07 March 2007

The Scooter Libby Mess...A Pardonable Guilt?

You know, you have to feel sorry for the poor 11 jurors who had to decide the Scooter Libby verdict, at least in some small measure. The problems with what they apparently were faced with...not believing a lot of the witnesses, noticing repeated inaccuracies that destroyed Libby's 'bad memory' claims, a potentially savory yet snarky lot of luminaries both seen and not...are not what an average 'peer' has to contend with. From what is coming out now through the press (The Huffington Post, in particular, has had an interesting exclusive series chronicling one juror's pathway to the verdict) it would seem that the jurors did the best that they felt they could, given what limited options provided to them. Several reports have these jurors as sympathetic to Mr Libby, and even go as far as to characterize him as The Administration's Fall Guy...and also wondering why he, and only he, was the only defendant.

In many ways, this jury duty would have been both the best and the worst of a legal dilemma. Best in the sense that the Libby trial was a high-profile case and certainly will come in somewhere (if only even as an asterisk) in the history of the Bush presidency. Best in the sense that it was a complex case that required the jurors to actively participate by taking notes and, when weighing the verdict, extensively hashing out the facts and timeline from said notes. (The HuffPo articles cited above have mentioned the notes being laid out for accuracy and argument by jurors until an 'acceptable' evaluation of the facts could be agreed upon.) I think I can speak for many when I say I could only hope, if the situation were reversed, that my jurors would be so conscientious in their deliberations with my future at stake. However, this duty would also be the worst, too: the relative anonymity a juror receives after completing their stint has been forever shattered by the media looking for a good thirty-second sound bite. Additionally, (and they were doomed with this result before the trial even began) the jurors from the Libby trial will always be accused of letting their own personal politics render the verdict...no matter which verdict eventually came about...and therefore subject to harsh criticism from the 'wronged' side.

I'm not sure if it's a bizarre radar that courts 'detect' in me that I have an interest in the law or not, but I seem to be one of those people who always get called up for jury duty every time (it seems, anyway) that I'm eligible. I guess I've been called to report about four times in my life, and actually served twice. Now I know a lot of people will immediately try to weasel out of participating...and I agree wholeheartedly that our system would get a much better group of jurors if the reimbursement was even remotely acceptable...but for me, that's never been an option. I don't particularly want to serve because of the loss in wages and time and a host of other reasons, but none of those excuse me from doing my service. I come from a long line of settlers and military folk (who immigrated here long before this nation was even born) who fought (and some lost their lives) giving me the right to vote and have a say in this government and legal system, my government and legal system. Not voting is really not an option, and neither is ducking service as a juror. Back in England, Ireland, and especially in my family's homelands of Scotland, many ancestors were never given the option to have a jury before their brutal sentencing (several of the Scots were executed by the Brits). For the Irish in me, that history is far more fresh, far more new...and again, yet another reason to take my citizenship and participation seriously. No matter if it was the personal injury case or the suit against an estate, I did what I did as best as I could...as best as I could possibly hope someone would do by me if the tables were turned. In a republic such as ours, I think that's all we can realistically hope for, and even that is probably lacking.

So I can sympathize with the Libby jurors, I think, even though their case was wildly different than anything I've participated in or hell even read about before. But, by most accounts anyway (I'm throwing out all of the extremists who have characterized the jury's decision a grandiose 'political payback' for whatever reason), they took their assigned job seriously and made the best decision they could from their deliberations. Somebody was going to go away unhappy with their decision. But, in the end, unless you're in that room and on that jury, the deliberations about what is 'truth' and what is 'false' (regardless of the case) can't be truly judged across a mass media forum. You listen to the testimony and instructions, you weigh the facts with your fellow jurors, you make your decision, you walk away from the jury box...knowing full well that you can't revise that decision later. It's amazing how few times in a life when that situation occurs --- we've become quite accustomed to being able to fix a problem if it's later discovered we screwed up --- not so much, if any, in the legal arena. I pray I never get called to be a juror in a capital murder/death penalty case for that reason alone.

