By David Hoffman
During my years of writing for Pravda.Ru, I have frequently been critical of America's legal system, which, in turn, has prompted many readers to ask why and how this disillusionment took place.
In truth, it is doubtful my disillusionment would ever have occurred had I entered law school with the requisite cynicism, selfishness, greed and lust for power typical of many who seek careers in the legal profession. Instead I entered with the idealistic notions that America's legal system was about truth, justice and preserving the rights of the individual. Only after I graduated and opened a law practice did I come to realize that the "system" is really nothing more than a cesspool of hypocrisy, corruption, exploitation, blind ambition, cover-up, mendacity and even sadism.
For example, during my years of practice, I personally witnessed the following events: a prosecutor who filed criminal charges against an African-American juvenile with full knowledge that a videotape existed that could have established this juvenile's innocence. W hen the juvenile's defense attorney subsequently attempted to obtain this tape, he was informed it had been "accidentally" erased; a prosecutor who doubted the guilt of a man she was prosecuting, yet callously remarked "Oh well" after the man was convicted; an agenda-driven prosecutor who charged a man with domestic violence even though all the impartial witnesses in the case, including the police officers, had informed her that the man had been the victim of the violence, not the aggressor; a federal magistrate who cynically denied financial compensation to an African-American man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for over five years, allegedly because the man could not prove he had been prosecuted "in bad faith"; a prosecutor who sadistically argued for the continued imprisonment of a potentially innocent man, despite the fact the man was dying of a liver disease that was being exacerbated by the inadequate medical treatment he received in prison; a police officer who was promoted to a higher rank even after he was caught perjuring himself in open court; and a prosecutor who filed spurious charges against an innocent man to conceal the fact that the man had been falsely arrested and beaten by police, even though the supervising officer on the scene admitted that the man had done nothing to warrant an arrest or beating.
Sadly this list could go on, but readers should get the picture. The frightening thing is that these events all occurred during a relatively small time frame in a relatively small geographical area. Imagine the number of injustices that occurs on a daily basis if these patterns and practices are repeated throughout the United States.
But, given the laws, practices and legal "opinions" rendered during America's so-called "war on terrorism," one does not have to imagine very much. In fact, this alleged "war" has graphically illustrated that many of the individuals responsible for prosecuting and adjudicating criminal cases are little more than criminals themselves. In fact, the only true difference is that criminals who operate outside the legal system constantly face the prospect of arrest and imprisonment, while criminals who operate within the system almost never do.
Most mentally competent criminals function by rationalizing their crimes and dehumanizing their victims. This is also what many prosecutors and judges do. For example, the prosecutor who charged the African-American juvenile in the case discussed above successfully argued that since he had no "ethical" duty to obtain a copy of the videotape, he was not responsible for its subsequent erasure; the prosecutor who obtained the conviction of the man she believed was innocent mundanely asserted that his accuser "deserved her day in court"; the federal magistrate who denied compensation to the wrongfully convicted man proclaimed, as judges often do to assuage their consciences (or to pretend they possess one), that the man was "morally," but not "legally" wronged; and the prosecutor who argued for the continued imprisonment of a dying man, when asked why she could not, as a human being, support the man's release, she replied, "I did not come here as a human being."
Recently, a former Chicago police officer, Jon Burge, whose case I discussed in several previous Pravda.Ru articles, was convicted in federal court of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about the use of torture to obtain confessions, many from men who were later found to be innocent. During this same period, federal prosecutors successfully obtained guilty pleas or convictions against some of the New Orleans police officers allegedly involved in the Danziger Bridge shootings in 2005. Meanwhile, in Texas, home of perhaps the most corrupt legal system in the United States, three apparent attempts were surprisingly being made to remedy injustices: in one case, a judge faced disciplinary action for closing her office, even though she knew a death row inmate was preparing to file a last minute appeal; in another case, a judge was conducting hearings into Texas's use (or more accurately abuse) of capital punishment; and, in a third case, the Texas Forensic Science Commission was examining whether a man named Cameron Todd Willingham had been wrongfully executed in 2004.
