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The immortal Victor Hugo knew the type perfectly. In his great novel of the quest for justice, he gave us the character of Javert – formed from an historical figure, Eugène-François Vidocq, a one-time criminal who rose to the prefecture of police. He is a man convinced of his devotion to the law, but who uses its tools to persecute and do manifest injustice. On the surface he is a prosecutor, but deep down inside he remains in fact, a criminal. His pursuit of justice is entirely a delusion. He is a complex figure, and in the end one of the most reprehensible characters in all of literature. He is the prosecutor who lacks a sense of justice. Hugo writes:
Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become grotesque when misdirected; but which, even when hideous, somehow remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice–error. The honest, pitiless joy of a fanatic in the full flood of his atrocity preserves a certain lugubriously venerable radiance. Without himself suspecting the fact, Javert in his formidable happiness was to be pitied, as is every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as this face, wherein was displayed all that may be designated as the evil of the good.
Les Misérables, vol. 1, bk. vii, ch. 3 (1862).
You may of course be convinced that this Javert is a creature of nineteenth century melodrama. But Hugo’s Les Misérables is not a cheap Broadway spectacle, it is one of the greatest literary monuments of the nineteenth century – a profound statement of the grandeur of justice as a vision, and the cruelty of men who commit perversions in its name.
The spirit of Javert is alive and abroad in America today. In fact, he lives in Montgomery, Alabama, and he has been up to great mischief in these last months. And if he is true to character, he has no understanding of the great tragedy he has wrought, nor of the perversion of justice of which he is guilty.
The New York Times, Time Magazine and the Los Angeles Times have all flagged the proceedings involving former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Each has reported facts that strongly suggest prosecutorial misconduct. But the sentencing phase of the case down in Montgomery last week drove that home even more plainly than the explosive and still uncountered affidavit of Republican attorney Dana Jill Simpson.
Still somehow, many Alabama publications that viscerally imitate newspapers, like the Birmingham News and Montgomery Advertiser, seem embarrassed by all of this. They just want it to go away. They have been too busy from the beginning cheering the prosecution from the sidelines and disseminating misinformation about the case. Their political orientation is obvious. And they provided coverage of the sentencing phase which needs to be preserved for future generations – as a model of reprehensibly bad journalism. They understand their role to be stenography for the prosecution and Alabama’s GOP establishment. And they seem curiously incapable of asking questions. But most damningly, they are utterly oblivious to injustice.
Fortunately there is some genuinely independent press down in Alabama, and some reporters have finally started to ask a question or two. And those who were awake through the charade in Montgomery last week noticed that there was an inexplicable choreography between the judge and the prosecutors, like cats tormenting a trapped mouse before they leap upon and devour it. Put more simply, what transpired in that courtroom didn’t have the faintest resemblance to justice.
Prosecutor Franklin says now all the questions about his conduct are over. He’s in for a surprise. Because the questions have hardly begun. Indeed, now the time has arrived to examine meticulously where this case came from and how it was developed at every step along the way. The time has come to parse the amazing series of internally contradictory statements he nervously gushed when the first reports of the Simpson affidavit surfaced. When he unmistakably entered the lists as the defender of Karl Rove. And we need to keep a laserlike focus on the telephone lines between the Bush Administration and the prosecution through this entire timeline, for this is where the political motivation and direction of the prosecution will be exposed. But conclusions are being drawn, and the lead taken by the New York Times is being followed by the free press in Alabama:
U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller used the terms “fair punishment” and “blind justice” in sending former Gov. Don Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to federal prison Thursday night. The federal prosecutor called it a “righteous prosecution,” and even suggested that the judge consider indictments for which the jurors failed to convict when he decided the length of their sentences. He wanted Mr. Siegelman put away for life. The Orwellian doublespeak is not justice nor is it righteous. It’s partisan politics.
