Saturday, April 28, 2012


I remember so many murder mysteries that begin with the premise of someone getting away with "the perfect crime," which meant usually getting away with murder.  The idea was that people never get away with murder.

People get away with murder all the time, and the bigger the scale of the crime and the bigger and more powerful the perpetrator, the more likely he is to get away with it.

Knowing that, it is gratifying to see one such perpetrator actually see his day in court and have justice dealt to him.  Charles Taylor, the warlord who ruled Liberia for 6 years (and a former business partner of Pat Robertson in the diamond trade) who perpetrated unspeakable crimes there and in neighboring Sierra Leone for fun and profit, may spend the rest of his life in jail.

The pursuit of justice is a deeply flawed business that depends as much, maybe more, on what is expedient as on what is right and fair.

One dramatic example in Texas is the case of Michael Morton convicted in 1987 for the 1986 murder of his wife. He was freed this year after 25 years in prison when he was exonerated by DNA evidence.  Even worse, there is abundant evidence that the Williamson County prosecutor and sheriff's department deliberately withheld and suppressed evidence that would have exonerated Morton.  And even worse than that, the man later identified as the murderer by the DNA evidence, John Foster Norwood, murdered another woman, Debra Baker, a year after the murder of Michael Morton's wife.  Morton, and Debra Baker's bereaved husband, together are lobbying the Texas Legislature for laws making it a crime punishable by removal from office and disbarment for prosecutors who knowingly withhold exculpatory evidence.  That this is not currently illegal in Texas is astonishing.  Judges, prosecutors, and sheriffs are all elected officials in Texas.  They are under enormous pressure to be "tough" on crime, to satisfy the electorate's need for heads to roll in a state with a high rate of violent crime.

Texas is notorious for its casual attitude toward due process, but in that it is hardly alone or unique.  New York City has its own glaring miscarriages of justice.

New York's most flagrant and notorious recent miscarriage of justice is the Central Park Jogger case.  In 1989, Trish Meili, a 28 year old investment banker with Solomon Brothers, was raped and nearly beaten to death in Central Park in the early hours of the morning (Meili  always said that she has no memory of the attack).  Five black juveniles found in the Park hours later were arrested.  The crime created a sensation with the tabloids filled with lurid accounts of gangs of black teenagers roaming city streets assaulting people in a practice dubbed "wilding."  All five arrested confessed and implicated each other.  They were tried and convicted on all counts in 1990.  In 2002, another man, Matias Reyes, already serving time on another charge, confessed to the crime and said that he acted alone.  DNA evidence supported his confession and exonerated the other five men.  Their convictions were vacated and their names were removed from the sex offenders' registry.  The five, now grown men who served their full sentences for the crime, are now suing the city prosecutor's office.  Sensationalism and the deep atavistic terror of crime by young black males against white women (always useful to politicians, remember Willie Horton?) appear to have railroaded these five guys, none of whom were saints, but they weren't rapists either.

On top of all of that is the "hands off" approach to the perpetrators of what may be the biggest financial crime in history, the misconduct and blatant fraud that almost tanked the world economy in 2008.  Not one of the major perpetrators, or even the minor perpetrators, of that set of crimes has even been so much as investigated, let alone indicted and prosecuted.  Public officials concluded that these folks are simply too vital and important to pursue.  It should also be noted that most of our public officials from both parties depend on patronage from these same people.  I seriously doubt that any justice will ever be done about this despite the growing piles of investigative reports.  Certainly no meaningful reform of the financial industry, or its regulation, has come out of this disaster, and may never come out of it.  Most public officials are on the payrolls of the perpetrators.  If you or I do the same thing on a much smaller scale, you can be certain that we would be facing serous jail time.  It's good to be the king.

So where is that line that separates civilization from the jungle?  I wonder sometimes.  With all the "shoot first" laws sailing through state legislatures allowing everyone to pack heat and to shoot first, I wonder why we even bother to have a judicial system.  Why not save ourselves a huge bundle of tax money and get rid of the judiciary and the police?  Let's return to the very old days when offenses and disputes were settled by vendetta.  Revenge is so dangerous and even more imperfect, but so much more colorful and emotionally gratifying, or so we imagine.

It seems that Law itself has become completely divorced from the whole business of justice ("It's all just one big game," says Michael).  Law is but another arena of competition in the biological struggle for survival and domination projected into the social sphere (the jungle).  That was the theme that ran through so much of Kafka's stories, and remember he was a lawyer.

Gustave Klimt, Jurisprudence, 1899 - 1907 from a set of ceiling murals for the University of Vienna, destroyed in World War II.

Klimt shows Justice in the far distance flanked by Law and Truth with the disembodied heads of magistrates.  They all look on dispassionately at a grisly drama of revenge in the foreground.  Surrounded by three Furies, spirits of revenge, a hapless bound victim is about to be devoured by an octopus.  This painting created a scandal in Vienna when it was exhibited in 1903.  Eighty seven members of the University faculty resigned in protest.  It was attacked both by liberal critics and by right-wing populist antisemitic demagogues, especially Vienna's populist right wing mayor Karl Lüger.  Liberals objected to Klimt's rejection of the very idea of justice in this painting while right wingers accused Klimt of being part of a Jewish conspiracy (Klimt was not Jewish).  In this painting, Klimt openly wonders if the magniloquent language of legal procedure is but a thin veneer concealing dark irrational passions of revenge and aggression.  Klimt lost a professorship and an academy appointment, as well as all the money for the commission, which he repaid voluntarily.  He was taken aback at the ferocity of the attacks upon him and never painted anything quite like this again.
The painting was never installed on the ceiling.  One of Klimt's patrons bought the painting.  During the war, it was seized by the SS and kept in the Schloss Imendorf castle in Lower Austria.  The SS set the castle on fire, destroying the painting, as they retreated before advancing Allied troops in 1945.  It is known now only through black and white photographs.

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