It is a bit troubling, though, to see what looks to be a 'continuation' of deliberations and a 'what should have been' in the media. While I admit reading the post-verdict interviews with some of the jurors is a fascinating insight into how the whole workings of the Libby jury went down, I'm not so sure I'm in favour of what seems to be developing in the next step: the debate of what should happen to Mr Libby that was not given as an option: a guilty 'but he isn't the main one really guilty, so let's be easy on him' verdict. Last night, Chris Matthews from MSNBC's Hardball TV show had one of the jurors, Ann Redington, as a guest and she's wanting Mr Libby to be given a pardon by President Bush. Again, I wasn't in the jury room so I won't even pretend to know all the background that supports Ms. Redington's beliefs here. She seems quite competent, quite sympathetic to both Mr Libby and to that of the law. She, and many other of her fellow jurors, seem to believe that Mr Libby stood alone when he should have surrounded by 2, 3 or even several more defendants. If the case had too few defendants or wasn't 'wide' enough in scope, perhaps these concerns and some new attention should be directed to Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald and his now 'inactive' investigation. But to make a verdict and then to say essentially 'we really didn't mean it' because Libby was a 'nice guy', or 'caught up in a bad situation', or 'a fall guy' and then advocate for leniency (if not outright absolution) is a bit much for me for take. Go to any county court: there are plenty of nice people who became 'fall guys' unwittingly because they got mixed up with the wrong people, and then they do something illegal and become guilty of a crime in the process. And they're going to jail...much like Mr Libby should do for his guilty actions. If he wasn't guilty 'guilty', perhaps the verdict should not have come down as it did, but it has. I have yet to experience nor read about a legal case that was totally black and white, good and bad, cut and dried so some sort of outside variable couldn't be thrown in at the end. We live in a 'shades of grey' world with only black and white options to choose from sometimes; it may not be perfect (by any means), but I haven't seen anything better yet.

I also dislike what I see happening post verdict as it 'softens' the integrity, if you will, of the jury process itself. A jury's verdict is only as strong as its ruling (and eventual sentencing by the presiding judge). If someone is found guilty, a guilty punishment of some kind equal to the crime is expected (and no, I'm not starting in on the pros/cons of the death penalty). If someone is found innocent, a 'removal of suspicion' against that accused person is expected. (In theory, anyways...I would never approach O.J. Simpson regardless of his 'innocence', which I do not, and have never, believed.) When a guilty verdict is sugar-coated because the jurors really like a particular defendant, it only gives rise to even more manipulation in the courtroom in future cases, as every defense attorney will profile and prep a client to be the 'perfect' appeal to jurors (even more than they do now). But what about those that aren't as beautiful, prosperous, well coached, personable, or well connected? A ever-leaning trend toward favourable verdicts for those that are can only hurt those who are not. I realize I may be a Citizen of Utopia World, but we all continue to lose if verdicts are made and then amended later because of factors having nothing to do with the actual law...because someday, one of us 'regular folk' (read: not the well-positioned Scooter Libbys of the world) will get burned by this troubling precedent.

Sadly for him, Mr Libby broke the law. Appropriately for him, he should do his sentence (as it will come down hopefully later this year) for his illegal activities. I'm not advocating for anything more as a punishment than what he would normally be due, but a pardon is not acceptable, either. To pardon Mr Libby is to continue the legal quagmire this country is stuck in with the current Administration...and it also leads to a very dangerous standard of allowing future Presidents to do things illegally, find a 'fall guy' willing to take the heat, and then everybody get away scott free on a Presidential pardon. And then we've become the tyrants we fought against when we established our independence over 225 years ago.

If we're going to talk about how the decision of this jury 'reflects America' (as pundits from both sides of the political aisle have claimed), let's make sure it does reflect America...and there are thousands of nice, 'fall guy' types who committed crimes and are sitting in jail as a result, men and women we'll never know the names of. Thousands of men and women who will never ever be considered for a pardon, anywhere, anytime, by anybody. Thousands of men and women who could never afford Libby's high dollar legal representation, let alone afford it still for possibly another year of appeals. Thousands of men and women are in jail for crimes they did commit and are taking responsibility for. And, for many, their crimes are far less consequential than Mr Libby's in his lying about a war that has sent many brave military personnel to their untimely...and needless...deaths.

No comments: