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December 15, 2001

Secret Trials Endanger Security


by Harry Browne

Why are the Bill of Rights, open trials, the rule of law, and the traditional American rules of evidence important?

Two reasons:

  1. If an innocent person is convicted and punished, it's an injustice to that person and the Founding Fathers were determined that Americans wouldn't suffer the injustices that had oppressed so many innocent people in the Old World.
  2. If an innocent person is convicted, the real criminal will be free to commit more crimes.

So it misses the point to say the civil liberties of individuals must be balanced against the safety of the community. If individual civil liberties aren't protected, the safety of the community is endangered by putting the wrong people in prison allowing the guilty to continue to function. It's vital that only the guilty be convicted whether the accused is suspected of a petty theft, a terrorist act, or mass murder.

It's vital that only the guilty be convicted whether the accused is an American citizen, a green-card resident, or an outright foreigner.

Whatever the crime, whoever the accused, your safety requires that only the guilty be convicted.

EACH RULE IS IMPORTANT

The Bill of Rights and the rules of evidence were developed to assure that only the truly guilty are convicted.

The right to a trial by jury: A defendant must be tried by "a jury of his peers" so that he isn't judged by people who can gain personally by convicting him.

The right to a public trial: If the prosecutors, judges, and juries can't be seen and judged by the public, they can short-circuit a fair trial.

The right to counsel: A defendant isn't likely to have the talent and skills necessary to call the jury's attention to logical gaps in the prosecution's case. So the defendant must have a skilled lawyer. To assure that the right person was convicted, appellate courts have ordered retrials when the accused didn't have competent counsel.

The right to confront one's accusers: No evidence is valid if the person offering it can't be cross-examined by the defense. Hearsay evidence is worthless because you can't be sure what someone meant by what he said if you can't question him.

The right to remain silent: If you're nervous or inarticulate, a skilled policeman or prosecutor could cause you to say something that's incriminating but not literally true.

The right to private consultation with an attorney: To mount a competent defense, a defendant must be able to speak freely to his attorney confident that his words won't be taken out of context or otherwise misinterpreted.

These are just some of the rules that are vital to assure that the innocent aren't convicted while the truly guilty go free.

If these rules are discarded as the Bush administration proposes to do with secret military trials we have no guarantee that the people convicted, and possibly executed, will be the true villains. And if the wrong people are convicted, the guilty ones can continue terrorizing Americans.

And those who say "terrorists have forfeited their rights" are forgetting the most important point: Without a fair, open trial, you can't be sure the accused person really is a terrorist. Allowing government employees to acts as investigators, prosecutors, judges, and juries isn't the same as conducting a fair, open trial.

WHY THE BILL OF RIGHTS IS IGNORED

The Bill of Rights, the rule of law, and the rules of evidence are there to protect both individuals and society. If the individual isn't safe from false prosecution, society isn't safe from criminals.

Saying the terrorist danger justifies tearing up the Bill of Rights makes as much sense as saying a threat of invasion justifies disbanding the military.

It's a shame that schools don't show children why the Bill of Rights is so important.

But then, why would government want to teach children that its important to protect individuals from government?

 

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Harry Browne is a best-selling author and two-time Libertarian Party nominee for president.

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