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On Trial: U.S. Justice System

Updated on December 8, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU in 1964. Worked in NYC for 2 years in public relations then as reporter and editor before retiring from The Hour newspaper.

Chief Justice William Renquist

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, presided over President Bill Clinton's Senate trial.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, presided over President Bill Clinton's Senate trial.

'Trial of the Century' Defendant?

Football star, actor O.J. Simpson
Football star, actor O.J. Simpson

Another 'Trial of the Century?'

U.S. President Bill Clinton, impeached by the House of Representatives but not convicted in a trial by the U.S. Senate.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, impeached by the House of Representatives but not convicted in a trial by the U.S. Senate.

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.

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaperof Norwalk, Conn., on March 4, 1999. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages.

Are Americans Losing Respect for the U.S. Judicial System?

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O.J. Simpson Murder Trial -- Full CNN Coverage


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    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks for your interesting comment Kosmo. It seems there's a new "Trial of the Century" every few decades.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 5 years ago from California

      OJ eventually got the juice?... Busted for thievery, shame on him. Not busted for murder, shame on us? As for Clinton, was his dalliance an impeachable offense? Not! Regarding the trial of last century, it was the Manson murder trial, not OJ. On the Constitution, it needs to be re-written, especially the Second Amendment. Later!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your reasoned approach to our political problems, issues veritas. Presumption of innocence merely means that a defendent must be proven guilty -- the defendant is not required to prove his innocence. I agree that Congress should have been investigating the Bush Administration for the past several years, but dropped the ball on that responsibility (presumably for fear of angering Bush diehards to the extent it would drive them out of office.) The history of the 1800s and early 1900s has proven that corporations, without the restraint of unions, will run rampant over workers. Union leadership sometimes becomes guilty of the same temptations when their power is unchecked, but that's not an argument for abolition of unions any more than corporate excesses are an argument for abolition of corporations.

      There will always be a tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats, but that's what keeps this country closest to the middle. The two-party system, with all its faults, is what has made this country great. When one party goes too far the electorate has a tendency to pull the country back to the middle.

      I vigorously oppose your suggestion that we should vote for the best person. Without the backing of a political party, that person would be totally unrestrained, and it would be virtually impossible for anyone to prevent that person from becoming a dictator.

      The United States Constitution is not perfect. No constitution could be. But the reason I fully support our Constitution is that it sets standards that lay the groundwork for people of good will to govern fairly. The success of any government must of necessity depend upon the good will of the people governed. There always will be conflict, but what is needed is a good referee. That's the function of the Constitution, including the three equal branches of our government.


    • profile image

      issues veritas 9 years ago


      I am trying to look at it from your perspective but I can't see it.

      It sounds like you agree, that there really is no real Presumption of Innocence in the Justice System. But your hub is congratulating the Constitution for having that Presumption.

      On the Bush prosecution, you think that investigating is good and prosecuted is warranted based on the investigation. Isn't that what Congress, a Democratic Congress should have been doing for their last two years. Isn't that what the balance of power was put in the Constitution to take care of?

      It wasn't the Amendments that have clouded the Constitution, I was referring to the waffling on it by the Supreme  Court over the years. For example, they waffle back and forth as to what the Miranda rights are and how they should be applied. They waffle about what unreasonable search and seizure really is and have totally misused probable cause. Especially in the issuing of warrants.

      We haven't had any luck correcting the Constitution, as far as I can see.

      Maybe, I can get you to see where I am coming from in these discussions.

      During the turn of the century to the early 1900s, the companies in the country, pretty much ran sweat shops and the workers had no rights and no protection. Along come the unions, these were slow to start but they built up every year and made headway. They grew and grew more powerful and they forced many businesses to go union. For the most part this was good for the workers, as collective bargaining, gave them rights and protection.

      The once mighty Companies now had an opponent that had the same power. This was equilibrium, the good and the bad were matched. This became a win win for the workers.

      Today, the win win is gone and has been for many decades. GM is a prime example of a too strong union bringing a very large corporation down to its death.

      This now brings me to the point, back in the early 1800s the Democrats and Republicans emerged as the dominant political parties for the country. If you substitute the Democrats and Republicans into the previous scenario, the conclusion is that the country is brought to its knees because these two parties have not been in equilibrium. The dominant party takes the country in one direction, then when the other party becomes dominant, they take the country in a different direction.

      The government has been acting like the old golf joke, Dragging the dead guy from hole to hole just to play the game.

      The country has been run by the parties for at least a century. Voting Row A or Row B hurts the country. Voting should be for the best person and that person is responsible for making the bipartisanship move. It is real easy to vote for the party, then you don't have to know anything about the candidates or their positions. Sure, you know a few of the top dogs, but not all the way down the row.

