CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 4 . . . . October 15, 1999
While most people trust the criminal justice system and value the dedication of law enforcement officials, they also realize that mistakes can and do occur. Sometimes it is the innocent who are found guilty. How is it possible for a person to be wrongly convicted of a crime? Sometimes mistaken testimony of an eyewitness is an important factor. A witness will testify in good faith that he or she saw a crime being committed, but be utterly wrong. Other times false testimony occurs - that is, a witness deliberately lies. Failure in police work can play a part, too. There are instances of police mishandling evidence, tampering with evidence or forcing confessions from the accused.Children are told that our justice system is based on the principle that individuals accused of crimes are "innocent until proven guilty." However, George Sullivan tells the sad and tragic stories of what happens when police, the courts, media and volatile public opinion disregard this fundamental premise. While some of the cases may appear straightforward, they all involve complex social issues while demonstrating how fragile our essential freedoms actually are and how easily they can be trampled upon.
The two well-known Canadian examples cited in the book are murder cases involving Donald Marshall and Susan Nelles. In these cases, Sullivan argues that justice failed because of racism, police misconduct, investigative incompetence, and a willingness to submit to public pressure for a speedy resolution and conviction.
Marshall, a 17-year-old Native from Nova Scotia, was charged with murder in 1971. He was imprisoned for 11 years before his conviction was overturned. The Royal Commission which investigated the handling of the case cited racism rather than evidence as the motivating factor in the police's dogged determination to send Marshal to prison for life.
Susan Nelles, a nurse at Toronto's Sick Children's Hospital, was accused of murdering four babies in 1981. Although there was no evidence to justify the charges, the Ontario Crown Attorney's Office pressed ahead. The charges were dropped, but Nelles' reputation and family had been severely effected. She spent four years seeking vindication and sued the Crown Attorney's Office for "malicious prosecution." Her case eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that, under the Charter of Rights, Canadians can sue when a prosecutor "acts in fraud of his duties."
The other four cases are American, two contemporary and two historical. The story of Peter Reilly is a conventional tale demonstrating that individuals must be vigilant in protecting and demanding their rights when confronted by police. Policemen may be your friends, but you are ill advised to trust them too much, particularly when they think you murdered your mother.
The case of Leonard Peltier, a Native-American political activist who was convicted of murdering two FBI agents, is extremely complex. The case raises important issues of violent civil disobedience and whether a claim of self defense against properly constituted authority is justified. This case could be very controversial in some class situations.
The two historical examples take place in the 19th century, and both are interesting. One involves the vengeful investigation of individuals who were implicated with John Wilkes Booth in the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln. The other is the story of a Black West Point cadet who suffered at the hands of white racists and was expelled from the military academy unjustifiably.
The reason why justice often goes awry in a society dedicated to the rule of law and the principle of equitable justice is because law enforcement officials can suffer from a common human affliction - they refuse to let fact get in the way of belief. Police officers and crown attorneys often require single-minded determination to successfully capture and prosecute criminals. Unfortunately, this focus may blind them to obvious flaws in their assumptions and procedures. At what point, however, does doggedness become entangled in racist issues and investigative fraud? Some teachers may believe that Sullivan simplifies these issues. Beyond this codicil, students can gain valuable insights into the complex nature of our legal system and the realities of society by reading this book.
Ian Stewart is a regular contributor to _CM_ and the book review pages of the Winnipeg Free Press.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.