BY EDWIN E. VINEYARD
Justice is an interesting concept. Most of us would prefer mercy to justice for ourselves. However, most of us think that others, particularly strangers who are different from us, should have justice tempered with little mercy. Mercy tempering thoughts about justice, or lack thereof, seem ironically to be more related to one’s politics than to one’s religion.
Our Republican friends in the legislative halls of the nation, and some of our Democratic friends as well, seem to find it necessary to put on a show of being tough on crime. Apparently, they think that pleases us.
First, we now tend to make everything a crime, whether this is children’s curious behavior in school, youthful experimentation with the wiles of the world, or adult errors and simple mistakes in judgment. Anything wrong tends to become a crime, often of magnified proportions.
Mandatory sentencing, three strikes legislation, and no probation clauses have all meant well, but may result in individual injustices when applied. “No tolerance” rules in schools have similar effects, with applications sometimes seeming idiotic. One writer said nearly 100 years ago, “Justice not tempered by mercy is cold, and has no place in school discipline.”
Have we really progressed so far as to make that principle obsolete?
This discussion is not, of course, about serious, violent crimes, although the harsh justice of guilt by association, rather than commission, is often very troubling. Just being present when a criminal act was performed by another person is not the same as committing the act.
If all the hard-nosed, uncompromising prosecuting attorneys are added to the mix above, and then all the harsh, unyielding judges are inserted, the result is a justice system that is not only overly burdensome to taxpayers but also potentially hazardous to citizens living their daily lives.
Who among us would want to find ourselves deep into such a system as a result of some momentary lapse of judgment, error committed for lack of knowledge or understanding, or violation of some personal conduct rule codified by a misguided legislature?
It is interesting that few voices were raised recently in defense of football hero O. J. Simpson. It became quite obvious that this trial was all about the perceived miscarriage of justice in Los Angeles 13 years earlier.
Legal experts, one after another, have said that there was nothing in the offense in Las Vegas warranting such harsh prosecution or such severe sentencing.
O. J. Simpson is no longer seen as a hero, or even as a tragic, sympathy evoking figure. He has few public friends or supporters. Instead, most see him as a double murderer who got away with it.
Unfortunately, since the earlier trial and acquittal verdict, there has been a definite racial dichotomy in opinions on O.J.’s guilt or innocence. Almost all whites think he was guilty while most blacks think he was not guilty, or at least the guilt was unproven. The predominantly black jury was unanimous in its verdict.
Having watched more of the O.J. trial than 95% of the population, this writer came to the same conclusion as the trial jury – i.e. the prosecution did not prove its case that O.J. Simpson was guilty.
While he may or may not have done the crime, there were too many flaws in the prosecution’s case for this observer to reach a guilty conclusion without a doubt.
Yet many notable and highly qualified public figures, such as Argus Hamilton and Jay Leno, have pronounced such a guilty conclusion over and over. Probably 99% of white Americans believe it to be so. It is as if his legal verdict had been “guilty, but no punishment.”
The Las Vegas case was about a sports figure gathering a few strong-arm types and going into hotel room, shouting and threatening, to get his missing memorabilia back. With or without his knowledge, a couple of his group had unneeded weapons. He took some gear not his own, but made immediate efforts to return that.
While the judge admonished the jury and the press that this case stood alone, and that the past should have nothing to do with present case considerations, it became obvious that neither the jury nor the judge herself followed that directive.
Yes, indeed, several mistakes were made, and several laws violated by this defendant. O.J. deserved prosecution and punishment in accordance with the total situation of this case. Instead, it is recognized that his justice this time was colored by the commonly perceived lack of it in the previous case.
At times there is something not quite right about justice.
– Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate, is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer