Around Town: Nurturing a fragile system

We live in an age of unprecedented freedom. Freedom of speech, for example.

The United States Supreme Court has spoken. Loud and clear. The Westboro Church has a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable local ordinances, to picket military funerals and to make vile remarks.

Like the Westboro Church, we all have the same wonderful freedom to speak our minds.

But at what cost?

Last May, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck had a First Amendment right to call a press conference to announce the arrest of Giovanni Ramirez.

A few years ago, a Chicago resident named Kim exercised his First Amendment right to post Internet comments questioning South Korean rock star Daniel Lee’s (Stanford ‘02) college credentials.

Except for this — Giovanni Ramirez was innocent, and Daniel Lee really did graduate from Stanford in 2002, despite the Internet postings. In each case, the public comments turned out to be untrue.

And then, there’s Nancy Grace. Ms. Grace, a crime victim turned prosecutor, has a First Amendment right to further the cause of victims’ rights, to comment on criminal investigations and to criticize juries when she disagrees with their verdicts.

But is doing so really a good idea? Has she furthered the cause of justice in America?

We are all free to speak. You. Me. Even this newspaper. We are free to speak, even when we risk that most precious American institution — the American jury.

Our American system of criminal justice is the best in the world.

Our criminal justice system is the hope of the downtrodden, the unjustly accused and those “in disgrace in fortune and in men’s eyes,” thanks to the presumption of innocence and the American jury.

It is not a perfect system. Since 1989, there have been 272 post-conviction DNA exonerations, with 17 exonerated from Death Row. The system is not foolproof. It is not perfect. But its goals are lofty. Unlike other systems, our criminal justice system was never designed to convict all of the guilty. It is designed to never convict an innocent person.

That’s the goal.¿

At the heart of our criminal justice system is the idea that an accused has the right to a jury of his or her peers, and that the prosecution must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The right to trial by jury is a fundamental, yet fragile, right.

Would you want to live in a society where all of the guilty are convicted, along with some of the innocent? Imagine if every single guilty person was convicted, but also your innocent kid, your innocent neighbor and your innocent parent.

I don’t think so.

So, how do media comments condemning a jury help nurture our fragile jury system? When Giovanni Ramirez was arrested for the Dodger Stadium beating and then crucified in the media, how did that help guarantee a fair trial? When the talking heads blasted the Casey Anthony verdict, jury and her lawyers, how did that nurture our fragile jury system?

Closer to home, you may agree or disagree with the jury in trucker Marcos Costa’s murder trial. Many of us witnessed the aftermath of that tragedy in April of 2009 at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Angeles Crest Highway. There has been substantial local coverage and we each have our own opinions.

Whichever way it goes, let’s thank the jury. They are the judges of the facts. Let's honor their service as citizen jurors.

We have the freedom to try all these cases in the media, ala Nancy Grace. But do we really want these cases tried in the media? Or do we want them tried in the courts? Do we want to undermine the fragile system or strengthen it?

The choice is ours.

ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at anitasusan.brenner@yahoo.com

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