Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On Being a Gracious Winner

I have a theory about the American criminal justice system. Though not quite fully formed, it goes something like this: The adversarial nature of the American system turns the trial process into a contest between two sides, which invariably produces a winner and a loser. Often times, it seems that various players in the systems - defendants, victims, lawyers on both sides - are more concerned with winning than whether "justice," however that is defined, is done. As a result, folks who perceive that they've lost the "game" don't accede very well to the results, even if they really shouldn't complain.

So, let's say, you're playing in a pick up soccer game. You don't like the guys on the other team and when you finally win, you indulge in some exceptionally gratifying smack talk. What's the worst that could happen? I suppose you could get punched, but probably the losers will just walk away.

A word to criminal defendants everywhere - prosecutors don't like to lose and they generally are not willing to walk away. Witness this case from Virginia (via Doug Berman):

Powell, 31, was convicted in 2000 of killing Reed and raping and trying to kill her 14-year-old relative. He was sentenced to die for Reed's murder.

The Virginia Supreme Court overturned Powell's capital conviction, saying that Prince William County prosecutors failed to prove Powell tried to rob or rape Reed. In order to face capital punishment, defendants must commit other crimes against the victim or meet other aggravating circumstances.

Thinking he could no longer face the death penalty, Powell wrote a profanity-laced, taunting letter to prosecutors offering graphic detail of how he tried to rape Reed before he stabbed her three times and stomped on her throat until she quit breathing.

'Do you just hate yourself for being so stupid and for (messing) up and saving me?' he wrote to Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert in 2001.

Ebert threw out Powell's earlier indictment and charged him with killing and attempting to rape Reed. Powell was convicted again in 2003 and given the death penalty.
Now, there are serious double jeopardy issues here and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Supreme Court does with the case. But the meta lesson shouldn't be confined to legal principles: when you win, do so with grace and humility. If you act like a douche bag, don't be surprised if you get squeezed.

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