A Dangerous Country

Cartoons of a certain age would occasionally feature some sunny jim happily piloting a little animated airplane through the wild blue yonder.

Then, for reasons various, the craft would begin to come apart around him. Pieces of the plane would peel off, or just plain disappear. As this proceeded, discomfort, upon the visage of the sunny jim, would be expressed.

In the end, the sunny jim would be reduced to holding but the wheel, all other portions of the craft having vanished. Momentum would carry the de-planed creature forward for a bit, until the wheel too would wink out; shortly thereafter, all forward motion stopped: a moment of stasis.

Then, the fall.

That’s pretty much what happened with the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, once presumed the future successor to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

There they were, American prosecutors, breezily flying the friendly skies, towing a banner reading: “Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Gallic Monster: Ravenous Prevert Maid-Raper.” Until their own investigators determined that their complaining witness was a lie with feet.

The banner is gone now, and so is the plane. All that’s left is the wheel. And the prosecutors, their asses hanging out there in the air. The fall comes next. Soon.

Across the Great Water, the French, who know more about America, and American cinema, than do Americans, are now again confirmed in their belief that the United States can best be apprehended through the film roles of Richard Widmark and Jack Palance: here cackling delightedly as an old woman in a wheelchair is shoved down a flight of stairs, there shooting an unarmed man in the back; here babbling cornpone senilities around a campfire, there grabbing a rope to stretch the neck of some sadsack, mostly only because “the folks” Can, and Feel Like It.

Unlike Americans, the French are not real big on horror films. This is because they understand what horror really is. And watched it play out in real-time, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In what Bernard-Henri Levy aptly characterized as “the cannibalisation of justice by the sideshow.” The “perp walk.” The daily dueling press conferences. The leaked photographs. The ludicrous “security arrangements.” All designed to mock and humiliate and diminish and demean. The ham-handedly planned street-theater. The endlessly talking heads, on all manner of tubes, serving as self-appointed insta-voting judges and juries and executioners. The hooting knuckledraggers, in the tabloids and on the streets, snickering about “Chez Perv” and “Frog Legs It.”

And, further, Levy: “the Robespierrism of the sideshow,” wherein “we are compelled to observe that, regarding the Strauss-Kahn affair, America the pragmatic, that rebels against ideologies, this country of habeas corpus that de Tocqueville claimed possessed the most democratic system of justice in the world, has pushed [] French Robespierrism, unfortunately, to the extremes of its craziness.”

From Dominique Moïsi:

The case does damage to the image of America and recreates negative stereotypes that existed before. Now this feeling is reinforced—that the United States is not a fully civilized country, with a police that behaves like that, that wants to humiliate. There is a sense that it’s a dangerous country.

Gee. Ya think?

Probably Strauss-Kahn is what I would consider a pig, in his attitudes and actions towards women. This I discern from what I have read about the man in the “news.”

Not that Americans would have much room to move in declaring Strauss-Kahn, say, unfit for the French presidency, on those grounds. Since their two chief executives prior to this one, George II and The Clenis, themselves manifested serious oinkage.

And whether whatever carnal encounter that occurred between Strauss-Kahn and his accuser may have strayed into the criminal, that is not for me to say. Because it’s not my case. And so I don’t know enough to judge.

What fries me, as fries the French, is the carnival. The kabuki. The knee-jerk “hang ’em high” frontier atavism. The divine right of American all and sundry to pass public judgement on the guilt or innocence of a person perceived only through tubes.

I work in criminal-defense law, and there one is presented with many opportunities to regard Men Behaving Badly. Particularly in their relations with women. And children. Where they can be at their worst. I don’t think much of men, as a rule, and this profession is certainly not one in which such an attitude is likely to transform into a Pollyannaed vision of men as Really Good People.

However, what the American criminal-justice system is supposed to be about, in shiny happy theory, is rigorously resisting the tug towards tarring the one with the sins of the not-one.

Each individual is supposed to be tabula rosa.

And thus a Muslim should not be yanked out of an airline boarding-queue because some other Muslims once abused some airplanes. And some Frenchman should not be abused as a human pinata, in “a new variation of Barresism,” because some other men have attacked and brutalized women.

But that’s the sort of thing that happens here, now, in this dangerous country, all the time. I see it, in my work, every day. It can be seen more clearly with somebody like Strauss-Kahn, because he was wiped and smeared over all and every tube. Where, as Levy puts it:

[H]e was crushed [] by that fraction of the American judicial apparatus that, by putting Dominique Strauss-Kahn in stocks, by humiliating him before the entire world, by ruthlessly pursuing him, has probably ruined his life. That is what I wished to say when I wrote that, after George W. Bush’s invention of the concept of “pre-emptive war,” America, under [New York prosecutor] Cyrus Vance, Jr., has perhaps begun to invent the idea, scarcely less horrifying, of “pre-emptive penalty.”

I worked on a case involving a Frenchman who became ensnared in the American criminal-justice system. He was accused as a Man Behaving Badly. Specifically, of causing permanent brain damage and partial blindness in his infant son. By shaking him.

“Shaken Baby Syndrome” is a form of medico-legal hoodoo that is currently coming apart like one of those cartoon airplanes.

But at the time this young man rode the rail to the big house, it was held to be Gospel.

SBS is based on experiments with piglets. Various and sundry Science Men rigged piglets to machines and shook them around and then took a look at how they had thereby injured and killed these pigs. It was determined that mechanical shaking of a certain type and force could cause subdural hematomas and retinal hemorrhages in piglets. Some of the Science Men then Decided that a human infant was enough like a piglet so it could be Decided that, based on these experiments, human infants out in the world could be similarly damaged, by human-induced shaking.

Now, there existed at one not-so-long-ago once-upon-a-time, here in this dangerous country, a flying squad of true-believing “experts” that criss-crossed the land testifying to the Reality of Satanic day-care-center sex-ring cults, in which children were ritually sexually abused by deeply disturbed devil-worshippers. When they weren’t hauling wee tykes down into church basements to therein wantonly diddle them—as full-grown horses were screamingly sacrificed on makeshift altars—these people seemed as Normal as you and I. But, really, they were Not.

Too bad for them—the “experts”—but round about the time SBS became The Coming Thing in US courts, they were out of work. Because it had been determined that these Satanic sex-rings were a Figment. Each and every one. Made up. Never existed. I recommend the book Mean Justice, for those who would discover that in one California county alone, Kern, in our lifetime, behind figments like Satanic sex-rings, and through the solemn farcical proceedings of the American criminal-“justice” system, more innocent people were more accused, abused, imprisoned, ruined, and destroyed, than were done wrong by the people of Salem, in the fabled Salem witch-trials.

Yes, Virginia: it’s worse, today.

Anyway. The Satanic sex-ring gig a bust, some of these “experts” then shifted gears and boarded the SBS bus. I spent months reading through their guff. It was like being sentenced to reviewing religious tracts, written by people who believe that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church. True believers. The Gauleiter’s smirk.

Our client had come to America a young man, having failed his first pass at the boards to become a French doctor, seeking a breather before he orbited back to try a second time again. Here, in this dangerous country, he fell in love. And married. And with his wife created a child.

The child, from birth, was always in some way sick. Fussy. Fidgety. Crying. Born very large, head even larger. Our client and his wife, poor. And since the American health-care system, in the realm of justice, has not really advanced beyond that of ancient Rome, there was little pre-natal care, little post-natal care.

So. The baby, there was something wrong with him. But nobody knew what it was.

The wife worked: our client a house-husband. One day, he, alone with the child. The child goes into respiratory distress. He takes the child to the hospital. The child is diagnosed with a subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhage. By the hoodoo of Shaken Baby Syndrome—based upon a foundation of piglets—it is determined that he had violently shaken the child. And so he is arrested, and thrown in the pokey.

As was later elegantly set forth in a companion appellate case, our client was accused, charged, and imprisoned, solely on the basis of a false syllogism. To wit: (1) a violently shaken baby presents with subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhage; (3) this baby presented with subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhage; (2) therefore our client violently shook the baby.

