Fairness is the least concern in our judicial system.
Or so I'm starting to worry. Maybe it's because I've been writing my contribution to the "Freemen" series, found elsewhere in this issue. As a reporter, I attended an orientation meeting last July for people interested in forming a Santa Rosa "common-law" court. Looking around the room, I didn't see wild-eyed crazies, as the media has portrayed members of the movement in the "Justus Township" standoff. Instead, I saw white Jane and Joe America -- the kind of folks that might live next door.
During that weekend, at least 34 of them decided to thumb their noses at the courts, the IRS, or maybe the bank holding their mortgage. What drove them to such an extreme action? Yes, some of them were clearly... damaged (to be polite), but others seemed to have legitimate gripes. A few carried thick folders documenting their case, which they eagerly displayed to anyone interested. Were they treated fairly? It's impossible to tell. But they don't feel they were, and there's clearly no one trying to convince them otherwise.
One of the participants in that weekend's events is now in Sonoma County jail. John Patrick McGuire faces charges of allegedly threatening judges and passing fraudulent bank drafts. While his clouded history -- including direct ties to that group barricaded in Montana -- makes his problems unique, others who chose this path will likely share his grief. Men and women will go to prison; homes will be lost; families will become bankrupt. Only their fates will be determined quietly, out of the newspaper headlines.
There are upcoming trials that worry me, too. Foremost is the case of Bear Lincoln; keeping his trial in Mendocino County seems folly. As we reported in our last issue, a recent survey found 92.7 percent of Mendocino County residents recognized the case, and that 45.4 percent of them believe Lincoln is "definitely" or "probably" guilty.
Some of those opinions were undoubtedly formed by early media coverage, which demonized Lincoln as a dangerous, violent ex-con. Relying on questionable anonymous sources, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported Lincoln terrorized his family and "could snap again."
And if potential jurors weren't swayed by those reports, they probably watched the much-publicized episode of "America's Most Wanted," where the Mendocino Sheriff unveiled a new version of events, casting the police in the best light possible. (To its credit, the Ukiah Daily Journal ran a scathing editorial, noting that the cops had changed their story.)
The media is also guilty of potentially damaging a fair trial for Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski. Each day last week, the FBI leaked new information about new horrors discovered in his cabin. Yes, some of the objects allegedly found seemed to strongly link him to the crimes, but other revelations were less damning -- that is, if you heard about them.
One of the early reports claimed agents had found chemicals for making bombs. You probably didn't see list of those materials, but one of them was -- sugar. There were later announcements of old typewriters uncovered, a hooded sweatshirt, and that clear evidence of guilt, sunglasses. By the FBI's implications, I sweetened my coffee this morning with parts of a bomb, then drove to Santa Rosa wearing my Unabomber disguise.
What's distressing is that this comes at a time when Kaczynski hasn't even been charged with the Unabomber murders. Let me be the devil's advocate: what if he's not the guy? Or what if he was a copycat who committed just a few of the crimes? Neither is truly impossible. But the point is that it's up to a jury to decide that -- and with the FBI's relentless barrage of media leaks, it's going to be hard for Kaczynski's defense lawyers to find an impartial jury.
One final hearing is worth mentioning, and it concerns me because it isn't a trial at all -- and that seems to be the objective. It's the meandering Whitewater investigation that drags on without apparent purpose, except for the faint hope that something, somewhere, will turn up to sour the upcoming election for Clinton and the Democrats.
The most damaging news of late concerns only the ethics of the investigators, especially those of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The Nation published a superb investigative article by Joe Conason and Murray Waas, which has led even the New York Times to call for his resignation. (To follow these events, visit The Nation's Starr Watch web page.)
The Nation also comments on the irony of "ethically challenged" Senator Al D'Amato conducting the probe, but comedian Al Franken puts it best: "Al D'Amato leading an ethics investigation is like Bob Dornan heading a mental health task force."
No matter what your feelings on these cases, you have reason to be concerned.
Loyal Democrats and Clinton-bashers alike should be angry at the political gamesmanship allowing the long-running D'Amato and Starr show to plod onwards -- now past the time and money spent on both Iran-Contra and Watergate.
No matter what you think of Kaczynski's or Lincoln's guilt, they have the right to a fair trial. In both situations that right has been endangered by the police, with the media's compliance.
As for the Freemen, you may be asking: Why should I care what happens to these few dozen whites, when people of color often have far harsher fates in the justice system? Because it's from the misfortune of white Jane and Joe America that the Freemen movement draws its strength. And if the hard-right is to ever make inroads to average citizens, it will be through the Freemen movement's seductive message that vigilante justice is the same as the real thing.
We'll be back in early May; hope to see you then.
Jeff Elliott, Editor