Manfull: The importance of a fair trial

BY ERIN MANFULL | APRIL 03, 2015 5:00 AM

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I’m not quite sure the importance of the right to a fair trial really resonates with Americans until their fate lies in the hands of foreign government’s judicial systems.

Amanda Knox knows this all too well.  In 2007, her study-abroad roommate was found dead, and the Italian government quickly blamed Knox and her then-boyfriend for the brutal death. Just a few days ago, the Italian higher court overturned the conviction, only after Knox had spent time in prison.

As an American, we are born with our rights. We have this amazing privilege of being innocent until proven guilty — something that can absolutely determine your fate if it were the other way around.

In the Knox case, the Italian government is legally allowed to release the prosecution’s case file to the public domain even before the trial starts. Meaning that, before she appeared before the court, the Italian public already had their thoughts about Amanda pre-emptively solidified. The conviction, and eventual acquittal, of Knox got me thinking about the legal systems all over the world and how truly scary some systems are for Americans who are accustomed to the whole “right to a fair trial” thing we’ve got over here. 

In Mexico, writes Washington Office on Latin America associate Maureen Meyer, you’re “automatically guilty until you prove your innocence … or pay your way out of it.”  If you’re arrested for drug charges, you’ll have to face the Mexican legal system often alone, or with minimal to poor representation.

A study done by the Washington Office of Latin America and Transnational Institute found that from 2006-12, of the 226,667 detainees accused of drug crimes, 33,500 (or fewer than 15 percent) were ever sentenced. This suggests that in a majority of the drug cases, the evidence against the accused wasn’t strong enough, and the justice system was just looking for a quick buck from some naïve tourists. 

In the Mexican Ministry of the Interior’s 2012 National Survey of the Criminal Justice System, 6 percent of the Mexicans questioned had confidence in their justice system. That’s right, 6 percent of Mexicans believe in their own system.

I can understand, and truly appreciate, the way other countries work and operate, that’s their prerogative and decision. And the United States is no perfect leader of worldwide justice systems, especially with recent cases such as Eric Garner in New York, and George Zimmerman in Florida.

The perception of the U.S. legal system has taken a huge hit lately with cases of unarmed shootings, especially along racial lines.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 68 percent of blacks said that African Americans in their community are treated less fairly in the court system than whites, compared with 27 percent of whites on the same question.

It’s clear to see many Americans believe that the system isn’t working or that it’s racially biased, which it very well could be, and that’s an issue that needs to be addressed.  But if I were to be accused of a crime, I’d rather have it be in America, where at least I’m guaranteed a lawyer, a trial, and (a supposedly) unbiased jury.

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