Marva Barnett's piece is not, of course, a discussion of the legal intricacies of procedure and precedence that will weigh heavily in the Supreme Court's decision. Instead it addressed the question--as WMRA's Tom DuVal, with whom I love to talk over these kinds of knotty questions, pointed out--"should anyone be allowed to get away with unjust acts just because a law says it's okay?"
In this case, attorneys for the
, prosecutors argue explicitly, bluntly, that Americans have no constitutional right not to be framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee were imprisoned in 1977 for a murder they had no hand in. Tenaciously stating his innocence, Mr. Harrington was finally released in 2003 after a case review in which eyewitnesses recanted their testimony. Under Council Bluffs, Iowa law neither man has legal recourse to receive compensation for the 25 years lost because of fabricated evidence. Their suit against the Council Bluffs police and prosecutor for violating of constitutional rights has reached the Supreme Court. An objective case summary shows that the police and prosecutor ignored evidence pointing to another, well-connected suspect and accepted testimony against Mr. Harrington from a man with a criminal record who erred in his story about the murder location and weapon involved. Iowa
Still, attorneys for the prosecutors, while hypothetically admitting that Mr. Harrington might have been framed, contend that such framing is legal, though perhaps not just. Victor Hugo must be raging in his Paris Pantheon tomb! Were he able to put pen to paper, he would this morning be dashing off a public letter. Justice is divine, he would write, far above the laws that people create. When everyone can see where justice lies in a cause, should we not choose what is just over what is legal? Why are laws not written to promote justice? Human rights come from God, and laws cannot morally overcome them. Jean Valjean, after 19 years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, learned this from a man of God. The author of Les Misérables would be making the case for Mr. Harrington, human rights, and justice."
Marva Barnett, author of Victor Hugo on Things That Matter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)
If you've got a few moments to devote to thinking about the distinctions between what is legal and what is moral, I'd suggest taking a look at Ms. Totenberg's summation and then re-read Marva Barnett's challenging reaction. I did both yesterday, and I'm still pondering the issues involved.