There were no witnesses to our client’s behavior with the baby in the three hours that passed between his wife’s leaving for work and his delivery of the child to the hospital. There was no history of our client ever manifesting brutality, or even simple assholeness, towards his child, his wife, or anyone else. There was no admission from our client. He was bound for the big house based solely on the fact that he was present when the child went into distress.

That the district attorney knew he had a problematic case was manifested in the fact that he sought an indictment via grand jury. Where the presence of the accused and his lawyer is forbidden. Where appeared but the prosecutor, her arguments, and whomsoever from the flying squad of SBS-boarding true-believers she might as witnesses call.

Did I mention that our client was not only French, but French-Moroccan? Therefore, brown-skinned? Did I mention that his wife was Mexican? Therefore, brown-skinned? Did I mention that our county is known as the Alabama of California? Therefore, racist to the bone, and as a motherfucker, against anyone brown-skinned? Did I mention that, before the grand jury, the assistant district attorney dredged through every racial and ethnic and religious prejudice extant, involving both Arabs and Mexicans, to paint a dark picture of a couple of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, ur-humans, who had no business even having a baby, and, as soon as they popped one out, quite naturally went about wantonly neglecting and abusing him? Did I mention that, once she had secured her grand-jury indictment, she sought to deliberately schedule the commencement of our client’s trial on the exact same date as Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker” of 9/11, a French Moroccan, same ethnicity as our client, would go before the bar of justice?

Did I mention that the trial judge had made clear from the get-go that he just didn’t like our client? That he all but openly sneered at the fellow? That meanwhile whatever dog-and-pony show the true-believer DA wanted to trot into his courtroom, the judge indulgently allowed? While over at the defense table, the day’s work became an exercise in artfully preparing and scrupulously tracking grounds for appeal? And that when it came time for sentencing, the judge hit the client with the maximum prison sentence?

Thought not.

After, and in the sort of deep and abiding invisible corruption with which the American criminal-justice system is riven, the judge on this case endeavored to “make up” for his behavior during this trial, in cases involving other clients.

We first understood that something was up when this judge granted a motion to suppress evidence, one that was borderline. Then he granted one that was purely a joke. This a guy who would never grant a suppression motion unless you could show him some appellate case that was basically the identical twin of the one before him. In the not-so-remote past, on four separate occasions he had denied suppression motions out of our office involving factual scenarios that within the next several years were found by appellate courts to warrant suppression. Always behind the law, this guy. And yet here he intones “motion granted,” to a brief that was a loser with bells on.

Then, this judge, he starts turning crime-waves loose on the street: he becomes Mr. Empathy with people on the precipice of prison. The culmination of this portion of the farce came in the case of a woman who’d gone wild with alcohol, pills, a gun, and an automobile. First she smashed into another vehicle; then, in endeavoring to flee the scene, she backed into a pedestrian, crushing him against another car, permanently crippling his legs. While this guy writhed in agony on the pavement, she roared off into the night. Where, several hours later, she bumped her battered auto up onto somebody’s lawn, staggered out of the car with a firearm, and began bellowing at top volume about stabbing and shooting the home’s several occupants, and maybe their friends and neighbors. Earlier in the rampage, between the pedestrian-crushing and the firearm-brandishing, she broke into another person’s house and stole stuff.

Over the next many months, she poured out a stream of ludicrous lies, whenever questioned by anybody about these events—the police, probation, her own lawyers. She refused to perform even the most minimal kabuki; that is, “express remorse.” The lead lawyer deemed it pointless to prepare anything but the most perfunctory sentencing statement: if ever anybody was going to go to prison, it was this woman.

But no. The judge gave her probation.

“Did you see that guy?” the lead lawyer fumed, after the crime-wave had received her get-out-of-jail-free card. “He all but winked at me. I’m supposed to understand that this is his way of ‘balancing’ B——-. What does he think he’s doing?” Then, this lawyer, he repaired to the bar. To consume mass quantities. Which is how he remains in the business. As an alternative to erupting. And thereby becoming a client.

