The Corner

Some Defendants are Less Equal Than Others

“Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This quote, from the Englishman William Blackstone, aptly describes the aims and priorities of our own American system of justice . . . Unless, that is, you are a liberal crusader who is out to get someone because he was accused of a “hate crime.” In that case, Blackstone’s formulation is turned on its head: better to convict ten innocents than to give people a symbolic impression that “hate crimes” aren’t more serious and worse than all other crimes.

I have written a couple of items on the topic of hate-crimes legislation in recent weeks because the U.S. House passed a hate-crimes bill, which next proceeds to the United States Senate. President Obama has promised to sign it once it passes.

I mentioned recently that the proponents of hate-crimes legislation have pointed to no case that would provide a real rationale for the bill — that is, a case in which “hate” offenders have been sentenced too lightly due to lack of hate-crime laws — because none of the bill’s supporters mentioned any such case on the House floor. They did mention several cases in which hate-crime laws would have made little or no difference in sentencing, in a completely symbolic appeal to people’s emotions.

At almost exactly the same time I was writing, however, this case was decided by a Pennsylvania jury. Luis Ramirez, a 25 year-old Mexican immigrant and the father of two children, was beaten to death in Shenandoah, Pa. after a verbal altercation with several young white men that included racial epithets. The two teens charged with the crime were acquitted of the most serious charges and convicted only of simple assault earlier this month.

This case was brought to my attention by one activist on behalf of hate-crime laws. It is taken by some to prove (1) that hate-crimes laws are necessary to stop this sort of thing, and (2) hate-crime laws are needed to subject defendants to double jeopardy (sort of) under the doctrine of “dual sovereignty” — otherwise, state and local juries will frequently let hate criminals go.

A dose of reality, then:

1) Pennsylvania does have an applicable hate-crimes law. In addition to third-degree murder, the defendants were tried for the crime of “ethnic intimidation” (and acquitted). So once again, this is not a case in which the lack of a hate-crimes law made any difference whatsoever.

2) There is more to this trial than the casual national news stories have shown.

What of the jury verdict? Some people have referred to this case as one of “jury nullification,” and would like to see the defendants tried for the same crime at the federal level — a practice the hate-crimes bill currently in Congress would encourage. The bill explicitly states that the Attorney General can initiate a hate-crimes prosecution in cases where he doesn’t like the verdict in a state court.

We have no way of knowing what the jurors were thinking, and we never will know. But just based on the press accounts, “jury nullification” does not seem to be the simplest or the best explanation for what happened. The best explanation is prosecutorial stupidity on both the state and federal level.

CNN and other national outlets have covered this trial as a “rallying cry” for Hispanics, without mentioning any of the relevant details of the trial. This article from the Allentown Morning Call, which covers the critical portion of the trial, tells you everything you need to know about why the verdict came down as it did. Prosecutors allowed two of the young white men who participated in the fatal altercation to take federal plea deals with short sentences and receive leniency at the state level. The two testified against the two defendants. But the friends of the victim who witnessed the crime gave testimony that implicated not the defendants, but the two government witnesses.

Again, you can read more details here. With the help of testimony from the victim’s friends, the defendants’ attorneys simply created reasonable doubt by convincing the jury that the two state’s witnesses, not the defendants, might have killed the victim.

Is this a miscarriage of justice? Maybe. But that’s the price we pay for our standard of “reasonable doubt” in criminal cases. No one is trying to change that, not even for hate-crimes defendants — not yet, anyway. But give the proponents of hate-crime legislation some time, and they probably will.


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