- Politics and Social Issues
On Trial: U.S. Justice System
'Trial of the Century' Defendant?
Another 'Trial of the Century?'
Chief Justice William Renquist
It would have been obscenely inappropriate while the Clinton impeachment debacle was under way for anyone to compare his "Trial of the Century" with the other one -- you remember, O.J. Simpson.
It can be said now, however, that there are a few analogies -- although the criminal charges against Simpson were far more serious than the trumped up charges against Clinton.
The public is bound, as jurors are, to the American tradition that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. It never occurred to many Americans that Simpson may not have been guilty of the charges against him. And, it was both apparent and shameful that some Clinton haters, and others -- including the press and some people in high places, i.e., Congress -- never gave Clinton the benefit of the doubt.
Many people read their newspapers and magazines and watched television, so, of course, they knew the facts; it wasn't necessary for them to look objectively at the evidence.
Presumption of Innocence
Here lies the problem: In both trials people felt so strongly about the heinous nature of the allegations that they failed to remember that the accused in this country have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They were unable, or unwilling, to keep an open mind.
They forgot, or ignored, the fact that before declaring Simpson guilty of murder it was necessary to prove that it was he, not someone else, who committed the crime. It's important to remember that only the jury itself sees the untarnished evidence in a trial -- free of the hearsay, tainted evidence and hyperbole we see on television -- and, therefore, only the jury can offer an unbiased, fair decision.
In the president's case, Clinton haters and holier-than-thou right wingers didn't care to consider whether he was guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice; they just decided that his sins, not the law, were the overriding issue. The fact that the United States Constitution, clearly, never intended that sins be an impeachable offense didn't matter to them. They found the flimsy charges a good excuse to try to overturn the last presidential election.
Everyone, of course, is entitled to his opinion. So, if you had an opinion while the trials were in progress, there's nothing untoward about that. What is unseemly, however, is the refusal of Americans to accept the legal verdict for what it is: A declaration that the accused is "not guilty as charged."
Although the press contributes to the confusion by using the word "innocent" as a synonym for "not guilty," the difference between the two is vast. Being declared "not guilty" does not mean you are "innocent." It means the charges against you could not be proved.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Nevertheless, if we are to have a workable justice system it is necessary for all of us to have respect for it. If we insist that those accused of crimes are guilty before they receive a fair trial, and continue to maintain that they are guilty even after a duly constituted jury -- or the Senate in impeachment trials -- declare them to be "not guilty," then our justice system is in serious trouble.
Maybe now our political leaders in Congress and elsewhere can focus on the business of the country without any political sideshows. Unfortunately, the acrimony of 1998 will be difficult to forget.