May first is probably one of the least known “special” days on the calendar. By proclamation issued in 1958, President Eisenhower declared the day “Law Day”, a time to remember and to honor “the great heritage of liberty, justice and equality under law which our forefathers bequeathed to us”. While not a holiday celebrated with the festivities of some – and it is doubtful that any businesses or government offices close for its observance – it is one which should not be forgotten.
Perhaps this year is a particularly good one in which to remember that, while not perfect, we have a legal system in place that is without equal in the world. Those who pontificate about legal systems in other nations have forgotten that, in most, a person charged with an offense is guilty until proven innocent. As a result, their conviction rates are much higher than ours; proving a negative (that a person did not do something) is notoriously hard. Perhaps in part as a result of that mindset, peace officers in those nations do not have the constraints on them that we impose. If evidence is obtained illegally, it is still seen to be to the good of the State, and therefore is admissible. Rights to privacy and expression are not as widely held as we might think, something that many American citizens who travel overseas have had a chance to learn.
My father used to comment that the greatest machines are only as strong as their weakest parts. An engineer who worked on the SST as well as several plans for nuclear power plants, those “weakest parts” troubled him. Following the same philosophy, a government is as honorable as its least honorable official, and a system of justice as incorruptible as its most corruptible participant. So often, it seems, social media (as well as the mainstream variety), latch hold of a view of a case, never to let go – no matter the right or wrong of the matter. There are time when, intentionally or not, incorrect information is given to law enforcement…and they act on it. At times, the flame is fueled by a prosecutor who, for any of several reasons, moved on a case guaranteed to hit national media. Finally, after being through a time of infamy that few would want to emulate, suspect is quietly exonerated….
Many nations of the world would have handled this case in a very different way. In some, the families of victims take it into their own hands to wreak retribution on the person they suspect of “wronging” an individual. In most places, there is not a Grand Jury proceeding, nor are the suspects have been allowed to make bond. When attorneys for the state determine that evidence exists to believe that the offense was committed, the suspects are arrested and locked up. While our Constitution demands that, with the exception of serious offenders, all persons not yet found to have committed the offense be allowed reasonable bail, this is a very unusual right.
Preparing to defend against criminal charges is not simple in any land. The founders of our nation, for reasons that would be material for many columns, chose to create a presumption that all persons are innocent of any crime until the State proves otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt. In this, as in many of their actions, they were parting company from the lands of their forebears, and breaking very new ground. As jurisprudence has developed, it has been determined that the cause of justice not only requires that (most) persons accused be free to work on their defense, but that much of the information gathered by the State be available to the attorney for the defendant.
These are rights which stand the accused in our nation in excellent stead. Despite the comments in newspapers, forums, or social media, until and accused pleads guilty or is determined to have committed the offense by judge or jury, he or she is innocent. The freedom to continue gainful employment, to work with counsel, and to find the information which contradicts that in the hands of the state is priceless. I can only imagine the frustration which would build for those accused of an offense, aware of their innocence, yet unable to take steps to help find the proof of such innocence.
Amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, the Texas Legislature has now mandated that any information a prosecutor may have about an office WILL be shared with defense counsel. Many of us have done this as an office policy; sadly, with prosecutors as with any other walk of life, there are those who have motives other than the constitutionally mandated one of “seeking justice”. This opportunity – much less mandate – is something unique to our country. Many of those who helped write our initial laws had been in difficulty in England; perhaps that helped to influence their decisions.
In 1692, the Reverend Cotton Mather stated at the end of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, "I would rather set ten witches free than to hang one innocent person". Variations on this theme have characterized American justice since that time. Law Day is a time to remember that, first, our system is not perfect – the innocent are at times arrested and convicted. However, it is one of the few that has built in protections to try to keep that from happening, and perhaps the only one that provides for re-examing cases when new evidence appears. I am proud to be part of a system which, while it can make mistakes, orders the attorneys representing the state to serve the cause of justice, not to count convictions or blindly imprison people.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .