“How can you defend those people?” It is such a loaded question. The presumptions asserted in such a question trouble me for what they represent. The question presupposes a few things but the ones that stick out to me as the most troubling is that my client is guilty simply because he or she was arrested and that he or she does not deserve due process.
While the Second Amendment is the hot topic du jour, the right to procedural due process and the presumption of innocence are two of the most important rights that a person holds when accused of a crime. We as a nation believe that no one should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law and that the burden of proof lies with the state when it comes to proving such allegations. That was not always the case in European jurisprudence. Proving one’s innocence meant the burden was on the defendant, a concept that our Founding Fathers roundly rejected when crafting the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
Our criminal justice system is built upon principles of fairness and equality. Everyone is entitled to a trial in a public court with an impartial jury and the presumption of innocence. It seems to me that these rights are consistently being eroded in our cultural consciousness as well as court made law. Our popular TV shows and pundits cash in on this steady erosion of civil liberties by turning the justice system into television events with commentary more fitting for Monday Night Football. Reality TV shows focusing on police portray a skewed view on law enforcement and fail to educate the viewer as to what is really going on in our cities.
Every day people are finding themselves the subject of illegal searches and seizures. Prosecutions based on questionable evidence are bolstered by the threat of draconian prison sentences that batter a defendant into pleading guilty. The system used in Connecticut is one that denies defendants their day in court. Perhaps ten percent of all arrests in Connecticut result in a trial. Quite frankly that suggests to me that our system is biased in such a way as to make the process of going to trial so unbearable that defendants fold their hand not because they admit their guilt, but because the penalties are so severe and the grind so dehumanizing that there seems to be no other reasonable alternative.
It’s frustrating and sad because the jury trial is one of the only ways the common individual can hold the state accountable for questionable practices in law enforcement. Forcing a police officer to take the stand to testify and undergo cross examination is the only time the defendant is able to question the officer’s motives, actions and judgment. When officers abuse their authority, they ought to be held to account so that the behavior is checked. When prosecutors refuse to be reasonable in executing their duty to seek justice, their position should be found wanting by a jury. We cannot do that if our system makes the jury trial a rarity for anything other than the most serious offenses. Our criminal justice system is quickly becoming just a criminal system in Connecticut and with the public misconceptions feeding into this cycle we will all feel its bite sooner rather than later.
Thomas Leaf is an attorney who practices criminal defense law. If you have any comments or questions, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-215-9778.