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  • Reverend James Squire

Legal Ethics

Philadelphia has a reputation for corruption in politics. Recently Labor leader, John Dougherty, City Council Member Bobby Henon, District Attorney Seth Williams, and U. S. Representative Chaka Fattah have been convicted of corruption. Given this, it was no surprise that someone else would join this not so distinguished group.

City Council Member Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, and two others have been on trial for fraud. It seemed to be a slam dunk for the prosecutors given all the comments that seemed to connect these people to fraudulent acts. However, the result of the trial, after a long period of time that the jury took in their deliberations, was that the jury was divided on a declaration of guilt and the judge therefore declared a mistrial. The four people are not home free as the prosecutors immediately indicated that they would retry the case.

The judge thanked the jury for their hard work and indicated that “the inability to reach a verdict is part of the American system.”

Mr. Kenyatta and Ms. Chavous were not convicted of a crime because the evidence was deemed as inconclusive and circumstantial. There were a lot of people who were interviewed. One set of people interviewed gave testimony about a couple who lived beyond their means and were not doing their job while other folks interviewed made a case that the couple should be seen as hard working on behalf of the people of Philadelphia. As I read the accounts of the interviews it was clear to me that this was a couple who should have been proven guilty, but the jury saw it differently citing circumstantial evidence and no hard evidence that the couple was guilty of a crime.

The people that I mentioned at the outset were proven guilty because the prosecutors had hard direct evidence such as wiretaps that made the difference in the outcome.

Whenever I hear that evidence is circumstantial and the testimony of others doesn’t seem to be enough, I think of one of my former student spiritual leaders of our school who is now a professor of history at Princeton. While he was working on his PH.D. thesis he was doing a lot of research and writing at the New York Public Library. I gather that he must have taken up residence in New York as he was originally from Philadelphia and then New London, Connecticut.

He was called for jury duty in New York City to be part of a jury where a high -profile murder trial was being held. He also was selected to be the jury foremen, whose job it is to bring all the peoples’ ideas together to get a unanimous verdict. He called me when the trial was over and quickly indicated that the leadership skills that he gained heading the student spiritual leaders of EA was the secret to him working with a diverse set of views. (I don’t believe in leadership courses necessarily. I believe that you should put students in a group context that calls for leadership skills where the lessons of leadership are made in real time with real situations. I saw myself as a coach. Students love to have real power and they never disappointed me.)

My student went on to say that he thought he was going to catch up on some of his reading waiting for jury duty. What he got instead was a transformative experience where he learned a great deal about our legal system and a lot about himself as he led eleven other people of diverse backgrounds work through a process of discernment of guilt or innocence for the person on trial.

He went on to say, “Rev. I am going to write a book about this!” and he did. The concluding thoughts in his book, The Jury, are something that we all need to remember when a verdict doesn’t go the way we thought it should like the jury and prosecutors of the recent trial in Philly. My student made the point that our legal system does not always seem fair to us, but it is the best that the world has to offer. We are tried in front of a group of our peers. Twelve people listening with a different history and experience.

In essence, when you read his account of the trial in New York, it is so clear that the person being tried actually did the crime. The jury attempted to come to a unanimous decision, but there was no clear hard evidence to provide a guilty verdict even though the person on trial was clearly the murderer. However, that important word, circumstantial, entered the debate and the jury could not agree on his guilt.

People don’t always realize that there is a very high bar for conviction because of that central guideline in our judicial system that “you are innocent until you are proven guilty.” It is not similar to the first legal system which occurred during the Babylonian Captivity of the Israelites (586-536 B.C.) which is Hammurabi’s Code or Legal System where the burden is on the accuser. If you accuse someone of a crime and you fail to prove it, then you are held convicted of the same crime. There were no frivolous lawsuits back then. What would Trump do if he lived back then?

I also have received another view of our trial by jury system which I received from one of my former African American students who is currently working for our government in France. We were having lunch before he left for his assignment and he commented that, “we don’t have a justice system in our country, we have a legal system.” That comment is a thoughtful consideration for us all as well.

Our ethical goal as a nation is to have “the legal and the just” become as blended together as possible as the same.

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