By William B. Turner
The so called president has suffered two very public slaps to his face lately, both well deserved.
A jury acquitted the first six defendants of charges that they damaged property and participated in riots during protests on inauguration day. Trump’s Department of Justice prosecuted the cases. The judge threw several charges out against these defendants, and all charges out against other defendants.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that all criminal defendants have the right to a “speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed….” As with many parts of the Constitution, this is a response to practices by the British government they had lately thrown off that the colonists considered unjust and abusive, and so wanted to prevent their new government from engaging in. The British government would take criminal defendants wherever they wanted for trial and often not allow jury trials, which increased the chances of a guilty verdict, especially in the British colonial government, where the judges all worked for the royal government and knew which side their bread was buttered on.
The point of the local jury system is that a crime is an offense primarily against the community where it occurs, so the people of that community are the best people to examine the evidence and decide if they think a crime occurred. There is a thing called “jury nullification,” in which a jury chooses to find a defendant not guilty despite having obviously violated the law as a way to express their collective disagreement with the law.
A useful modern example might be marijuana laws. One could imagine a jury of people who disagree with laws providing criminal penalties for the possession and use of marijuana, but who have not been able to change the law. Sitting as a jury, they could choose to find not guilty a person who smoked marijuana in the presence of a police officer who testified at trial that he saw the defendant smoking marijuana openly, making it as certain as can be that the defendant actually did smoke the marijuana. The jury would thus express its disagreement with the law by refusing to find the defendant guilty. Under the principle of double jeopardy, once a defendant has a not guilty verdict, the prosecutor may not prosecute that defendant for that crime again.
It looks as if the not guilty verdicts in the cases of the D.C. protesters were not jury nullification. From the public reports, it sounds as if these cases were egregious examples of gross overreach by the prosecutors, presumably acting at the direction of Jefferson Sessions, attorney general of the United States and vocal supporter of the so-called president.
The defendants asserted that they merely participated in a legal, nonviolent protest and engaged in no acts of destroying property or rioting. Property did get destroyed during the protest, and presumably someone did the destroying, but that alone does not necessarily implicate everyone at the protest. Criminal liability is individual, not collective. It is possible to be an accessory to a crime, but the prosecutors would have to show that the alleged accessory knew that her/his accomplices intended to commit a crime and helped them knowingly and voluntarily.
The jury in these cases apparently concluded that the defendants were, as they claimed, only present for a protest and had no intention of destroying property or rioting.
This is a very important victory for the right to protest and to engage in free speech. Arguably, the judge should have thrown these charges out, and their lawyers likely moved dismissal, but the judge chose not to dismiss the charges, so this is the best possible outcome, given a trial.
The second slap came when the United Nations General Assembly voted strongly to condemn Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a choice that previous administrations had rejected consistently for national security reasons. The State Department warned embassies around the world to expect violence in response to the Donald’s decision.
It’s a stupid decision. The only reasons one can find for it is that it reverses what Obama did, and it plays to the Christian base who see in the return of Jews to Israel a fulfillment of biblical prophecy about the second coming of Christ. Neither is a good reason.
More broadly, it reflects the Donald’s childish, irrational decision making processes, if one can even call them “processes.”
Many of the nations that voted to condemn the U.S. move regard it as a violation of international law and a gratuitous provocation to various Arab nations. Both the Donald himself and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, threatened to withdraw funding from the U.N. if the General Assembly condemned the U.S. move. Regardless, the condemnation passed overwhelmingly, with only a few, minor nations voting no, and several others abstaining.
Former CIA director John Brennan issued a tweet criticizing the Trump administration for threatening other countries for choosing how to vote on the measure, pointing out that the threats were narcissistic and autocratic.
In matters of both domestic and foreign policy, the Donald continues to do a very bad job as president. He deserved both of these embarrassing refusals of other parties to do what he wanted.