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Scoop Opinion - Judge Me Not

Last week Justice Minister, Phil Goff, called an judges to be more responsive to public opinion. But John Howard writes, - do we want the rule of law or the rule of the mob?

You want to live under the rule of law or the rule of the mob? Virtually everyone will say that they want to live under the rule of law.

But what people say is not nearly as important as what they do. And what far too many people are doing is moving us closer to mob rule.

Public opinion can be inflamed at the whim of a television crew and when it is, it is no longer public opinion, it can, and too often does, become mob rule.

Like many New Zealander's, I followed the recent New York trial of four policemen for their shooting of Amadou Diallo.

It was clear what the angry mob wanted - they wanted convictions.

Even the first lady, Hillary Clinton, declared it was "murder" before the first speck of evidence was presented in court. Funny what an election campaign will do to a politician.

Later, President Clinton told her to button her lip and she became much more moderate.

In a disgraceful event both in the courtroom and the media, those who thwarted the mob's desires had their home addresses made public.

A witness who said Mr Daillo was acting suspiciously, even before the police arrived on the scene, not only had his street address but his apartment number made public by the prosecuting lawyer.

Where this witness lived was absolutely irrelevant to whether the policemen were guilty of innocent, since the witness testified only to what he saw while on the street walking home.

What was relevant was intimidating a witness for the defence, who had to fear that what he said on the stand could put himself and his family in danger.

A nurse who was attending a patient across the street from the shooting was asked for the patient's name even though the patient was not a witness and had not claimed to have seen or heard anything.

When an objection was raised to that information, the prosecutor then wanted to know whether the patient was a man or woman and what age. None of this had anything to do with whether the policemen were innocent or guilty. But it had a lot to do with intimidating a witness who might fear that the address of her patient might be revealed which would cause fears for the future safety of someone who was ill and helpless.

Before testifying, both witnesses had asked that their faces not be shown on television so they were obviously already concerned for their safety if they said something the mob didn't like.

Against that background, for the prosecutor to be identifying people and pinpointing addresses that had nothing to do with the issue before the court was unconscionable.

The judge ordered the witness statement that Mr Daillo was acting suspiciously to be struck from the record - and rightly so. But his address wasn't and it became a matter of public record.

Ironically, one of the charges against the police was reckless endangerment. But that is precisely what happened to witnesses in the courtroom and to jurors after they aquitted those whom the mob wanted convicted - and the judge did and said nothing.

At the end of the trial, the judge read a statement from the jurors saying that they did not want any contact with the media. Yet they were not only deluged with phone calls from the media and others, but the jury foreman had her name and the town she lived in published in the New York Times.

This is not the first time the NY Times has published the names of jurors who reached a verdict it didn't like. They published the names and employers of the jurors who aquitted the policemen charged in the beating of Rodney King.

Do we want witnesses who will say what they saw or who will say only what the mob wants to hear - or witnesses who will refuse to come forward to say anything at all, because they may be putting themselves and their families in danger?

Do we want jurors who will decide the case on the basis of the evidence in the courtroom, or on the basis of the mob outside the courtroom - or the mob that could be outside their homes if they don't vote the way the media, the activists and the loudmouths want them to vote?

The media in general with their constant drumbeat of - "four white policemen who shot a black man" - did not cover themselves with glory, even if they didn't sink to the level of the NY Times in abetting mob influence in the judicial process.

Incidentally, in a truly hideous and deliberate crime committed while this trial was going on, a just paroled criminal hijacked a car and dragged, at 140kph for 10 kms, a little boy who was caught up in a seat-belt outside the car to his death.

But no one pointed out that the race of this criminal differed from the race of his victim - and rightly so.

Has the media become so politically correct that it just has to play the race card?

The politicisation of justice - whether in the media or the courtroom - is playing with a fire that can consume us all. For that reason, Mr Goff is absolutely wrong.

© Scoop Media

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