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Every accused is entitled to a defence. Those who are brought up on charges are innocent until proven guilty. Defence attorneys are tasked with the unpleasant job of working just as hard to gain acquittals for their guilty clients as their innocent ones, because what is at stake is more than one person’s freedom, but the successful execution of the law. At least, that was the idea.
In January, Harvard professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. took the job of defending media pilloried, me too’d, Harvey Weinstein. For this noble pursuit of defending a man in need of defence, Sullivan was protested and mobbed by Harvard students, and has since been removed from his post as faculty dean. Just as his client was tried and convicted by mob justice, so too has the attorney been tried and sentenced. The charge against Sullivan was that he was willing to “represent a person accused of abusing women.” Not lost in all of this was the fact that Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, were the first African American faculty deans in Harvard’s history.
Accused of rape and harassment, Weinstein has already been tried and convicted in media, and his reputation in the entertainment industry, where he was once a darling and a mogul, has been destroyed. It is this spurious criterion that led Harvard students to condemn Sullivan for taking up Weinstein’s defence. To be clear, a trial has not yet begun. All that has happened is that a man has been accused, arrested, and his career ruined. Apparently, students at one of the most prestigious universities in the country are so ill-informed about American jurisprudence as to be unable to separate their emotional reaction to Weinstein’s alleged infractions from his right to a fair trial.
Criminal defence in the United States has a long and storied history of fine attorneys being willing and energized to form a defence for even the worst offenders. Clarence Darrow’s first big trial was the defence of “Big Bill” Haywood, a union boss who was found not-guilty of the murder of a former Idaho governor, Frank Steuneberg. He went on to defend perfect-crime obsessed child killers Leopold and Loeb, and because of his brilliant defence, while the two were convicted, neither was executed. His most famous case was the Scopes Monkey Trial, defended before the Supreme Court, which was a victory for the teaching of evolution in American schools. Darrow defended some absolutely miserable gentlemen, because what he was defending was the law.
Notorious anarchists and killers Sacco and Vanzetti were defended by Frank H. Moore, a prominent left-wing attorney at the time. Though they were convicted and eventually executed, the trial brought focus to the problem of unreliable witnesses, upon which so many prosecutors relied. This is why a good defence is so essential. If Sacco and Vanzetti were only able to offer a feeble defence, the prosecutorial practice of using unreliable witnesses would have gone untested.
Weinstein has been tried in media. The details of his alleged crimes, the faces and tears of his accusers, have been splashed across news sites and social media. Most people have already formed opinions on Weinstein’s presumed innocence, and presume it isn’t so. However, much of his treatment in the press is a direct result of the times, where guilt is determined based on who the public would more like to believe. In the case of Weinstein, the fact that so many high profile women have spoken out against him has damned his verdict before the trial has even begun. As much as the United States legal system has a tradition of law-centric ideology, it has a history of press trials usurping the real thing.
The trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man accused of kidnapping and murdering the Lindberg baby, bears the most similarity to the pending Weinstein case. Hauptmann was blasted in the press, tried in the pages of newspapers nationwide before the jury was even selected. The risk of a travesty of justice was so great that it prompted the American Bar Association to issue a call for legislation to strengthen the ability of judges to hold reporters in contempt.
It stated “The recognition by the judge that many newspapers, after all, seem to be giving the public what the public wants and that public sentiment has not yet come to realize what trial by newspaper really involves, in unfairness, both to the defendant and the prosecution and its potential dangers, its abuses, its endless confusion and controversy, and its sordid commercialism of the very home and spirit of justice.” (New York Times, August 21, 1936)
Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced to death. The stated reason for his appeals were that the trial had been unfair, because he had already been tried and convicted in media before the jurors had a chance to make up their own minds.
When Weinstein’s case goes to trial, Sullivan will be able to make a similar argument. Not only has Weinstein been fully prosecuted in the press, but so, too, has his attorney, and with the assistance of an Ivy League university. If an attorney cannot take up the cause of criminal justice without being sidelined for his client’s alleged crimes, there is no justice left in the American criminal justice system, not for those criminals who overcrowd the many prisons, nor for those high profile defendants who can afford the best defence.
The travesty of justice that began with press prosecution will not end with the demotion of criminal justice attorneys from their prestigious posts, but with the removal of the concept of justice across the board. Harvard should take a stand in defence of the right for an attorney to defend, not capitulate to students demands, based in emotion, not the upholding of law.