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Friday, August 3, 2012

High-profile justice and everyday justice

Posted By on 08.03.12 at 01:50 PM

Will County Courthouse
  • Scott Stewart/Chicago Sun-Times
  • Will County courthouse
I must make a damning confession. I claim to care about criminal justice, and yet I've been ignoring the Drew Peterson trial.

I haven't been reading the frequent updates or perusing the live tweets from the reporters at the Will County courthouse.

I did read this morning's Sun-Times story just to see what I've been missing. The "threat of a blockbuster mistrial" was averted yesterday. This denies us the chance of seeing a movie one day about the blockbuster Peterson mistrial.

Peterson's charged with murdering his third wife. With the mistrial threat averted, most of yesterday "was spent on mundane testimony" about the appearance of the victim's bathroom the night her body was found.

Welcome to the criminal courts, where trial testimony is usually mundane and repetitive. The vast majority of cases aren't even trials, they're plea deals. And, of course, in most courthouses the cases feature an unending line of poor, anonymous defendants, represented by overworked public defenders—not media stars with handsomely paid private lawyers.

There's a lot happening every day in courthouses that's interesting and important, if not sensational enough for the dailies. For example:

Imagine you're a public defender. You're assigned yet another case in which a defendant is accused of a petty drug crime.

It's a winnable case—the police reports suggest the arresting officer might not have had probable cause to search your new client.

But your client has a long history of narcotics offenses, and freely admits to you that he has an addiction. If he's willing to plead guilty, you might be able to get him probation and treatment.

That's probably a good deal for the defendant, if treatment goes well. But if it doesn't go well and he violates his probation, he's heading to prison for a case you could have helped him beat.

Then again, if he declines to plea and ends up winning his case, what he may have won is the chance to go back to smoking crack or snorting blow, and you may have missed a chance to help him clean up.

Most PDs will tell you they leave such a choice to their client. But a lot of clients aren't sure what's in their interests—especially when they're in the midst of an addiction. And often the defendant's decision is the result of the PD's subtle nudge when she or he presents him with the options.

These kinds of conversations happen perpetually in courthouses throughout the land—conversations leading to key decisions in the lives of a multitude of poor people. But they lack the significance and drama of a possible blockbuster mistrial.

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