I’ve been watching the torturous trial of Steven Hayes from afar, overcome by shame, sadness and disgust. This trial has showcased not only the worst acts that man is capable of, but also the worst emotions that we allow ourselves to succumb to and has shone a spotlight on the primal, base urges for bloodsport that we have.
It’s also disturbing for another reason: that so many – victims, witnesses, bystanders and observers – are perfectly willing to subjugate the very system that is intended to protect us all to the raw, consuming rage that overcomes us when we are faced with terrible acts. And that is a massive problem for me, for you, for all of us.
I rarely quote the doctor here on this blog, or even mention his name in passing. It’s a decision I made a long time ago – to not comment on his comments. The man has suffered tremendous loss and I’m not going to involve him in my rants against the death penalty or the “abuse of tragedy” legislature. But I will quote him today, if only to demonstrate the problem that this trial is creating for the criminal justice system as a whole. After today’s shock-inducing testimony, this snippet of a quote was repeated on Twitter, in newspaper reports and I’m certain it will be broadcast on the nightly news:
the system re-victimizes victims at an alarming rate
This, from the victim of a crime, the trial for which is currently underway. Sneak into the comments section of any online newspaper report on this case in Connecticut and behold the vitriol for yourself, if you have the constitution to stomach it (I’ve written about these comment sections before and why these venerable institutions continue to permit such “dialogue” is beyond me). Those comments, from ostensibly the general public, echo those made today. The most common refrain involves questioning the need for a trial, the certainty of the defendant’s guilt and a desire to save everyone the pain of having to sit and listen to testimony. For example:
After reading about half of the first page all the voices in my head were screaming “Give this d0uche nozzle* the injection now!
What do the writings of this lunatic have to do with the penalty phase of this trial? What do they have to do with anything??? This is another disgusting example of how the victim IS victimized all over again in the name of protecting the murderer’s rights.
He should have no rights. He is GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY beyond a shadow of a doubt, and he should be erased from the face of the earth NOW!
This is a refrain that is picking up steam: particularly because of this case.
This is very, very dangerous. These are the jurors of tomorrow. These are the people who vote. These are people who will one day decide whether another man is guilty or innocent. That there is such a fundamental lack of understand – or perhaps disdain – for the underpinnings of a criminal justice system that starts out with the most needed of principles: that every man is innocent in the eyes of the law, unless proven guilty and found to be so by a jury of his peers, should make us all worried.
That it is seen as an inconvenience – a travesty even – that a victim has to attend the trial of the accused, perhaps even provide testimony is not something we should dismiss lightly. As I’ve quoted before and will reproduce below, it simply cannot suffice to accuse. The system cannot make concessions in the rules of the game based on the perceived guilt in the eyes of the public. One cannot simply declare oneself the victim of a crime and then protest indignantly that it should be enough that one has declared oneself so. There must be a public trial – graphic, painful, heartwrenching if the facts are such – because there is no other way. Of course, this is a large part of why the vast majority of cases never go to trial. People are aware that they have to relive the most horrible moments of their lives. They have to sit and listen to gory events in excruciating detail. Some choose not to endure that and others decide differently.
Now for that quote:
Ammianus Marcellinus relates an anecdote of the Emperor Julian which illustrates the enforcement of this principle in the Roman law. Numerius, the governor of Narbonensis, was on trial before the Emperor, and, contrary to the usage in criminal cases, the trial was public. Numerius contented himself with denying his guilt, and there was not sufficient proof against him. His adversary, Delphidius, “a passionate man,” seeing that the failure of the accusation was inevitable, could not restrain himself, and exclaimed, “Oh, illustrious Cæsar! if it is sufficient to deny, what hereafter will become of the guilty?” to which Julian replied, “If it suffices to accuse, what will become of the innocent?” Rerum Gestarum, L. XVIII, c. 1.
Coffin v. United States. There isn’t one system for those “obviously” guilty and another for those “likely” guilty and those who “may or may not be guilty”. There is one system – tried and true – for everyone. And that’s the way it must be, to ensure conformity, consistency and to avoid appearances of bias. The sweeping tide of indignation, the emperor complex, must be halted. Because tomorrow, you will be on trial and a mass of others will have pre-judged you.
Why am I writing about this here? Clearly, a newspaper report about the day’s proceedings is not the right place to question the sentiment. Many others seem content to join the chorus. I know that I am firmly in the minority. But it disturbs me to see others, who are possessed of a greater intelligence than mine, accept as gospel the deafening din that emanates from the roused, amorphous, homogeneous mass. Let the doctor have his say, for sure. Allow him his anger, his sorrow, his vengeance. But realize that tomorrow there will be another trial, with another man and another victim and the system must do right by them too. A system that is so malleable, so subservient to the needs of one or another is no system at all. It would then be called a farce.
Besides, I haven’t written a post in 6 days and I have to do something keep those two last readers coming back.
[Obviously, once again, this is my personal view only and is not endorsed by the public defender's office. Read the disclaimer if you have any questions.]
*remember kids, we strongly discourage the use of this kind of language.