Monday, January 26, 2009

Hold your nose, but Blago deserves civil liberties too!

So much about this case stinks. Here is a sitting Governor, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, accused by Chicago Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of terrible things: trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, trying to blackmail the Chicago Tribune, trying to shake down a childrens’ hospital for money, and more. His scandal has stained an entire generation of talented Illinois public figures including Jesse Jackson Jr., Rahm Emanuel, and Obama himself, just for coming in contact with them.

But there's more. The rampant public vilification of Blago since the charges, the ridicule (even from supposedly objective newsmen like CNN’s Anderson Cooper), the snide dismissals of him as crazy, the assumption of guilt, this stinks too. Yes, under our system of law, until proven guilty, even Blago deserves to be presumed innocent. He has denied the charges. Maybe he’s lying. Maybe he’s not. I don't know, but neither do you.

The treatment of his case, to a great extent brought on himself, has been abominable.

Can Blago really be innocent? So far, all we actually know are the prosecutor's charges and the snippets of evidence he has decided to disclose. Patrick Fitzgerald may be a fine man and an exceptional lawyer, but prosecutors are not always right and not always fair. They sometimes get carried away with their crusades, even when acting in perfectly good faith. That’s why, in this country, before we deem anyone guilty of a crime and send them to jail, we first guarantee them due process of law, the right to state their case, to confront their accusers, to present their evidence and arguments, to speak in their own defense, to have a lawyer, to have their case decided by a jury.

So far, Blago has had none of these things. The media presumes him guilty. The US Senate presumes him guilty. The Illinois legislature presumes him guilty. He is an inconvenient, detested political pariah with poll rated in the single digits.

And worse, rather than a court of law, he faces the prospect of having his case heard first by a group of politicians in the Illinois State Senate. And one of the first decisions these politicians made was to limit his right to call witnesses in his defense. Bloggo asked for a slew of celebrities: Rahm Emanuel, Jesse Jackson, and others. Was this merely a publicity ploy? Maybe. Would it be embarrassing and uncomfortable for them to appear? Certainly. But that's not the point. If they have evidence that could clear his name, then Blago has the right to have it presented before being found guilty. The legislature could have found a way to accommodate Emanual, Jackson, et al, perhaps by hearing them first in executive session before deciding whether to call them publicly. But it chose not to.

I certainly understand Blago’s decision to boycott his Illinois impeachment trial and instead flee to New York City to plead his case out TV talk shows. If Blago is indeed guilty, then he has nothing to lose. The State legislators will convict him anyways. And of he is innocent, then he preserves his rights for the better tribunal, a court of law, where he can avail himself of full legal rights. His presence before the illinois Senate would only lend legitimacy to a forum he claims is a stacked against him.

Maybe Blagojevich should have stepped down from office while his case was being heard so the State could function smoothy. But if he actually is innocent (and, again, he may be lying), what a terrible precedent that would be.

Blago is no fool. His handling of his appointment of Roland Burrus to the US Senate proves he is crazy as a fox. The Illinois Senate may impeach him and kick him out of office in the next few weeks, but that won't end the story. If Blago goes kicking and screaming and protesting his innocence, then prepare yourselves for the huge book deal, the TV reality show, and the slew of revisionist literature that will surely clog the airwaves and bookstores pronouncing him a victim of prosecutorial abuse.

That’s what happens when you deny civil liberties, even to an apparent scoundrel like Blago.
Where is Clarence Darrow when we need him?

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