      Both political parties, immediately cash in your vote when you register with the party, because they know to the fraction of a percent how many will actually vote for their candidates. The votes that one or lost recent elections were the independent or uncommited voters. These were the votes that the candidates and their party went after. Sophisticated computer programs track the demographics and the issues for each locale in the country. These local issues are targeted by the party to give the locals the message that they understand their problems and they will help them. The problem is that you cannot satisfy all the local issues and be consistent, so they promise without intention to act.

      I hope you consider these points.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your point of view, issues veritas, and it's certainly true that being arrested mars one's reputation whether one is innocent or guilty. Many people embrace the view that one must be guilty or the police would never had made the arrest. This, of course, is untrue. Yes, I very definitely favor the Justice Department investigating the actions of George W. Bush and the Bush Administration and prosecuting wrongdoing. If one believes in Constitutional democracy (or republic, if you prefer), then amendments are occasionally necessary. Whenever political considerations influence Constitutional decisions that is very unfortunate, but, with luck, will be corrected eventually. Tossing out the Constitution would be folly.

    • profile image

      issues veritas 9 years ago


      I am not in total agreement with you on your hub.

      You are right on some of your points, but for the wrong reason.

      As for the presumption of innocence, it is a wish but not a truth.

      A person loses innocence the minute that they are arrested.

      Yes, there is the media that immediately cries that the arrested person is guilty. But my point is that it doesn't matter whether you are in fact guilty or not. When you are arrested it doesn't matter from that point on because you are no longer innocent, the best that you can do is be found not guilty. And we all know that not guilty just means that the prosecution didn't prove its case against this obviously guilty defendant, beyond a reasonable doubt.

      So conviction of a charge or no conviction of that charge means anything as far as your reputation of innocence.

      It would be different, if you were allowed to plead innocent of the charge and have a verdict of innocent. But from the arrest, innocence is lost forever.

      It would seem that you would be all for prosecuting Bush, are you?

      Unfortunately, your statement about the Constitution is a not without argument. It seems to me, that the Constitution is like a building built in the late severnteen hundreds and over the years many changes have been made to it. Today, that building is not the same building, it has had so many changes made to it that were not in the original design that it no longer even looks like a house. I understand that the Constitution was created with the idea that it would change over time but these changes waffle the Constitution back and forth depending on who is in control and which way the political wind is blowing.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      The Constitution lays the groundwork for the justice system, 02SmithA, but the courts, prosecutors and legislatures have developed procedures of the years that citizens must not allow to run amok. Citizens must control government just as we must maintain civilian control over the military. I appreciate your comment.

    • 02SmithA profile image

      02SmithA 9 years ago from Ohio

      Interesting post that brings up an issue that isn't talked about as much as it probably should be. I think most Americans just want to assume that the system is sound.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I am opposed to capital punishment in all cases, Chef Jeff. I believe strongly that it not only is not a deterrent to murder but actually promotes killing by devaluing human life. My feelings about capital punishment are more directly addressed in this hub:

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 9 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      Yes, William, the Innocence Project has saved many innocent people from the death penalty. While I see a possible place (in rare - and I mean VERY RARE cases) for a death penalty on the books, most times it is just handed out for the wrong reasons.

      I still shiver as I watch The Green Mile and think of all the hatred focused against the wrong man. How many times has an innocent person been sent to the death chamber? All too often, I am afraid.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Your two cents and my two cents, marisuewrites, begin to add up to something! I very much value your comments. You probably are familiar with the Innocence Project, which reports that there have been 218 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States -- and that 16 of the 218 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row. Innocent people are charged with crimes, and when it's a capital offense that a serious issue. I've written several hubs touching on this issue, but you might be interested in this one:

    • marisuewrites profile image

      marisuewrites 9 years ago from USA

      Yes, I see that side of it as well.  What bugs me, is allllllll the people who talk about a verdict and say well, he was found innocent.  I know what they mean, I just wish they'd study the system just a bit.  They might find themselves there one day on the "other" side of the law.

      Yes, technicalities are great's just important for the public to realize that a whole truck load of evidence misses the courtroom,  good evidence, that sometimes makes the cut for ridiculous reasons, as well as some good ones.

      My husband's cases had a high rate of conviction, and most of the time, as he'd see the rapist or violent person "walk" he'd say "ok, we'll get him next time."  But if that next time was my loved one, I would be impacted forever.

      In the 30 years of law enforcement - we saw not even half of a percent of "innocent" people be charged with a crime.  I can't really think of one, but you have to think it could happen.  If it were my loved one, of course I'd want the courts to be tight on evidence and fair on sentencing. 

      I guess my point is, mainly, that not guilty does not mean innocent.

      Still, I value your hub, and my two cents worth is just that.  2 cents.  LOL   =)

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      There's no question, marisuewrites, that some guilty defendants are found to be not guilty. But that is part of the cost of assuring that truly innocent people are not unjustly convicted. For the same reason, convictions require that juries decide beyond a reasonable doubt. I think I understand how a cop, or his wife, might feel when they believe a defendant "got off" because of "a technicality," but that "technicality" is there to insure that we don't convict a single individual unjustly. I very much appreciate your understandable view and comment.

    • marisuewrites profile image

      marisuewrites 9 years ago from USA

      As a cop's wife and a witness and observer of 100's of trials, I need to say that "not guilty" in a court of law does not equate with innocence.  They are 2 extremely different things.  "Not Guilty" by a jury only means the court did not prove it's case beyond a reasonable doubt.  Often that is due to much evidence not making it to the trial to be heard due to many technicalities. 

      Now I respect the system and agree, that we have to understand it's over at that point.  To be acquitted of murder, means you can't be tried again, even if evidence that didn't make it to court leaves many to believe the person was guilty.  Public opinion is not easily put to bed.

      Some trials come to court that make you wonder why.  Others don't get there and you wonder "why not."  Our system is a powerful one, and often right.  Always struggling for fair, fair also is often absent from court. 

      All in all, I respect our system, yet would find it hard to walk away from a case I felt strongly was guilty, if the person was found "not guilty."  I know the inside story of many abused kids, beaten spouses, raped young women, who's perpetrators were "not guilty." 

      I would never be called to be a juror, as a cop's wife.  I'd be hard to convince...though I'm sure there are people arrested by mistake.  I just know where the odds lie.

      Great hub, very good points...I lived the life of a cop's wife and am colored by that view.


    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your comments, Chef Jeff, and the links as well. I just read both of your hubs, which are well done. I am in total agreement with you on both the question of justice and that of the impeachment of Bill Clinton and, I hope, the forthcoming impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. I wrote a number of columns, which are now hubs, relating to both the Clinton impeachment and trial in the Senate and the justice system, including several relating to O.J. Simpson, which may interest you.

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 9 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      I wrote several hubs about this very subject, William, and I agree - the so-called Justice System seems often to be a political monster that is used to wreak ruin and devastation upon innocent or at least "not guilty" people.

      Here are my hubs on the matter, if I may:

      On DNA and the innocent being executed:

      On impeachment used as political vendetta:

      One of my favorite observations has to do with what is legal is not always just.

      You wrote a great hub that points out the necessity of keeping vigil over our government and its agencies!  America was born of skeptics, not the complaicent or fearful!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      They call it a "justice" system, MrMaarmalade, but, in reality, it's merely a "legal" system. Judges and juries exist to determine whether a law was broken and who was responsible -- and then mete out the prescribed punishment. There's little or no "justice" involved. It is to be hoped that an innocent person is never convicted of a crime he didn't commit. It is also to be hoped, as in your example, that guilty persons are found guilty and given the appropriate sentence. The judge, in the case you describe, obviously was trying so hard to be fair that she failed to take in to account the age of the victim. She also read into the purchase of a condom far more than any reasonable person should. It's a good thing that we have a system of appeals that righted an obvious wrong in that case. It also serves as another example of why it is so important that our politicians keep their oaths to "preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States."

    • MrMarmalade profile image

      MrMarmalade 9 years ago from Sydney

      Here is one of the reverse.

      I wrote a hub which mentioned a 10 year old girl was gang raped 10 3 m3n and three youths.

      The female judge let them off as the young lady had bought a condom.

      She was raped at 7 years of age.

      Anyway the judge freed the culprits stating it was not their fault. Anyway It went to the Supreme court and each one was given five years.

      A little more appropriate

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      That's one of many reasons capital punishment is a very bad idea, MrMarmalade. DNA technology has proven quite a few penitentiary inmates being declared not guilty of the crimes they were convicted of; while they have been freed from prison, for others, as in your example, it was too late. I can think of nothing worse than an innocent person being convicted -- and imprisoned or executed -- for a crime he did not commit. Many people criticize the justice system for allowing some accused of crime of "getting of on a technicality," but the system was designed that way to try to avoid the injustice of convicting an innocent person. I appreciate your comment very much, MrMarmalade.

    • MrMarmalade profile image

      MrMarmalade 9 years ago from Sydney

      We had a jury case rise its head some fifty years ago, where the said guilty person was given guilty and then hung.

      Two weeks ago they found with New testing for DNA that he was not guilty. It was a bit late for that guy, he had already been hung for his crime

      Great hub thank you

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      The poor apparently make easy prey for everyone, Ralph. Maybe it's because they lack the means, or the will, to fight back.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      It seems people are the same all over the world, compu-smart. "Justice System on Trial" would make make great television. Are there any Hollywood producers out there?

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      An old Spanish proverb: "The law is a mad dog that bites only the poor."

    • compu-smart profile image

      Compu-Smart 9 years ago from London UK

      It happens here in the UK all the time William, people are tried and presumed guilty before they have even stepped inside a courtroom! Others who have been found not guilty who are and will always be presumed the guilty party!!

      I too would love to see the Justice System on trial!!


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