Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Why the Scooter Libby Verdict Shows Our Legal System Works

In watching and reading the reaction to the Scooter Libby verdict in the past 48-hours, the whole controversy is incredibly fascinating. Some say he should be pardoned, others say the case should have never been brought in the first place and the whole trial was a travesty of justice, while yet others say the verdict does not go far enough in exposing the lies and misdeeds of the Bush administration.

Yet, putting aside one's view of whether the case was rightfully brought to trial (which I understand is hard to do if you believe the case should have never existed) listening to and reading the explanations of the jury for their verdict and what their feelings toward Scooter Libby are, it is hard to say that our criminal justice system didn't work exactly how it was supposed to throughout this trial.

It is so easy to be pessimistic about our legal system. Rich celebrities seem to get away with murder (literally sometimes) because OJ Simpson can buy a 'Dream Team' defense while others seem to be convicted because of their cold, callous behavior (Martha Stewart comes to mind) even if what they did was questionable and the prosecutions case is flimsy. Juries are often viewed as incompetent, unable to understand the law, the rules of the court, and esepcially the judge's lengthy and often confusing instructions before they start deliberations. Some legal realists don't believe juries follow the law at all, and instead acquit or convict on whether they think the defendant is a good guy or not no matter how strong or weak the prosecutions case is. If a defendant is sympathetic and likable, it seems he's more likely he'll be acquitted.

That didn't happen in the Scooter Libby case though. One of Libby's jurors said convicting Libby was one of the hardest things she's ever had to do.

Saying “I don’t want him to go to jail,” a member of the jury that convicted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby of perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case called Wednesday for President Bush to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

The woman, Ann Redington, said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball” that she cried when the verdicts against Libby were read Tuesday. She said Libby seemed to be “a really nice guy.”

That's an incredible statement and an even more incredible validation of our legal system. This jury did exactly what was required of them. They looked at the evidence, and testimony, and came to a conclusion regardless of their personal feelings toward Libby or whether they believed he deserved to go to jail or not. It would have been really easy for them to say "forget the law" and acquit Libby because they were sympathetic towards him. But, something told this jury that the law was more important than their personal beliefs. That the law mattered and that they could not overlook what they believed was a violation of the law, no matter how much they didn't want to see Libby sent to jail.

The legal system (so far as the trial went) worked flawlessly. Evidence was presented, both prosecution and defense were able to put on their case, and a jury spent 10 days in a room pouring over testimony, diagramming timelines, and ultimately reaching a conclusion on whether the law was broken without ever considering their personal feelings toward the defendant. They didn't like having to convict Scooter Libby, but after looking at the evidence, they felt they had no other choice. And that is exactly how our legal system should work.

Now the question turns to whether Libby should receive a Presidential pardon. Many media outlets have said that he should. MSNBC does not yet have a transcript up of tonight's edition of Hardball but once they do I will update this post because Chris Matthews and The National Review's Kate O'Beirne had a great debate about a potential pardon which I thought gave both the liberal and conservative points of view equal time. Matthews and O'Beirne also argued about the comparisons between the Libby prosecution and impeachment of President Clinton which have incredible parallels and show the hypocrisy of both the right and the left (the same people decrying Libby's conviction as an independent counsel run amok are the same people who praised Ken Starr; Likewise, the same people cheering Libby's conviction are the same people who decried Clinton's impeachment). It was fascinating television, and well worth taking a look at once the transcripts are released.

Update: MSNBC has now posted the aforementioned Hardball transcript and it is really worth taking a look at. The exchange between Matthews and O'Beirne starts about midway through the page. Here are some of the highlights.
O‘BEIRNE: Perjury should be punished. Bill Clinton admitted his perjury. He said—he plead guilty to it. I told falsehoods in my testimony, he admitted it.

MATTHEWS: Scooter was found guilty by a judgment of his peers.

O‘BEIRNE: Scooter Libby has not. Scooter Libby maintains that the discrepancies were owing to his faulty memory. I think reasonable people can conclude that that is the case. I think the jury did a very diligent job, clearly looked at everything.

[. . . ]

MATTHEWS: OK. You believe that if he accepts a pardon, he is accepting guilt? Because that is the legal precedent that Jerry Ford honored when he pardoned Richard Nixon? Do you believe that he should accept guilt, which you don‘t accept? You say he is innocent.

O‘BEIRNE: He doesn‘t have to accept guilt by accepting a pardon. He doesn‘t have to do that.

MATTHEWS: Well, that is the law.

[. . . ]

MATTHEWS: Should [President Clinton] have been kicked out of the White House—the presidency for perjury?

O‘BEIRNE: Yes. It‘s an impeachable offense, Chris.

MATTHEWS: He should be kicked out of the presidency for perjury, but Scooter ought to get a—what, a hall slip or permission slip? What do you want to give him?

O‘BEIRNE: If you‘re guilty of perjury...

MATTHEWS: Perjury...

O‘BEIRNE: ... and as I said, he‘s a—he—he admits his perjury.

It‘s an impeachable offense.

MATTHEWS: Scooter was just found guilty in a court of perjury.

O‘BEIRNE: He maintains—he maintains...

MATTHEWS: I don‘t care what he maintains. Of course—this country is filled with prisons, with maybe a million people in these prisons, and every one of them says they‘re innocent!

O‘BEIRNE: Maybe some of them are.

[. . . ]

MATTHEWS: Well, then why are you taking a position on this case?

O‘BEIRNE: Because a political dispute has been criminalized in a poisonous way that shouldn‘t have been permitted to happen. And it happened to some extent...

MATTHEWS: This is exactly...

O‘BEIRNE: ... because of the Bush administration.

MATTHEWS: ... why this is so ironic. It‘s so ironic, Ann. You‘re a juror. This is exactly the argument made by people like Hillary Clinton back when her husband got in trouble. It was a vast right-wing conspiracy. It wasn‘t a matter of her husband‘s perjury and obstruction of justice, it was all a big conspiracy that should have never been brought to court.

O‘BEIRNE: That‘s not the same argument at all!

MATTHEWS: No, it‘s exactly the same argument.

O‘BEIRNE: No, it‘s not!

Okay, that was more than I wanted to really quote, but as I said, it was good, even better watching it live. Check the transcript for the whole exchange, as I said, both sides got to get their points across and that's the best kind of political debate.

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