Kozlowski: Respect the value of slower judicial proceedings

By Mark Kozlowski

Reality television has been going on for too long. But, unlike most fads, I think I know where… Reality television has been going on for too long. But, unlike most fads, I think I know where the trend first sprung to life: courtroom shows. I’ll admit, hearing Judge Judy tell a swindler and a crook that he’s a swindler and a crook on national TV has a certain appeal. But after endless streams of shows like “Judge Joe Mathis,” do we really need another concept show like CBS’s recently syndicated show, “Swift Justice with Nancy Grace”?

Now, the title itself is — pardon the pun — arresting. We often bemoan the slowness of the courts, the “sluggish public trial” never intended in the Bill of Rights, and so a speedier, swifter form of justice sounds attractive to many. Whereas it is important that trials not go on for ages and that the guilty aren’t able to escape the law through constant delay and technicalities, we should realize that swift justice is not always sure.

We must not allow our desire for speed to overwhelm the need to find the innocent not guilty.Consider one example of when a desire to convict quickly led to the conviction of the wrong man: the Dreyfus Affair of 1894-1900.

As you might have learned in school, this “affair” started when the French were able to steal a document from a German military attache in Paris. The document was a list of French military secrets that had recently been sold to the Germans by a traitor in the French Army. The information was highly sensitive: data about the latest French artillery pieces, mobilization plans in the case of war against Germany as well as other information.

Suspicion fell upon Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young officer who had trained in artillery. He became the prime suspect because he was rich, arrogant, Jewish and disliked by those conducting the investigation. The handwriting on the document was compared to that of Dreyfus, with one handwriting expert saying it was his hand, and another expert saying he disagreed. The latter expert was roundly ignored. With this “evidence,” which was kept in a secret file along with abject forgeries of documents incriminating him, Dreyfus was convicted in a sham of a four-day-long court-martial.

Of course, had the French paused, they would have considered the facts that exonerated Dreyfus. For one thing, there were grammatical and technical indications that the document came from someone who was clearly unfamiliar with artillery. However, the French Army was in a hurry to find somebody guilty and close the case. This meant thorough investigation was impossible and allowedforged documents to be readily accepted. Upon convicting Dreyfus, the French military didn’t want to reverse itself for fear of losing face. Indeed, even after the real traitor was caught, even after it was clear Dreyfus was innocent, he was court-martialed and convicted again.

What we can learn from this is that while appeals processes take lots of time and are really annoying, they are vital means by which the falsely accused can protect themselves. While justice is made slower this way, it is surer. A too swift justice process also opens the door to “justice” not executed based on the facts but on who is in a better position to present facts on short notice. Worse, if some facts are made up entirely, this might not be discovered until too late.

A major complaint about the jury system is that juries are notoriously slow. However, the snap trial that doesn’t involve a jury has its downsides too. Consider a case that was fundamental in establishing the jury system we have today.

Before he was turned into one of the tallest points in Philadelphia, wealthy entrepreneur and intrepid Quaker William Penn was a rather obnoxious religious dissident. Remember that 17th-century England didn’t really believe in religious tolerance. Penn and William Mead decided to test the laws against public gatherings by preaching publicly. They were arrested and charged with disruption of the peace. The Lord Mayor of London served as judge and was convinced the two were guilty. So convinced, in fact, that he pretty much ordered the jury to convict.

The jury refused to do so. The judge ordered the jury back into deliberations in what was in essence a dungeon and grasped at immortality with the words, “Your verdict is nothing, you play upon the court. You shall go together and bring in another verdict, or you shall starve.” The jury then voted acquittal time and again. The judge tired of this obstinacy, remanded Penn and Mead to prison, fined the members of the jury and ordered the imprisonment of the jury until the fines were paid.

The point is, although the prosecution of William Penn was highly unfair, it was also very swift. Swift justice gives those who mete it out undue influence over the process of justice. The jury system, by requiring 12 people to convict somebody and by rendering decisions over longer periods of time, removes this damaging brand of individual power.

Sometimes slow justice is the best way to make sure justice is done. So don’t let Nancy’s new show convince you otherwise.

Write Mark at [email protected]