Now it may seem that the above paragraph is out of place in an article criticizing America's legal system. But, as I've stated in previous Pravda.Ru articles, and as this article will also prove, this so-called "system" actually works harder to cover-up and rationalize injustice than it does to reveal truth and promote justice.
So, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, it's now time for "the rest of the story." Jon Burge faced federal charges only because the State of Illinois refused to prosecute him for engaging in acts of torture, allegedly because the statute of limitations had expired. Yet some commentators have noted that Chicago's current beneficiary of nepotism and cronyism, Mayor Richard Daley, was the Cook County state's attorney during the time Burge and his cronies were committing their alleged crimes, and that Daley even used some of the false confessions compelled by Burge's use of torture to obtain criminal convictions. And even after Burge's federal conviction. Chicago's Police Pension Board voted to let him keep his $3,100 a month pension.
Similar strains of injustice echoed through the Danziger Bridge cases. Although state authorities charged several officers with murder or attempted murder, a New Orleans judge dismissed the charges, thus requiring the federal government to intervene.
Finally in Texas, the judge who denied the death row inmate his opportunity to appeal was given a slap-on-the-wrist "public warning" for her actions, and a "special" court later ruled that even that sanction had been too severe; a Texas appeals court permanently halted the judicial inquiry into the state's use of the death penalty; and Texas governor Rick Perry replaced the chairman and two members of the Forensic Science Commission with his political cronies. In a rational world, it would seem that such machinations, particularly when used to potentially cover-up the execution of an innocent man, would be political suicide. But not in Texas; Perry was recently reelected.
As the Burge and Danziger Bridge cases also indicate, whenever judicial corruption or injustices occur on the local or state levels, people often turn to federal prosecutors and judges for assistance. But in recent times, many of these prosecutors and judges have engaged in activities and/or rendered decisions so egregious, so hypocritical, so inane, so unjust and so contemptuous of the United States Constitution that even judicial officials in Texas might be inclined to blush.
Whenever attorneys go to trial, they are often not only concerned about the outcome of the immediate case, but also by the precedent this case might set. American history has shown that bad judicial precedent can endure for years, often resulting in countless injustices, political corruption, wrongful imprisonments, and even deaths. Yet, while some attorneys fight hard to prevent the ascendancy of bad precedents, others actually work to create them, knowing that once a door is slightly ajar it can easily be pushed open the rest of the way.
So it was no surprise when the reprobates in the Bush dictatorship interpreted legal precedents with the widest possible latitude. In doing so, they were often assisted by court opinions and "Justice" Department memos that outlined the myriad of ways a precedent could be expanded, manipulated and abused. It is no exaggeration to say that many of the precedents set during the Bush dictatorship have literally undermined everything America stands for, or at least what it publicly proclaims to respect and defend.
What is surprising is how the Obama administration, which galloped into the White House with a message of hope and change, has continued this expansion, manipulation and abuse. This conspicuously started when Obama refused to prosecute any of the torturers and war criminals from the Bush dictatorship by claiming that America should look "forward, not backward."
As a result, a torturer like Jay Bybee now sits as a federal appeals court judge, and torturer John Yoo and suspected perjurer and war criminal Alberto Gonzales both teach at major universities. And even though it was initially recommended that Bybee and Yoo be disbarred for their actions, this recommendation was subsequently rejected on the grounds that they had simply used "bad judgment."
But it's a sure bet that any attorney in the United States not shielded by the corrupt federal legal "system" would be laughed out of court if he/she attempted to argue that a client accused of torture had simply used "bad judgment."
As if the failure to prosecute and/or disbar Yoo and Bybee was not egregious enough, a special prosecutor, predictably appointed by the Bush dictatorship, recently announced that former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez would not be prosecuted for destroying videotapes that allegedly showed the CIA's torture of terrorism suspects, even though this destruction intentionally violated a federal judge's order that the tapes be preserved.
