Trouble in Court

Posted on January 12, 2010

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Scott Roeder: on trail for murder (Pic: NY Daily News)

Normally, I tend not to get too over-excited by events in the courtroom, mainly because of a shameful lack of interest which probably stems from a shameful lack of knowledge over how the system actually works. But a few issues this week really made my blood boil.

The battle for the ‘soul of America’ (something I’m not entirely sure exists anyway) looks set to be fought across the courtroom. No two issues divide America more than abortion and same-sex marriage. And in the same week, cases crucial to both issues have reached the courtroom. In Wichita, Kansas, Scott Roeder is set to stand trial for the murder of Dr George Tiller. All very normal, you might think. A crazy American with a gun, what’s new? Except Dr Tiller was one of the few doctors in the U.S. to perform late-term abortions, and this was the very reason why Roeder shot him. He readily admits doing so, but he and his legal team claim that he should be tried for voluntary manslaughter as he performed the act to save the lives of unborn children. There have been the inevitable difficulties in selecting neutral jurors for the trial. It does not need explaining what a dangerous precedent this would set if the court found in Roeder’s favour. We must hope that this first battle for America’s soul does not put doctors who perform abortions in danger.

The second battle, over same-sex marriage, is taking place in a California courtroom. The notorious Proposition 8, the California referendum against gay marriage, is being challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court in San Francisco. The court will have to decide whether same-sex unions are protected by the constitution. Supporters of Proposition 8 have outright claimed that this is a ‘battle for the soul of America’. With same-sex marriage suffering setbacks in New York and New Jersey recently, let us hope that the battle is won by the forces of progress rather than the darker, reactionary half of America. Those that argue that this is not the latest American civil rights case are wrong. It is, simple as that. And in both these cases, the American courtroom, its judges and its jurors, must come to the right decision, to prevent both anarchy and reaction.

So, the courtroom is set to be crucial in America, but apparently us Brits no longer have a need for it. Today, the first criminal trial to take place without a jury in 400 years began, with four defendants accused of an attempted robbery at Heathrow airport in 2004. The Court of Appeal’s ruling that “the danger of jury tampering and the subversion of the process of trial by jury is very significant” means that Mr Justice Treacy will be both judge and jury in the case. The lives of these four men, innocent until proven guilty, are in the hands of just one. And all this without the evidence of jury tampering ever being presented to the accused’s lawyers, but presented in court by the police under ‘public interest immunity’. Hardly a brilliant example of democracy, is it? I am part of the public, and my interest is in making sure a fellow citizen gets a fair trial.

A crucial week in the courtroom on both sides of the pond, then, with ‘America’s soul’ at stake on one side and the fair hearing of John Twomey and his associates at stake on the other. And never before have I had quite so little faith in the Western courts of law to make the right decision.

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Posted in: Issues, Legal