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Around Town: Nurturing a fragile system

July 27, 2011|Anita Brenner

We live in an age of unprecedented freedom. Freedom of speech, for example.

The United States Supreme Court has spoken. Loud and clear. The Westboro Church has a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable local ordinances, to picket military funerals and to make vile remarks.

Like the Westboro Church, we all have the same wonderful freedom to speak our minds.

But at what cost?

Last May, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck had a First Amendment right to call a press conference to announce the arrest of Giovanni Ramirez.

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A few years ago, a Chicago resident named Kim exercised his First Amendment right to post Internet comments questioning South Korean rock star Daniel Lee’s (Stanford ‘02) college credentials.

Except for this — Giovanni Ramirez was innocent, and Daniel Lee really did graduate from Stanford in 2002, despite the Internet postings. In each case, the public comments turned out to be untrue.

And then, there’s Nancy Grace. Ms. Grace, a crime victim turned prosecutor, has a First Amendment right to further the cause of victims’ rights, to comment on criminal investigations and to criticize juries when she disagrees with their verdicts.

But is doing so really a good idea? Has she furthered the cause of justice in America?

We are all free to speak. You. Me. Even this newspaper. We are free to speak, even when we risk that most precious American institution — the American jury.

Our American system of criminal justice is the best in the world.

Our criminal justice system is the hope of the downtrodden, the unjustly accused and those “in disgrace in fortune and in men’s eyes,” thanks to the presumption of innocence and the American jury.

It is not a perfect system. Since 1989, there have been 272 post-conviction DNA exonerations, with 17 exonerated from Death Row. The system is not foolproof. It is not perfect. But its goals are lofty. Unlike other systems, our criminal justice system was never designed to convict all of the guilty. It is designed to never convict an innocent person.

That’s the goal.¿

At the heart of our criminal justice system is the idea that an accused has the right to a jury of his or her peers, and that the prosecution must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The right to trial by jury is a fundamental, yet fragile, right.

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