Conversations and Critiques of the System
As the year winds its way out, many people are discussing 2014. They’ll talk about what they accomplished, what they failed to accomplish, and what they hope to accomplish in the future. These are great conversations to have.
Another conversation emerged too. A conversation about the criminal justice system in America. Being a criminal defense attorney, I regularly have thoughts on the system. But today’s post is about the growing social consciousness of the criminal justice system itself. 2014 was a banner year for non-attorney, non-police officers to take a hard look at how our country accuses and processes people charged with crimes.
One of the biggest pieces of media that got people talking was NPR’s excellent Serial podcast. Serial was a 12-week look at the prosecution and conviction of Adnan Syed, a Muslim-American convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. This post is not about the process as applied to Syed. Serial asks the listeners to review the evidence and draw their own conclusions, and I encourage you to do so. But whether Syed is guilty of the crime he was convicted of, no one denies there were irregularities in the process, from the investigation and interrogation, all the way through Syed’s trial and appeal. I talked to a number of people who were genuinely surprised those irregularities existed, and continue to exist, in our criminal justice system. Serial got people talking about how the system stands now, and that alone is an impressive accomplishment.
A public defender in the Bronx wrote an op-ed, springboarding off of Serial to shine a light on the flaws in our system. It’s a great read, although luckily in Washington State where I practice, a lot of the issues the author point to do not occur here. For example, Washington does have a liberal discovery system, where both the defense and prosecution turn over materials they anticipate they will use or could be used at trial. There are some exceptions, like attorney-client statements, but reports and recordings are by default exchanged. I think it’s a fantastic and fair way to conduct the serious business of criminal justice and I would support any system that moves to that model. I imagine if you were ever charged with a crime, you would want your attorney to have as much information as possible to advise you as well. If you don’t live in Washington and want a change to your system, I urge you to research the issue and contact the appropriate rule-making body.
Besides Serial, other issues brought criminal justice issues to light. Those issues are of course the officer-based killings of civilians Michael Brown, and in a separate event, Eric Garner. These incidents led to widespread protests by the public. More recently, a civilian killed two New York Police Officers: Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos
The above link cites to social media of the civilian gunman, saying the killings were in response to recent officer-led deaths.
Even before the officer-killings, citizens protesting the police drew counter-protestors who were supporting police. But after those officer deaths, pro-police groups strongly called for a halt for protests. In fact, that link contains a quote from people who said the protestors have “blood on their hands” and the killings were inevitable from anti-police rhetoric.
Is that true? Does protesting a social issue inevitably lead to the death of those on the other side? Do the protestors bear responsibility for the actions of the gunman?
I think not. Protesting and making one’s voice heard is woven into our American heritage. Some of our country’s proudest moments came from civil disobedience and the assembly of like-minded people, including the founding of this country.
Here’s the thing. The issue of law enforcement in this country is complex. People do want police on the streets, but they don’t want to live in a police state. Those desires are not mutually exclusive but obviously the pendulum can shift too far in one direction.
But the answer is not to silence the public and hope things work out. Anti-police protestors do have the right to be heard. And pro-police protestors likewise get to argue society is in the right place. Everyone should be allowed to present their version of the society they want to live in. No one should be silenced on an issue so fundamental.
It’s disheartening to read that people are trying to silence the protestors. The insane gunman who executed those officers is responsible for his own actions. Tragedy happens, but we have the choice how we respond to that tragedy. Do we become afraid of further irrational violence, or do we stay focused on the message? I hope everyone stays true to making sure their message is heard. And I’m not the only one.
I am saddened by the injustices and killings these events have shown. But I am happy these issues, that I encounter in my professional life, are now in the public’s consciousness. If 2014 was a year you refined your views of the criminal justice system, I urge you to share your views with your friends and family. It’s how change begins.