The Obama administration even pressured foreign governments into not filing criminal charges against members of the Bush dictatorship who had sanctioned and/or participated in kidnapping and torture, and has even refused to extradite the CIA agents who were convicted of kidnapping an Egyptian terrorism suspect in Italy. Yet how often during its history has the United States government condemned other nations for refusing to extradite wanted criminals, and how hollow will such condemnations now sound when coming from a government that has clearly demonstrated it does not "practice what it preaches"?
And even though the Obama administration expressed limited support for the protests that ultimately removed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power, Egypt was one of the torture destinations for victims ensnared in the Bush dictatorship's "extraordinary rendition" program. According to Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine, when CIA agents asked the head of Egyptian intelligence for a DNA sample from a suspected terrorist he was interrogating, he offered them the man's "whole arm."
But even though the United States government has employed every trick in the book to avoid punishing torturers, it would still seem to be a "given," with all its pontificating about human rights, that the victims of torture, especially persons who were tortured in error, would be financially compensated for their ordeals.
But that was not the experience of Khaled el-Masri. El-Masri, a German citizen, was wrongfully seized by the CIA and secretly held in a Macedonian prison for several weeks, before being transported to a prison in Afghanistan, where he was beaten, threatened with death, and kept in solitary confinement. After five months of such treatment, he was released after CIA agents discovered they had mistaken him for another person they were seeking. He was subsequently flown to Albania and unceremoniously dumped along the roadside.
Yet when el-Masri endeavored to sue the CIA for his weeks of wrongful detention and maltreatment, a federal judge dismissed his case on the grounds that hearing it would "present a grave risk to national security."
Sadly, many Americans, insulated with a combination of isolationism and arrogance, remain unconcerned about the abuses and injustices perpetrated by their government, because they only seem to happen to "foreigners."
But they happen to American citizens as well.
In a recent case, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the father of an American citizen whose name appears on the United States government's "kill or capture" list, ruling that the father lacked the legal "standing" to file suit on behalf of his son.
What this means is if this man, Anwar al-Aulaqi, wants his name removed from this list, he will have to file suit himself, which will mean coming to the United States, which will mean running the risk of being killed by CIA operatives before he ever enters a courthouse.
In a moment of clarity, the judge who dismissed the case pointed out how ironic it is that warrants are required before the American government can electronically surveil American citizens who live overseas, but are not required when the government wants to kill them.
But even this might not be true. A recent article by Marisa Taylor of McClatchy Newspapers revealed that the Obama administration is now contending that the FBI has the right to obtain the telephone records of international calls that originate in the United States without the need for warrants or other forms of legal process.
Shortly after I began writing this article, the Associated Press (AP) reported that a federal judge had (predictably) dismissed a lawsuit filed by Jose Padilla, an American citizen who was allegedly tortured while being held incommunicado in a military prison in South Carolina during the Bush dictatorship. In a rationalization even more farcical than the one that denied compensation to el-Masri, this unprincipled judge proclaimed, "A trial on the merits would be an international spectacle for Padilla, a convicted terrorist, summoning America's present and former leaders to a federal courthouse to answer the charges."
In other words, America's legal system can now deny American citizens due process of law and refuse to hear legitimate cases simply because the extent of the abuses and injustices committed by the American government might be exposed to the world. Yet I thought this was the very reason why America's founders wanted trials to be held in open court in the first place. If the ignorant rantings of this federal judge becomes law, it will not be an exaggeration to say that the Constitution of the United States, particularly the Bill of Rights, is truly and completely dead.
In fact, one irony that Jon Burge and the officers involved in the Danziger Bridge shootings might now be recognizing is had they been acting under the authority of federal law, instead of local or state law, the same judicial system that worked to prosecute them would be working twice as hard to defend them and cover-up their crimes.
