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Monday, May 27, 2024

The Choice: Justice or Mercy

by Paul Findley

© Shutterstock

The Honourable Paul Findley is renowned for his fairness, and fierce determination. He served in the US Congress for 22 years, representing the bests interests of his Springfield, Illinois-based congressional district. Findley speaks out about the US justice system, and looks at why justice shouldn’t be the only consideration when dealing with fair trials…

For many years, a verse in the Book of Deuteronomy has been my guide. It reports that God instructed Moses and his followers to seek justice, only justice. Now I am convinced mercy should sometimes trump justice.

In America, and in many other countries, justice requires government to protect the right of even the worst citizens to due process of legal proceedings. It also gives presidents the authority to cancel a death penalty or grant freedom from prosecution or imprisonment. President Gerald Ford used this authority, wisely I believe, to free Richard Nixon from prosecution for his role in the Watergate scandal. Mercy may have been one of Ford's reasons.

Twenty years ago, Timothy McVeigh was accused of killing 168 innocent people in the Oklahoma City bombing. Attorney Stephen Jones of Enid, Oklahoma, my longtime friend, agreed to be the court-appointed attorney to defend McVeigh's constitutional rights. For Jones, it was a courageous and costly decision. Although McVeigh was convicted and put to death, anti- McVeigh passions caused Jones's law practice to drop to near zero for months.

On two occasions Jones was my assistant and leader of my congressional staff on Capitol Hill. When President Richard Nixon faced impeachment in the House of Representatives in 1974 for his role in the Watergate scandal, I sought support for a motion to substitute censure instead of impeachment. I had worked closely with Nixon through the years and believed removal from office was too severe a punishment. Censure is a public ordeal in which the accused is charged with dereliction of duty while standing alone in the well of the House chamber. That punishment, I believed, should suffice in Nixon's case.

Whether on or off my staff, Jones's loyalty never slackened. At my request, he left his law practice in Oklahoma for ten days to help me organise support for censure. Our effort was gaining strength when Nixon publicly admitted his abuse of the FBI for partisan purposes. It was the ‘smoking gun’ his critics were seeking, and it shot down the drive for censure.

Jones, now 74, came on the national scene again on April 13 when Time Magazine published his two-page plea for mercy for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, born in Chechnya, Russia, who pleaded guilty to participation in the Boston Marathon bombing that occurred two years ago. The bombing killed six people and maimed severely scores of others.

In a gunfire exchange with police, the youth's older brother was killed. Tsarnaev, then 18, hid for several hours in a covered boat before his arrest. He scribbled a note on the boat cover. In it, he explained why he and his brother did the bombing. It was their pathetic revenge for the killing of many fellow Muslims by US government forces in recent years.

In his Time article, Jones wrote, “Judy Clarke and her competent team face the greatest challenge of their illustrious careers: saving their 21-year-old client's life from the death penalty… Any lawyer who undertakes a similar brief must be willing to accept the emotional, personal and financial risks in so doing. But the Constitution requires that commitment of us.

There are too many timid lawyers and neglected clients. Clarke and her team honour our profession by their willingness to zealously represent Tsarnaev.”

Jones cited Clarence Darrow's successful defence of youthful Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold nearly a century ago in Chicago. Darrow's plea freed the pair from execution for committing the ghoulish, senseless murder of a fellow student.

Noting that mercy has long outranked justice, Jones wrote that a single dissenting vote on the jury considering the death penalty will save young Tsarnnaev's life. As this article is being written, the jury is still pondering whether the young bomber will live or die. Perhaps at least one member reads Time Magazine thoroughly. [Late June Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was formally sentenced to death by a US court.]

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