We need to accept outcomes we dislike

Most people go through life never stepping foot inside a courtroom. Most people, that is, except for attorneys, judges, journalists, the few of us chosen to be jurors, and an even more select group, those who are accused of crimes.

If I were talking now with my dear parents, may they rest in peace, I would quickly assure them that my many days spent in courtrooms have been in a professional capacity, not as a defendant trying to avoid the slammer.

As a reporter and later as the boss of reporters, I have had an up-close vantage point to watch our court system as it works. I claim no special expertise. But 50 years in a ringside seat on the judiciary have given me perspective that is worth sharing.

I have watched as prosecutors and defense lawyers have carried out their roles in this fundamental part of a democratic society. I have seen how judges and juries approach the solemn duties we entrust to them.

I have encountered a multitude of defendants who insisted they were innocent, the criminal charges were trumped up, and they were victims of biased prosecutors, crooked judges or incompetent jurors. There have been other defendants whom juries found not guilty, leaving the victims’ friends and relatives outraged.

There is one important takeaway from all of this, and that broader conclusion has gotten overlooked in recent days by far too many people, especially by those who should know instinctively this inescapable fact:

Just because someone we like professes their innocence but is found guilty does not make the American judicial system corrupt or rigged. There rarely are criminal defendants, having just been found guilty, who will rise to applaud the jurors’ decisions.

Likewise, just because another defendant is found not guilty, despite a belief to the contrary by the prosecutor and the victim’s friends and relatives, it is not a sign our criminal justice system is a threat to our nation’s freedoms or is a sign of incompetence or crookedness.

The entire justice system is built on people exercising their best judgment in a legal process that puts defendants’ and victims’ freedoms on the line. Sometimes, judges and juries make mistakes. Sometimes, we disagree with a jury’s findings. Sometimes, appellate courts will step in and correct an error. Other times, they do not.

But the real lasting harm comes not from an outcome we disagree with. The lasting harm comes if we allow people who are in positions to know better to make wild, baseless accusations that undermine the trust and the credibility of the judicial system.

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird should know this. As Iowa’s top law enforcement official, prosecutors on her staff are deciding every week why someone should be charged with a crime or why someone else should not. Her prosecutors are arguing before jurors in high-profile cases why the accused should be found guilty and have their liberty taken away.

Not everyone in those cases agrees with the wisdom of the prosecutors. But few who might disagree ever stand in front of a bank of microphones and professes a belief that a cornerstone of American democracy is being trampled on by overzealous prosecutors.

But that is what General Bird has done with her accusation that a high-profile case in New York City is a sham and is about nothing other than politics. Twelve ordinary jurors spoke with a unanimous voice at the end of that case. And as I have witnessed in numerous cases here in Iowa, there always are people who applaud a jury’s verdict, while there are others who criticize the jurors’ decision.

I doubt General Bird would welcome the Manhattan district attorney coming to Iowa, standing in front of a gaggle of reporters, and announcing to the world that he believed the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation was wrong to ignore the need for a court-approved search warrant before state agents scooped up cellphone data about sports wagers made by University of Iowa and Iowa State University athletes.

Forty years ago, friends of an Iowa sheriff were not keen on the decision by the attorney general at the time to bring bribery charges against him. Nor were those friends particularly enamored of Iowa’s judicial system when the sheriff was found guilty by a jury.

Thirty years ago, many in Iowa were stunned when a mom was found not guilty of murder in the death of her newborn — whom she said was abducted from her car by an unknown stalker. The public reaction was heightened by testimony that a kidnapping note found in her car had been pieced together, word by word, from a magazine with the mother’s name on the address label.

There were plenty of people who disagreed with the outcomes of those cases and many others, but no one made wild allegations back then that the criminal justice system in Iowa was corrupt or mired in politics.

When people in positions of respect and authority make such allegations now about another case, they undermine trust and confidence in one more institution of government — and they do so all in the name of politics.

Respect cannot be reserved only for those times when we agree with the outcome.

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Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

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