Another irony is that the need to preserve "secrecy" has apparently become a recognized defense whenever the American government engages in criminal activity, yet it is not a defense enjoyed by American citizens. They are monitored by camera on a daily basis as they drive down highways or walk down sidewalks; their banking transactions are scrutinized by the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security; their library reading habits can be investigated by the FBI; their Internet traffic can be traced and their cell phone calls intercepted; GPS tracking devices can be attached to their vehicles without their knowledge; they can be subjected to intrusive body scans or pat downs at airports; and laws like the Patriot Act, which was recently renewed, can make even the most private aspects of their lives subject to government intrusion.
But whenever someone denounces these invasions of privacy, the official response is always the same: "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear."
Why then has the American government become so outraged over the Wikileaks website?
What makes Wikileaks an "enemy" is the fact that even though America's government now has the unbridled power to detain, torture and murder anyone, anywhere, at anytime (even its own citizens) without fear of legal repercussions, it still lacks the ability to completely conceal its crimes. Sites like Wikileaks may not be able to stop government criminality, but they can nonetheless expose the abusers and give voice to the victims who are increasingly being denied access to the courthouse.
One of the revelations that emerged from the protests in Egypt is how governments are perceiving the Internet and similar technologies as obstacles to their ability to manipulate events and censor the truth. And while many governments feigned indignation when Mubarak shut the Internet down in Egypt, the earlier attacks on Wikileaks already demonstrated how a combination of government threats and corporate fascism can just as easily silence the Internet, even though few dare call it censorship.
I realize that some of the people mentioned in this article are not sympathetic characters, and it might even be argued that they got (or will get) what they deserve. As I previously stated, however, the legal system is about the setting of precedent, and when courts deal with the worst people, they often set the worst precedents. As Jose Padilla's attorney said after the federal judge's duplicitous ruling, "[I]f the law does not protect Jose Padilla, it protects none of us, and the executive branch can simply label citizens enemies of the state and strip them of all rights, including the absolute right not to be tortured."
So what could the precedents being set during this "war on terrorism" mean for you-the average American citizen? They mean that you can be tried and punished for minor infractions, while members of organizations like the CIA, FBI, NSA and "Justice" Department are above the law. They mean that crimes like kidnapping, torture and murder are illegal when committed by private citizens or government officials acting under the authority of local or state law, yet such crimes can be committed with impunity by those acting under the authority of federal "law." They mean that many of those who took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution have become the most complicit in destroying it. They mean, as demonstrated by the corruption and hypocrisy of the Obama administration, that elections in America will never change a thing as long as the ones seeking power are also the ones least deserving of it. And, perhaps most frightening of all, they mean, as Padilla's attorney correctly asserted, that by simply proclaiming you are an "enemy combatant" or "terrorist," your government can kidnap, torture and even murder you, and there is absolutely nothing you or your loved ones can legally do to prevent it. And even when the atrocities committed against you have ended, and you (or your loved ones if you did not survive the abuse) seek to be financially compensated for the pain and suffering your government has inflicted on you, all a "Justice" Department attorney has to do is cry "national security," or "international spectacle" to a sycophantic judge, and your case will be dismissed.
And all this time you thought it was the terrorists, not America's own government, that hated you because of your freedoms.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of today's America is how quickly its government abandoned every principle it claimed to revere and transformed into everything it claimed to revile. Since it is now functionally a third-world dictatorship, perhaps the only thing that will bring true change, true justice and true freedom to America is the desire of its citizens to stage an Egyptian style revolution.
Thomas Jefferson once said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever." Sadly, such justice must still be slumbering, because you will find scant evidence of it in America's legal system.
Yet, as I said in previous Pravda.Ru articles, perhaps the evil that has engulfed America and its institutions reveals why human power must be limited by human mortality. If we lived forever, then the government sanctioned kidnappers, torturers, war criminals and murderers, and those who protect them, would forever go unpunished and the victims of their crimes would never find true recompense. The universe has decreed that everyone-the prosecutors and the prosecuted, the judges and the judged, the powerful and the powerless, the abusers and the abused, the unjust and the just, the torturers and the tortured, the corrupt and the incorruptible-must one day face the ultimate Judge.
Hopefully this is so, because in today's America the word "justice" is nothing but a lie.
David R. Hoffman
Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru