Something is rotten in the State of Denmark was how Shakespeare put it. And indeed there is something rotten at the heart of our democracy. It is not immediately evident. Like Henry James’ figure in the carpet or an Escher drawing, it takes proximity and a little close attention to discern it. But when the configuration of seemingly discordant shapes and patterns yields a picture, as they invariably do, that picture is often both disturbing and somehow revelatory.
Perhaps because it points to something that is fundamentally wrong in how we recruit, teach, instruct and configure the minions who man those institutions responsible for seeing Justice done, this “figure” in the carpet has never been closely examined, at least not in a popular and accessible way.
Or perhaps there are deep structural flaws and systemic anomalies in the institutions themselves that have, by virtue of the very imperviousness, been oblivious or immune to investigation. Whatever, in Law and Disorder Stephen Williams will will begin a cogent examination.
In a democracy we tend to take our essential rights and freedoms for granted, therefore we forget how fragile they are and how easily trampled.
The vast majority of people never have occasion to interact in any meaningful way with the police or the prosecutors who staff the District Attorney offices and Ministries of the Attorney Generals. Therefore we have no touchstone with which to evaluate performance.
The vast majority of people in North America trust the criminal justice system and value the dedication of law enforcement officials but they trust and assess value in ignorance. Most people have no idea how law enforcement really works or have any conception of the awesome scope of police powers.
They look at the murder of unarmed Dudley George at Ipperwash by the OPP or the possible wrongful conviction of Robert Baltovich askant, or as inevitable anomalies.
Compound this with the fact that most citizens in democracies like those in Canada and the United States also live with an inexplicable fear of crime and criminals which tends to nullify or at least significantly diminish their interest in how all that stuff works.
This general sense of insecurity is something upon which police and politicians play mercilessly With their insatiable appetite for increased budgets and more votes, millions upon millions of dollars are spent propagating and exploiting that fear.
Since J. Edgar Hoover, modern policing has increasingly become as much about public and media relations, based on this palpable paranoia for which the authorities are, ironically, partially responsible, than solving crimes and establishing some kind of societal equilibrium.
But have the on-going, massive investments in the institutions of law and order paid off? This would be very difficult to access, given that the police and the Ministries of the Attorney General and District Attorneys’ offices are among the most secretive and shell-proof organizations that exist in our allegedly free and open society, except for the exposure and insight that certain cases over the years have provided.
As Leonard Cohen observed in his song “The Future” you have to love cracks, because cracks are where the light gets in.
Cases such as those of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin, Donald Marshall, Susan Nelles, and Steven Truscott, to name only a few of the most high-profile, profound wrongful accusation and conviction cases, are exactly that - monstrous cracks through which the light got in except to my knowledge, there has not yet been any cogent and engaging analysis of what the light revealed.
There are also many, many other smaller cracks that no one has ever really noticed such as the conviction and life sentence handed to Robert Stewart in 1999, a low-level drug-dealer convicted of murdering two other, lower level drug dealers in the Hull-Ottawa area.
Stewart’s wrongful conviction took ten years to achieve and cost taxpayers over $40 million.
Anything in the judicial system that lasts 10 years and costs $40 million dollars should be immediately suspect and seriously questioned but in this case, it is all the more important because Stewart should never have been convicted. There was absolutely no evidence, not a shred, not even circumstantial, that Robert Stewart was the killer but that fundamental fact did not prevent his arrest, decade-long relentless prosecution while he was held in custody without bail, or his ultimate conviction. But how could this possibly happen? Law and Disorder will tell you.
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