Editorial by Chris Lott
At first glance, the only similarity between the McVeigh case and the O. J. Simpson trial, is the insane amount of media coverage that both have received. But in fact, the two cases are similar in illustrative ways that bring into question both the judicial process and the public perception of our justice system and neither in quite the way you might expect.
Both of these cases are based almost solely on circumstantial evidence-- in the Simpson case because of lack of any other kind, in the McVeigh case because eyewitness testimony was too flawed and contradictory that the prosecution deemed it would be damaging to the case to present it. Circumstantial evidence has gotten a bad rap due to its constant facilitation of injustice in television and film legal dramas. If there is any kind of legal component in such entertainment, you can rest assured that someone will either be "getting off" or being wrongly convicted due to such evidence. But there is nothing wrong with circumstantial evidence per se and, with most cases lacking a confession or eye-witnesses, it is natural that a large part of our justice system relies on such. Like witnesses, physical evidence and even confessions, there is a wide range of reliability involved in such evidence, but without it many criminals would be walking the streets free and a large component of the protection offered by our system would be missing.
The second similarity between the two cases-- and this is a little less apparent at first glance-- is that in both cases the prosecution has a dearth of damaging physical evidence and in both cases the decision made by the jury relied/will rely on completely irrelevant testimony tendered by the prosecution. In both cases the defendant's fate was/will be determined through pure emotional manipulation rather than a jury of his peers. In neither case is justice truly being served, and the public and media which condemned the OJ prosecution for "playing the race card" and who were silent as a parade of bombing victims testified at the McVeigh trial are serving only themselves and their pathetic attempts to align themselves on the side of "justice" are suddenly as hollow and transparent as the malfeasance they accuse others of.
The media and the public both had a feeding frenzy when Johnnie Cochran brought racial issues into the Simpson case-- "it's irrelevant!" they cried, "It's not about race! He's just trying to sway the jury from the truth."
Where are these hypocritical, sanctimonious voices for justice now, while McVeigh's life hangs in the balance and the prosecution parades the victims of the senseless attack before the jury as if their testimony had something to do with the task at hand? The fact is, the testimony being given by widows, widowers and parents of dead children has absolutely nothing to do with the task of determining McVeigh's culpability for this crime. If anything, it makes even less sense than the Simpson testimony about race and the LAPD because in that case the testimony at least had some tenuous connection to the question of O.J.'s guilt. In the McVeigh case, however, there is absolutely no connection. The entire orchestration is simply a ploy that is allowed by cynical judges, promoted by self-serving politicians and blithely ignored by a public that has already decided the guilt of the defendant.
The fact of the matter is, the public and media in general don't care a whit about guilt, innocence or justice, all their empty claims to the contrary. They care only that the eventual outcome be aligned with their own sadly underinformed (and intentionally misinformed) preconceptions. Immoral machinations and manipulation are fine just as long as they are done in service of what people already believe what kind of commitment to justice and the jury system does that indicate?
As horrifying as the bombing was, as terrible as the experience of the victims was and is, as sad and moving as the testimony by those whose lives have been destroyed by the Oklahoma City bombing has been, it has no place in the trial of Timothy McVeigh. I am in no way belittling the victims' pain (in fact, I think it belittles their pain to use them in such a self-serving and cynical way). I am pointing out the fact that the jury in this case is not there to determine how large the bomb was, how horrific the explosion or how devastating the effects, but whether or not Tim McVeigh is responsible. None of the former is in doubt, and clouding the trial with the spectre of such irrelevance is horrifying in and of itself particularly if you imagine yourself on trial (wrongly accused, for argument's sake) with the jury hearing the excruciating details of the crime which have no relevance to your own innocence, but are likely to condemn you anyway.
In the McVeigh case, the testimony that I object to (and other injustices during such things as the penalty phase and parole hearings) is a direct result of that political red herring known as victim's rights. Victims have been ignored by the justice process, the theory goes, and victim's rights are supposed to rectify that by allowing them to be involved in as many parts of the process as possible. This is fine as far as it goes: there certainly needs to be more attention paid to the victims of crime, both in terms of helping them move on with their lives through counseling, allowing them to observe the process of trying the accused and restitution upon conviction. In fact, I am of the mind that part of society's responsibility extends to providing compensation to those who are victims of crime, particularly when the convicted has nothing to give.
But this is a far different thing than allowing crime victims to participate in the process itself. Of course they will likely need to testify as to what happened, but such testimony should be limited to such things as location, time, place and what they saw not detailed accounts of the pain, horrific descriptions of their life afterwards, etc. This does nothing but compound the injustice and cheapen any sense of victory that the victims might eventually claim.
It's obvious that victims should be able to testify during the penalty phase of the trial; this is the one place where it actually makes sense. But allowing victims and their families to testify during parole hearings is another blatant injustice masquerading in the form of victim's rights. The idea of parole is for a third party group to decide if a person, having served the minimum time of their sentence, has demonstrated fitness to be given another chance. Again, the horrific nature of the crime has little to do with this determination that determination was made by the judge at sentencing. It is not the duty of the parole board to second-guess the outcome of the trial or the punishment determined by the judge, but to look at the facts at hand and make a decision based on that alone. The problem of victim testimony is exacerbated by the fact that they are allowed to testify freely without being questioned by a lawyer, and with no oversight to make them accountable for their veracity. In other words, during parole hearings the victim and family can make any claims and accusations they want to out of the heat of their passion and pain, regardless of factual evidence, and it is treated as at least possible by the parole board.
In the final reckoning, all of this manipulation creates results that are directly opposite what is best for the victims of crime and for society at large. Prejudicial, irrelevant testimony simply weakens the already precarious legal structure, and condoning such actions when they are in line with what we already believe makes it all the more likely that the same fate will befall someone who we don't believe is guilty, or ourselves even if we are innocent. Victims testifying at parole hearings simply makes a mockery of the system itself, by keeping people behind bars who do not belong there (and taking up space that could be filled by those who do) and the victims too, by providing a false sense of catharsis which serves only to cause the hatred and bitterness to take stronger root and grow.
I have my own beliefs about the guilt or innocence of both Simpson and McVeigh (and they are in general accord with the populace of this country), but I have a stronger belief that my opinion not only doesn't mean anything in the face of a determination by a jury, but that it shouldn't mean anything-- that's what the jury is for! And I know for sure that if I am ever accused of a crime, I want to be tried by a jury of my peers as the law calls for, and such a trial should be based on as much fact and as little emotion as possible. I am sure, if I am ever the victim of a horrendous act of violence that I will have all of the same desires as those in the McVeigh case: I will want to testify, see the perpetrator behind bars or executed, I will want to be at every parole hearing making sure he never gets out, etc. But I don't believe I have a right to do those things, and I would much rather that the system prevented me from doing so, just as it rightly deters vigilante justice and judges presiding over crimes against their own families.
Ultimately, victim's rights notions are founded on good intentions but serve no one but their political backers in the form of electoral votes. Protecting the rights of the accused is a foundational imperative which ultimately protects us all, and trying to keep (or make) the judicial process as free from emotional decision as possible, thus convicting the correct people for the correct reasons as often as possible, is more a protection and promotion of the rights of all people, including victims, than any victim's rights movement will ever be else we are all victimized.