Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Two years awaiting trial; so much for the presumption of innocence

One way to quell dissent is to lock up the dissenters so that no one can listen to them.You can do this by overcharging on a criminal complaint, by asking for an unreasonable level of bail or both.

Cecily McMillan has been held behind bars by New York prosecutors for almost two years. Her trial on charges she assaulted a New York City police officer was to begin yesterday. After clearing procedural hurdles, and scheduling around court holidays, jury selection is scheduled to begin on Thursday and the government should present its case on Friday.

Ms. McMillan was charged with felony assault after she elbowed an officer beneath his eye at a Zuccotti Park protest back in March of 2012. Prosecutors claim Ms. McMillan deliberately elbowed the officer in the face as members of Occupy Wall Street fought with the police. Ms. McMillan claims that someone behind her grabbed her breast and she swung her elbow to protect herself. After her elbow made contact Ms. McMillan was viciously beaten by the police and arrested.

There was no need for Ms. McMillan to suffer the beating she did. She was one person. The officer wasn't seriously injured. Yet the beating commenced. And once it began there was no stopping it until the adrenaline ran out. What happened to Ms. McMillan on the street was far worse than what happened to the officer.

Now aside from the legal issues of what constitutes intentional or knowing action in this case, there is a bigger issue. The crime for which Ms. McMillan was charged is a Class D felony for which she faces a maximum sentence of seven years.

But let's keep in mind that Ms. McMillan is innocent unless proven otherwise beyond all reasonable doubt by the government. And for that reason alone she should not have spent the last 23 months confined to a cell. Her confinement was a means to coerce her into entering a plea that would resolve the case and leave her with a criminal record for the rest of her life.

Her confinement also shows the divide between the attitudes of prosecutors and the rest of society. For a prosecutor, a sentence is but a number that can be thrown around as if it were handed down by a god. There are no consequences for a prosecutor - he or she is going home every evening after work regardless of what happens.

For the rest of us, those numbers represent a tragedy. Someone's mother or father or daughter or son or sister or brother is going to be taken away. Arrangements must be made so that whoever is left on the outside can take care of everyone else. The situation is only magnified when judges and prosecutors play games with bail and lock up innocent folks for months or years while they await resolution of their cases.

Now there can be little doubt that the police in New York City (and elsewhere across the country) overreacted in their response to the Occupy! movement. There was no reason to clear parks by force when folks all over this country were organizing and exercising their constitutional right to assemble and petition the government for their grievances.

If things got out of hand that night at Zuccotti Park then we should be looking at the leadership of the New York City Police Department who instead of carrying out their supposed duty to protect and defend the residents of New York City, turned their weapons on the citizenry to clear a park at the behest of Wall Street interests.

Even if you believe the government's account of what happened that night, there is no excuse to lock up a young woman without a criminal record for two years. If bail were set at a level higher than that which she could afford to post, then it should have been lowered. After all, bail is not a punitive measure, it is merely a means of guaranteeing a defendant's appearance in court. Holding someone behind bars for two years serves only to make it more difficult to defend a case. It certainly doesn't advance the cause of justice.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Paul, I have discussed this before in a number of your posts and continues to be a prevailing problem in our society. It is almost as if those employed by the state as public servants (cops) are first class citizens and then everyone else is less important. If I assault a cook I might be arrested, incarcerated for maybe a week pay a fine or a few months of probation. If I assault a cop the I could possibly be shot, handcuffed bleeding with bullet wounds, lynched, arrested (if I survived the first two steps), brutally booked, face 6 digits of bail, and decades of prison. Someone MUST explain to me what about this specific profession that makes killing them so much worse as to merit the death penalty as compared to cashiers, teachers, drivers, pharmacists, clergy, or accountants. Doesn't one of our nations founding documents specify about all human life being created equal or something to that effect?