Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Due Process Compromised by Political Aspirations

Shameless self promotion and justice don't mix.

In spite of its many flaws our criminal justice system is superior to most around the world because of the presumption of innocence. Until a person pleads or is proven guilty they are presumed to be innocent. While the court of public opinion is willing to take an arresting officer at his word the court of law cannot.

In the grand scheme of things a misdemeanor charge of solicitation is not a big deal. Greater crimes are committed every day and one could make the case that prostitution is a victimless crime that really isn’t worth fighting. Why invest all that money in vice when those crimes generally involve consenting adults?

Prostitution rarely entails jail time. Public interests simply aren’t served when tax dollars are spent feeding and housing people who buy or sell sex. These cases are of such little importance most prosecutors amend the charges to petty offenses such as disorderly conduct. Small fines are paid and people are sent on their way.

Antonio Henton is a promising young football player for the Ohio State Buckeyes. He’s a third string quarterback who has athletic ability reminiscent of Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. Most people around the country haven’t heard of him because he doesn’t play but in the microcosm that is Columbus he is a celebrity. So when Antonio tried to solicit sex from an undercover officer late one September evening the ensuing arrest was big news.

In Columbus police often practice a catch and release tactic when it comes to vice. A wayward man will get caught trying to close a deal for a 20 dollar holler and spend 15 minutes wearing handcuffs in the back of a squad car while the police run his criminal record and humiliate him. If he’s got no priors and seems sufficiently deterred from future indiscretions they’ll let him go. No need to ruin a guy’s life over a blow job.

Not too long ago Columbus vice officers busted a full service upscale brothel just outside of downtown. Much ado was made over the operation which had been infiltrated and tracked for months. It was reported that the clients who visited the brothel were high profile businessmen and public figures in the area but prosecutors decided to drop charges against all parties except for the brothel’s owner, Tamara Flory. She was sentenced to a few months in prison and released to probation for the next several years.

So precedent has been set. Prostitution is no big deal but yet Antonio Henton was arrested and it qualified as breaking news. Local channels interrupted regular programming with a crawl that announced Henton’s arrest and temporary incarceration. He spent the night in jail and was arraigned the next morning. That’s where things took an interesting turn.

The only place a person should expect justice is in the court room. The general public will jump to conclusions, police will make mistakes and the media will sensationalize a story to draw more viewers to the 11 o’clock broadcast of the local news. The court is the only place where judgment is not passed until justice is served and the judge is the only person who can see it through. We elect judges to be fair and impartial when others are not.

Amy Salerno is the judge who presided over Antonio Henton’s arraignment. Not surprisingly Henton entered a plea of not guilty and requested bail. Instead of recording the plea and advising Henton of his obligations Salerno lambasted the young college student with an opportunistic diatribe that one can only assume she labored over until the wee hours.

"Mr. Henton: I have to tell you sir that I and many fans and graduates of Ohio State University are very disappointed to see you here today in my courtroom. Considering, sir, the fact that you are an ambassador of Ohio State University; your visibility in the community, you need to keep that in mind, sir. "As well as the fact that you need to show up at court and henceforth you need to conduct yourself and comport your actions according to your status in the community, sir. "I can tell, sir, your head is hung down and you're looking extremely sad. I know you do not wish to disappoint your team members either, sir. I will give you a $2,500 cash or surety bond or appearance bond. Gook luck, sir, both off and on the field. Thank You."

It was a fine lecture and perfectly appropriate if Henton had entered a guilty plea but given the fact that a defendant is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Salerno’s comments were out of line. In fact, Salerno’s comments seem prejudicial and might very well serve to compromise the prosecution’s case. How can Henton expect a fair trial when his arraigning judge opted to address him in such an inappropriate and unprecedented manner? It would not be surprising to see the case get dismissed before the trial date and if Henton is found guilty it could be overturned on appeal. Salerno should know better.

I’ve been in a courtroom. Like Henton I was arrested for a first degree misdemeanor. Unlike Henton I was able to post bond within minutes and spent only a few hours locked up where as Henton spent the night in a cell and reported to his arraignment in prison garb and handcuffs. I was able to plead not guilty in a shirt and a tie. I did not speak to a judge not did a judge address me. I entered my plea with a paralegal who handed me a paper outlining the rest of the process. While I wasn’t facing charges of soliciting I was sitting next to a man who was and he received the same treatment. So I personally think that Henton was given undue attention given the nature of the charges but I’m not a judge or an attorney so I can’t attest to it from a legal perspective. I just know my experience did not include a lecture from the judge. To be honest, I was disappointed with the assembly line manner in which everything was handled.

Even if Henton’s arraignment wasn’t out of line, the manner in which Salerno addressed him was. It resembled a closing statement after a guilty verdict. Licking County Common Pleas Judge P. Randall Knece agreed in a response to Columbus Dispatch columnist Ann Fisher’s column on the matter. The full text of his email can be read on her blog.

Salerno’s comments reveal a serious problem with our criminal justice system. Salerno is a career politician. She has been walking the streets of Columbus politics for the better part of 25 years. When she realized a prominent Ohio State athlete was on her morning docket she smelled opportunity so she loaded up those Law and Order DVDs and stayed up all night practicing her landmark statement. The only problem is that is was completely out of line for the context of that case. She laid on the heavy drama and played to the cameras, which are a rare fixture in the Franklin County Courthouse, hoping to mine that soapbox moment in November. It was a clear cut case of premature judicial ejaculation. Salerno got all excited about a high profile case and shot her legal wad all over the arraignment. Gross? You bet…a gross miscarriage of justice.

When former Ohio State superstar Maurice Clarett faced the much more severe charges of armed robbery an carrying a concealed weapon his judge didn’t go out of his way to enter a sobering statement during the arraignment. In fact, Maurice didn’t hear such strong words after he accepted a plea and faced sentencing. What compelled Salerno to make such a scene in a much less important setting?

Henton isn’t a menace to society and his crime has no victims. If Salerno sabotaged the case with her ego and Henton goes free people can still sleep at night. If Salerno’s comments end up sealing Henton’s fate and he is found guilty he’ll pay a few hundred dollars in fines and court costs and be on his merry way. The problem isn’t what Salerno did to Henton. The problem is that Salerno has made it clear that our criminal justice system is fragile and that a rogue judge with an agenda can easily compromise the one principal that sets our system apart. Can we trust a judge like Salerno to handle more serious crimes? In the end, Salerno is guilty of a much more severe crime than that which Henton is accused of. We’re fortunate the charges weren’t more severe.

Innocent until proven guilty? It’s not supposed to be conditional.

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