Criminal Justice News and VIews

Interesting items related to criminal justice

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Friday, May 12, 2006

What Justice Really Is

Friday, May 12, 2006
Justice and its imperfections
Let's take the cases one by one.
Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Verdicts and sentences in three high profile criminal cases in the news this week provide an object lesson in the imperfections of our legal system, as well as an understanding that if we are looking to that system for neat answers and satisfaction, we're looking in the wrong place. Sometimes justice can leave us unsatisfied.
Let's take the cases one by one.
Earlier this week, Zaccarias Moussaoui -- who last week was convicted by a jury of being part of the 9/11 conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison by the presiding judge -- recanted his guilty plea.
Evidently, when jurors refused to recommend he be put to death for his secondary role in 9/11, Moussaoui realized that the American judicial system was not stacked against him. "After reviewing the jury verdict and reading how the jurors set aside their emotions and disgust for me and focused on the law and the evidence," he said, " I now see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trial even with Americans as jurors."
It was an extraordinarily rational statement from a defendant who did virtually everything in his power during the trial to demonstrate his craziness, and an unexpected -- if patently self-serving -- tribute to our legal system from one who had vilified it as incapable of meting out justice.
But for a nation that looked to this trial as the one place where our collective need for revenge could be satisfied, it was also a bizarre moment. For many Americans, the fact that Moussaoui wasn't sentenced to death demonstrated that our justice system was fundamentally flawed.
But in fact, what it really demonstrated is that the law is complex and nuanced, and that we have moved beyond the primitive level of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Moussaoui's sentence came as a surprise to some, a disappointment to others -- but in the end, it was just because it came at the end of a fair trial, and even the defendant from hell recognized that.
On Wednesday, in two New England courthouses, justice was perhaps more controversial in its applications.
In a Providence, R.I. courtroom, Judge Francis J. Darigan, Jr. sentenced Daniel Michael Biechele to four years in jail for having lit the fireworks that caused a night club fire which killed 100 people and injured more than 200 others.
The sentence -- which was far less than the 10 years the judge could have meted out -- came after a tearful and moving statement of remorse from Biechele, who told the packed courtroom that "I would do anything to undo what happened that night...I'm so sorry for what I have done."
Judge Darigan's relative lenience came in a case with virtually no precedent; the charge against Biechele was "misdemeanor manslaughter," which is when a petty crime (in this case, lighting fireworks without a permit) causes someone's death.
"This court is most acutely aware that there is no sentence which could be imposed today...which could possibly reflect the value of the lives lost," noted Darigan, before he imposed the sentence. "Any attempt by me here today or others to correlate any sentence imposed today with the value of these lives...would be a dishonor to the memory of the victims of this tragedy."
Judge Darigan is a wise man, and he did something unusual in delivering the verdict -- he admitted that the justice system was unequal to the task of punishment or even of giving partial comfort to those hurt in the tragedy. He quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus when he said that wisdom will ultimately come to the families of victims "through the awful grace of God," not through any act of law.
Which brings us to the case of Jon Dilley, who was convicted Wednesday in a Portland courtroom of manslaughter, not murder, for shooting his wife and mother to death in 2004. The defense claimed that Dilley's psychological state at the time of the killings rendered him virtually incapable of intent in the act he was committing; it was a complex defense that clearly gave the jury pause.
They deliberated for more than eight hours over two days and two women on the panel appeared to be crying when they delivered the verdict.
The jury's conclusion satisfied neither the defense nor the prosecution, and it is likely the case will face numerous appeals. But we are left with a singular impression from this and the two other trials of note this week: That justice is not about comforting us.
It is not about pat answers and perfect sentences. When people are killed, the truth is that there is no sentence that can bring them back, nor is there true justice for those who are left behind.
What we can take satisfaction in is that we have a system that requires us to behave honorably even when dealing with thieves and murderers, in which we respect the rights of individuals and the requirements of due process.
In the end, the legal system is less about what it produces, than how it is done. And in all three cases, from Virginia to Rhode Island to Maine, we did the best we could do.