all — that terrified the communities of Washington D.C., Alabama and Louisiana last fall.
The evidence against Muhammad is compelling. His fingerprints and DNA were found at several of the crime scenes, and ballistics tests conclusively link an assault rifle recovered from his car to at least a dozen of the shootings.
But Muhammad believes that he can beat the system. Last Monday he fired his lawyers, whose pretrial motions and remarks indicated that they would be more focused on avoiding the death penalty than securing an acquittal. Serving as his own attorney, Muhammad asserted that he had “nothing to do with these crimes” and asked, “What is it about a human life where we have reduced it, where we can take it, based on a guess?”
The evidence conclusively indicates that Muhammad was directly involved in the murder of Dean Meyers. He has argued, however, that the prosecution’s case amounts to an educated “guess.” Muhammad has learned his lesson from the Simpson trial and other highly televised courtroom debacles: he believes that the prosecution’s evidence, no matter how incriminating, can be overcome by a well-planned defense.
Every time a celebrity defendant beats overwhelming evidence, criminals get the message, “Even if you did it, they can’t prove you did it.” This message is an extremely dangerous one. By convicting and punishing the guilty, our judicial system does more than uphold broad standards of justice and morality. With every conviction, the judicial system warns potential criminals that they will be caught, convicted and punished if they break the law. It is essential for the security of our society that criminals believe the oft-repeated statement, “If you do the crime, you do the time.”
High profile not-guilty verdicts, particularly when rendered in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt, undermine the value of our judicial system as a criminal deterrent. When O.J. Simpson walks out of a courtroom in spite of mountains of evidence against him, potential criminals believe that they can do the same. And if they believe that they can break the law without being punished, they will continue to break the law.
The value of punishment as a deterrent is a critical element of our judicial system. While getting justice for the 16 victims of John Muhammad is important, it is far more important that the government prevent the next John Muhammad from killing 16 more people.
In order for the justice system to be an effective criminal deterrent, the government must successfully convict high profile defendants when the evidence conclusively points to their guilt. The trial of Kobe Bryant on charges of sexual assault will prove to be an important test of the system. If the evidence against Bryant proves his guilt and the jury convicts him, the trial will lend much needed credibility to our justice system. But if the jury returns a verdict of not guilty in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the trial will send a dangerous message to criminals across the country, “Do the crime, and you probably won’t have to do the time.”
Steven Starr is a junior in Saybrook College.