Thursday, April 7, 2011

Speedy and Public Trial by Jury

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, from The Economist
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."  -- 6th Amendment

This seems pretty straightforward, right?  I believe the historical impetus for this addition to the Bill of Rights was the fact that kings and rulers were accusing the people of crimes and convicting them without a trial by jury, without witnesses, without due process of law, essentially without any safeguards or protections whatsoever against corruption and unchecked power.  The founders wisely ensured that if government has the ability to deprive a person of property, freedom, or life (which it does) then the Constitution should require that the government has to submit to certain safeguards against the abuse of that power.  I believe those on both the political right and left can feel good about that.

Of course, America isn't alone in guaranteeing a public jury trial for criminals.  Other countries have such requirements, and stick to them even in cases of terrorist attacks, as Glenn Greenwald outlined:
People in capitals all over the world have hosted trials of high-level terrorist suspects using their normal justice system.  They didn't allow fear to drive them to build island-prisons or create special commissions to depart from their rules of justice.  Spain held an open trial in Madrid for the individuals accused of that country's 2004 train bombings.  The British put those accused of perpetrating the London subway bombings on trial right in their normal courthouse in London.  Indonesia gave public trials using standard court procedures to the individuals who bombed a nightclub in Bali.  India used a Mumbai courtroom to try the sole surviving terrorist who participated in the 2008 massacre of hundreds of residents.  In Argentina, the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes.
But not in America.  In America we are stricken with fear that our criminal justice system is suddenly inadequate and that the safeguards found in the Constitution regarding trials of criminals, which have served us well for a couple hundred years, fall short.  So we have a Democratic administration, which is daily showing itself to be nothing like liberal as to civil liberties, reversing its promise to close Guantanamo Bay and hold criminal trials for Khalid Sheik Mohammad and the 9/11 plotters.  Instead, the administration has decided to hold military tribunals (straight news story here) and eschew our time-tested criminal court system.  Tribunals without a jury, behind closed doors, in a different country.

We are allowing, some even demanding, that the government brush aside the important Constitutional safeguards against abuse for merely political considerations.  We are also setting up a system where different classes of criminals receive different levels of Constitutional protection.  All out of fear, and all backed by "liberal" Pres. Obama.  I like the guy, but his record on civil liberties is appalling.

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