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KEEP JUSTICE IN THE COURTROOM - Opinion Editorial - by Jerome J. Shestack President, American Bar Association


Jerome J. Shestack
President, American Bar Association

"In this country, we do not administer justice by plebiscite."

These wise words were uttered by Judge Hiller B. Zobel in announcing his decision to reduce the charge of which Louise Woodward was convicted.

The words ought to become the new mantra of the news media and bring to an end the roller coaster ride we seem to be on -- careening from one sensational trial to the next, with emotions and public opinion racing to highs and lows like the recent stock market.

For the past few weeks, we have watched partisans in the Woodward trial mass on both sides of the Atlantic, vehemently expressing opinions about the tragic death of Matthew Eappen, the lifestyle of his parents, child care versus career decision-making and American versus English systems of justice.

Leading up to this we have seen the same sort of characterization and instant analysis by self-acclaimed legal gurus, straw polls and media hype in the trials of Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith, the Menendez brothers, Jeffrey Dahmer, Rodney King, Ted Bundy, Patty Hearst, Charles Manson, Sam Shepherd and dozens of others. In those trials, curbside justice by plebiscite and polls was the order of the day, contrasted with the deliberative proceedings of the courtroom. The latest appearance of this phenomenon is seen in the mass hysteria over Louise Woodward's fate.

And now this unnatural attention focuses on the Denver trial of Terry Nichols, accused in the bombing mass murder in Oklahoma City, and Theodore Kaczynski, accused of being the Unabomber who terrorized a nation for a 20 year span.

There is danger in all of this -- the danger that in a politicized era, special interests, spin doctors, instant media mavens, sound bites, and public opinion polls will indeed influence outcomes that should be governed by the rule of law, impartially and independently applied. Even beyond any one case, there is the danger that the whims and fancies of public reaction will affect our legal system and hinder the independence of judges, our guardians of justice since our nation's founding.

Despite the outrage expressed by some British observers of the Woodward trial and others, our system has worked for some two hundred years and works now. Simply put, juries decide the facts and judges decide the law with checks and balances on each in the interests of justice. Judges are both a part of the process and subject themselves to the review of our system of appeals. That very process still is unfolding in Massachusetts.

We need to step back. Let the system work in Massachusetts; let it work for Nichols and Kaczynski; and let it work in courtrooms everywhere in America.

We may not be able to stop the polls, the marches, the demonstrations, the media blitzes and the helter-skelter rush to anticipate justice. But let us retain perspective. Since our nation's beginning, we have a jury system which merits our confidence and an independent judiciary that is the backbone of our constitutional democracy. That system must not be subject to popular fancy.

"In this country, we do not administer justice by plebiscite."