In the course of things, the appellate court vacated our SBS client’s conviction; the prosecutor, in her true-believerness, had over-reached, run afoul of settled law. The judge: he had let her. The case was remanded back to the trial court. The defendant was brought out of the state prison, and interned in the county jail. Saber-rattling sounded in the DA’s office about re-trying him. Hollow posturing. For the law was moving, and away from such convictions. We knew it; they knew it. The original prosecutor, the true believer, had since been elevated to the bench; now a judge, is she, a gift to this county from that Man Behaving Badly known as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a.k.a. The Boobengrabber. Among her former colleagues, none possessed the same fire, for torch-and-pitchforking this young man, by any means necessary, back into the big house.

For months the DA’s office pressed him to plead to a simple misdemeanor. Just as New York prosecutors today are pressuring Strauss-Kahn to admit to a misdemeanor.

‘Cause that’s what they like to do, prosecutors, when they’ve made a ghastly mistake, when they’ve used the machinery of justice to crush an innocent human being. Refuse to let that person go, until s/he has pled to something—which provides the prosecutors with a fig leaf they can flourish as proof they were “right.”

We advised the client not to plead to jack. But he was tired. He wanted out. Out of the system, out of the country. So he pled to the functional equivalent of stopping to tie his shoe while jaywalking. Because he wanted to go home. And that’s what he did. It had been a mistake, he realized. Coming here had been a mistake. To this dangerous country.

I believe it a mistake, every non-American Indian, who ever came to this country. But that’s another story.

It has recently come to my attention that someone named Nancy Grace is now in charge of the American judicial system. I know this because in the wake of the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial, I more often heard on the “news” Grace’s condemnation of that verdict, rather than the verdict itself.

The jury that had actually been charged with hearing and weighing the evidence had found Anthony not guilty of the most grievous charges lodged against her. But Grace, who apparently elevated an entire television network into the realm of extremely comfortable profitability in the course of her coverage of this trial, decreed that the jury was wrong; in finding Anthony not guilty, Grace thundered in the best American Puritan tradition, the jury had ensured that “the devil is dancing tonight.”

As I have mentioned before, I have eschewed the tube known as television for many years. However, as I have recently confessed, I know now that this is a mistake. Because there are certain things, here in this dangerous country, that can only be fully apprehended through an understanding of what appears on the tube that is television. Sarah Palin is one of those things. Nancy Grace is another.

Observed through the seemingly all-encompassing straw that is television: why not? Why not devolve decision-making in the American criminal-justice system to a television show, presided over by a true-believer pursed-lipped helmet-hair like Nancy Grace? She can solicit call-in votes, a la American Idol, to determine thereby whether a defendant is guilty, or not guilty. This, may be, the Coming Thing: Sean Klannity, on his radio show, has recently taken a fancy to the notion of electing presidents by way of American Idol-type voting. Why not too, to decide the fate of those on trial for their lives?

From what I have been able to determine, Grace’s primary beef with Anthony was that she did not behave as a “proper” mother should, when that mother’s child had gone missing.

Anthony went out. She drank. She laughed. She got a tattoo.

Thus, so spaketh Grace, glowering darkly in the purest American Puritan tradition, she was Guilty.

As Strauss-Khan is Guilty. Because he is rich. And a Frenchman. And therefore Other. Because he is arrogant. And an ass.

Prior to the Gracification of the airwaves, the only aspect of the Anthony melodrama that had truly interested me involved the letters that were sent to the accused child-slayer as she sat in stir.

Pursuant to the State of Florida’s peculiar “sunshine law,” these letters were reproduced and released to the great wide open. Harper’s printed a selection of them in its October 2010 edition. A selection of that selection follows:

My name is Leon. I’m doing a twenty-year bit for involuntary manslaughter, tampering with evidence, abduction, and abuse of a corpse. It sounds worse than what it really is.

 I can understand what you are going through. My brother died when he was twenty-four, and things were kind of suspicious. Then my father wouldn’t even give me any of my brother’s ashes. But the point is I feel for you.

