The crime of our criminal justice system

By Robert Mann

I’m not a lawyer, but this is one thing I know about our criminal justice system: it only works if everyone involved performs his or her job honestly and to the utmost.

In too many criminal cases in Louisiana and across the country, one person often unable to do the job properly is the defense attorney. Maybe she’s a new lawyer handling a death penalty case. Maybe he’s a competent and overworked attorney with an indigent client, accused of rape, who cannot afford to hire a lawyer and wage an aggressive defense.

Maybe she’s politically ambitious, ordered to defend an ostensibly monstrous criminal. She fears that one day an opponent for district attorney or a judgeship might attack her for helping him go free. So, she goes through the motions, weakly defending a client she believes is guilty.

In far too many cases, those defendants are innocent people on an express train to prison, hijacked by a legal system that has little interest in the truth, i.e., ensuring the accused receives a proper defense. Attorneys at public defenders offices do their best, but they are often overwhelmed and underfunded.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Innocence Project New Orleans has sprung quite a few innocent men from prison over the years. Hardworking, underpaid attorneys at similar organizations across the country are doing the same, digging up ignored or suppressed evidence that might free their clients.

Examine the appalling number of people on death row who’ve been exonerated over the years. It’s clear that our nation’s criminal justice system is, itself, a crime.

All of this came to mind recently when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to explain her 1975 defense of a rape suspect in Arkansas. Twenty-seven at the time, Clinton worked at a legal aid clinic where she represented Thomas Alfred Taylor, charged with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Clinton didn’t want the case, but mounted a vigorous defense, finally negotiating to get Taylor a year in jail and four years of probation.

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3 thoughts on “The crime of our criminal justice system

  1. Stephen Winham July 11, 2014 — 2:09 pm

    It is regrettable that the only way to ensure you do not get unfair treatment by our justice system is to avoid it altogether. Unfortunately, not everybody can. And, when you consider ours is among the fairest in the world you can get really discouraged. P. S. There is no logical justification for the death penalty and an imperfect justice system is just one of a multitude of reasons why it makes no sense.


  2. As a young reporter in Monroe I covered a rape/robbery/murder trial in which two young black me stopped a nurse on her way home from work in the wee hours. A hard-working veteran civil attorney and an upcoming young lawyer were appointed to represent the accused, and as a high-profile, emotional case, even though they had to do much mor work to find the criminal defense information. The job brought grief beyond imagination to the lawyers. They nevertheless did an excellent job for the one defendant whose partner turned state’s evidence. Their relentless pursuit of the defense was probably the best thing that happened for justice, because they made the prosecution bring its A-game and made the appeals virtually pro-forma. The system worked, justice was meted, and I trust the attorneys survived the “taint” of vigorously defending a depised suspect.
    Why can’t things work that way all the time (but preferably with a criminal defense attorney as the lead)?


  3. Anthony Fazzio July 12, 2014 — 9:09 am

    Great article, Bob! Let’s not forget other aspects of a system in need of serious repair: privately owned “jails for profit;” judges who look the other way to avoid being called too “easy on criminals;” juries who, notwithstaning a presumption of innocence, believe that only a “guilty man” refuses to testify in his own defense; or the public who believes police only arrest guilty people!


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