Mr. Siegelman makes a case for political prosecution against him that goes from the Statehouse to the White House. We don’t know, of course, if that is true, but we do know justice. And in this case justice is nowhere on the scene.
The Anniston Star likewise found the sentence inexplicably severe and the courtroom drama suspicious. It also contrasted the sentence given to Siegelman with what happened to Scooter Libby in Washington and found the differences impossible to explain.
The Times-Daily in Tuscumbia County features an editorial which reviews the evidence suggesting that the case was politically manipulated from the outset. Did Don Siegelman get a fair shake?, they ask. And they answer in the negative. The sentence, some say, “is ridiculously unfair and smacks of politics.” It was a clear-cut case of “selective prosecution.” Judge Fuller, they remind us, was appointed by George W. Bush. Indeed, he is tightly linked to all the forces behind this prosecution. In the trial, he “said Siegelman’s actions in this case have damaged the public’s trust in government. Many will tell you his sentence has damaged the public trust in the judicial system.”
As my grandfather (who like this paper hailed from Northwest Alabama) would have said: “Amen to that, brother.”
At the Tuscaloosa News, Tommy Stevenson reviews the highly irregular and grossly political grandstanding by Judge Fuller and the prosecutors (were they going to cart the governor off to Gitmo, he asks?) and makes an obvious comparison:
I do wonder, however, why they are getting sentences of more than six and seven years for bribery and fraud, while former vice presidential counselor Scooter Libby, who helped a covert CIA agent and was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice as that disclosure was investigated, got only 2 1/2 years and walks free as his own appeal is being considered. I also wonder if it was really necessary for U.S. marshals to slap leg irons on Siegelman and Scrushy and bum rush them out of the courtroom as if they were being extraordinarily rendered to some secret prison.
I e-mailed former U.S. attorney Walter Braswell Thursday night, asking him if this was standard operating procedure. He replied he’d never seen it happen in a white-collar crime case. “If a defendant represents a flight risk or a real and present danger to public safety — a bank robber, a hit man, drug dealer, etc — then it would be pretty standard,” Braswell replied. He pointed out that white-collar defendants who can be electronically monitored against flight are often allowed to remain free for a period of time, as in Libby’s case.
Calling what happened to Siegelman, Scrushy and their families Thursday night, “just spiteful,” Braswell said, “Think about the arguments made last week about whether Libby should remain free while his case is being appealed. “Here there seems to have been no consideration of the very factors which were deemed “crucial” when a White House staffer was involved — go figure.” Go figure, indeed.
But of course, the explanation is simple, and it’s obvious. What transpired in the Montgomery courthouse was done for carefully calculated political effect. And the “newspapers” which are playing along handle the matter according to a script that might as well have been crafted by Karl Rove himself. Maybe it was. Here’s a classic. In the Huntsville Times a story reports “Siegelman falloutis [sic] viewed as limited.” The Huntsville Times doesn’t take note of the major editorial run in the largest circulation newspaper in the country that cites the case as an appalling example of prosecutorial abuse – a view which will very soon emerge as a consensus among paper editors around the country. No, they’re concerned about damage from a reports about that embarrassing former governor Siegelman. And they parade a full line-up of Republican usual suspects talking about what an important statement this makes against corruption and what wonderful news this is for the GOP’s election prospects in 2008. Of course, in the rest of the country, we’re worried whether there will even be a GOP in 2008. It seems to be in the process of a total meltdown.
In due course, this sordid little conspiracy involving two U.S. attorneys, senior figures in Washington, and no shortage of Alabama Republican bigwigs will out. And then we’ll see that the sentencing show was indeed about corruption. More than likely we’re going to see that the corrupt figures were not the men in the docks, but those dispensing the sentence and handling the prosecution.
In the meantime, a story is shortly to emerge concerning dealings between the White House and the former head of the Public Integrity Division that appear to have direct ramifications for the Siegelman case. Stay tuned.
More from Scott Horton:
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”