I wish the media would quit being so mean to you. I heard where you collected skull drawings, and the media is like, she is evil. This is sad because thousands of people like skulls. It does not mean something is wrong with them.

My name is Sara. I’m a twenty-four-year-old mother of two beautiful children. I was working for the Postal Service for four years but recently got laid off due to the economy taking a crap. I am engaged, have been since ’05. I kept setting the date and then not following through because of my old work schedule. Now I guess I have the time. Ha-ha.

I wanted to write and tell you, you did great in court. You held your head up and smiled. What do you use on your hair to make it so shiny? It’s beautiful. Mine looks like shit.

I’d like to ask you a general question. I’m kind of quiet and reserved, but I’d like to become more outgoing, and I’ve noticed as your case is going on that you’re pretty outgoing and liked to go out and have fun at parties and stuff. I know most people say that wasn’t a good lifestyle, but I’d like to become more like that in general.

These are not the kind of letters that one would normally expect to be directed to a woman accused of murdering her child. These letter-writers clearly cannot easily distinguish an accused murderess from a celebrity, from a friend, from an advice columnist, from a neighbor, from themselves.

Conscious of that blurring: that would be a right thing.

Unconscious of it, as here appears apparent, is a sad thing. These letter-writers, at root, they are just lonely. No one in their world, their world of meat, they feel they can really connect to. And so they write to a woman they have seen on a tube, who is confined to a cage, charged with killing her child.

Like most everything else on this planet, it’s a race. These tubes upon which you read these words originally developed as a way for isolated silos to communicate with one another during nuclear Armageddon. Now, years on, these tubes, perhaps, a means by which to stave away any and all Armageddons.

People now writing to Casey Anthony, because they feel they have no one else to write to. Maybe, years on, writing to Casey Anthony out of conscious understanding that they are Casey Anthony.

Who wins? Eros or Thanatos? Who knows?

In the meantime, if you’re going to stay in the law game, and you’re going to approach it as something more than a game, you have to try to believe in these people. The American people. The people who write to Casey Anthony; the people so soon to so smugly condemn Dominique Strauss-Khan.

Because they’re the people who sit on juries. Who put on the uniforms of cops. The three-piece-suits of district attorneys. The robes of judges.

You have to try to believe there can be something worthy there.

In my criminal-defense karass, on the eve of a trial that is dire, we will sometimes go to The Verdict. This is a film written by David Mamet, before he went Borg, concerning a sodden sot of a Boston Irish Catholic attorney, in life defeated, numbed, long beyond despair, dragging himself out of bathos and the bottle to, against all odds, against himself, try to do right, by someone who has been wronged.

Because it is a fictional film, Pollyanna rides in for the final reel, and so justice is done. But there we are reminded that, in life too, in our own lives, as we have lived them, even in this dangerous country, Pollyanna has not always been absent.

We particularly like the sot’s summation. It is our reality. And it is our prayer.


3 Responses to “A Dangerous Country”

  1. 1 possum July 12, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Once upon a long time ago most of we in America were judged innocent until proven guilty. Today the situation is changing. Hanging judges are now the media talking heads. And the public falls for the manure handed out.

    There are enough bad people out there. We have no need to create more with our media but that sells ads and makes money. People are always looking to see someone in a situation worse than their own. How sad for all of us.

  2. 2 Elva July 12, 2011 at 6:26 am

    It is true that the tv is full of all kinds of talking heads. You go from one
    station to the next and hear the same thing. It makes one want to take
    the tv outside and break it into pieces. I turn to a baseball game and
    enjoy this game, even if my team looses. I wish, sometimes, that we could turn back the clock about 20 years when we enjoyed the tv. Since that is
    not possible, I will continue to watch the baseball games until the fall when
    I will start reading more. Great piece.

    • 3 bluenred July 15, 2011 at 10:34 am

      Punishing television sets is a family tradition, as you know. I am glad that baseball is preventing you from visiting mayhem upon yours.

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When I Worked

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