The concept of a right is fundamental to legal theory. Rights are often classified by their sources. For example, “natural rights” are granted for being human, “citizenship rights” are granted to citizens and so on. The principle of freedom rests on the fact that natural rights do exist and cannot be removed or ignored by any government. A person thus has more power in those rights than an entire government, and so to say he is “free” is to say that he can use these rights in defense.
I believe this to be a remarkably civilized and comforting principle, and so I am shocked when some would throw it away in a rush to “bring justice.” Last week’s Campus Times article, entitled “Are U.S. laws too soft?” presents a narrow and uninformed view of the American judicial system, filled with confusion about the idea of rights, guilt and the judicial process.
The article suggests that the purpose of the judicial system is to exact punishment on criminals and that the precious rights we enjoy as Americans are only a hindrance to this purpose. While I would hesitantly agree that the legal system is expensive and complicated, the protection of the accused is far more important than the retribution for any crime.
The article begins with the statement, “Criminals are coddled by ACLU attorneys and activist judges who shower them with rights that are unjust and immoral.” This suggests that the author thinks of “rights” as some kind of legal loophole. Though on occasion an attorney or judge may forget a person’s rights, the sudden reminder of a right’s existence is not a loophole: It is an application of justice. The notion that “ACLU attorneys and activist judges” are “showering criminals” with rights is more than a stretch — it is utter nonsense.
The terms “criminal” and “murderer” are used liberally throughout the piece, often with confusion about the meaning of certain legal terms. For instance, the author mentions that “guilty criminals have rights before they are even in custody.”
Well, yes, I hope the “guilty criminals” have rights before, during and after their trial and sentencing. The author seems to think that a “criminal” is guilty before he is even accused or tried. Guilt is decided by the court and, though it may seem that the man in the defendant’s box is “a criminal on trial,” the reality is that he is a human being accused of a crime.
In discussing Singapore, the author mentions one case in which “one murderer was tried in May 2006 and hanged — yes, hanged — in November 2007.” I don’t doubt the author’s reference, but I have to ask for more information about the case.
Of what murder was the man (or woman) accused? What evidence was used against him or her? How many men and women are wrongfully executed in Singapore each year?
What about in the United States, a nation with an allegedly “soft” judicial system? According to the Innocence Project’s website, there have been 266 post-DNA testing exonerations in U.S. history. Seventeen have had their sentences overturned by DNA testing after execution, and on average exonerees serve 17 years in prison before DNA testing overturns their sentences.
In a country like Singapore, where a wide range of crimes lead to execution in a matter of months, how many innocent men and women are hanged — yes, hanged — every year?
In the case of Coffin v. United States in 1985, the Supreme Court spoke of the “principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused,” calling this “undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”
I believe this to be the most profound statement of justice in democracy: the idea that it is better for a hundred guilty men to walk free than for one innocent man to face execution. This philosophy prevents fear from removing rights, separates justice from revenge and may one day bring the legal system to its ideal role.