David Borden, Executive Director
No kangaroo courts, we say, no railroading by the system, and above all justice based on facts. If just one of the 12 jurors on a case feels that guilt has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that juror should vote not guilty and then a conviction shall not be obtained -- another trial can be held, if the government thinks it's worth it, but a conviction is not obtained that time. If they all vote not guilty, then not guilty is the verdict, and the matter ends.
It is hoped thereby that the innocent will be protected from the overwhelming power of the state. Because another one of our founding principles is that it is better to let many guilty persons go free rather than convict and even incarcerate one innocent.
Unfortunately, while for many defendants in the courts those principles are still the law, for others they merely describe what once was. The wrench that unhinged justice was the "war on drugs." Within the '80s drug war, perversions were wrought that allowed those whose guilt was unproven to be punished, and in fact those who were acquitted of charges brought against them to also be punished.
One such perversion was civil asset forfeiture. In that corrupt practice, a charge is leveled not at a person, but at a piece of property. If the property is found to have been used in the commission of a drug crime (and some other kinds of crimes), it is "guilty," and the government can take it whether the owner knew about the lawbreaking or not. Some restrictions have been placed on this practice by states and even the feds from time to time, but they have been largely ineffective. The result of forfeiture is the disgusting spectacle of government agents stealing from members of the public -- the thefts ranging from dollars and cents on the street up to cars or even homes and retirement savings -- with the profits going to law enforcement agencies where they are spent on various purposes, many questionable.
An even greater perversion is what has happened to federal sentencing. Once upon a time, a conviction by a jury was needed to send a person to prison. That is still the case, if a defendant happens to be acquitted of all charges. But get convicted of just one charge that has been brought against you, if charges are brought together, and now you can be sentenced based on the others, even if there is no verdict or even if you were acquitted of them. In fact it's not even strictly necessary for the charges to be brought at all.
Though the Supreme Court has rendered some decisions in recent years to restrict this practice in certain cases, in others it is apparently wide open. In 2005, Mark Hurn was prosecuted in federal court in Wisconsin for possession of powder cocaine, and a larger amount of crack cocaine, was convicted of the former but acquitted of the latter. Federal guidelines specified about three years for the charge that was the subject of the conviction -- itself a grave injustice. But the prosecutor argued to the judge that Hurn was probably guilty of the crack charges too, the judge bought it, and hiked the sentence up to 18 years instead.
Late last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear Hurn's case. And so Hurn is stuck with 18 years behind bars, but the vast majority of it for conduct of which he was exonerated. Who are the true criminals here? Not Mark Hurn, as far as I am concerned. Justice has been unhinged, courtesy of the drug warriors, the judiciary complicit. What fine service they have rendered to the nation.