Last week in “Only Human” I referred to the slow-motion chase of O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco on June 17, 1994. I talked of that surrealistic coverage as a watershed event in the story of network news. But, for me, it has another significance as well.
The trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman marks the year when my confidence in America’s legal system was shaken to the core. All of America watched the overwhelming evidence unfold while high-dollar lawyers tied the legal system in knots. The trial became a circus with each American applauding his favorite performer.
It’s not that Simpson had no supporters. Millions of people were rooting for him to beat the rap. But the conversation was less about his actual guilt or innocence. It was, rather, about who would win the game. Could Johnnie Cochrane pull off a successful defense in such an open-and-shut case?
O.J.’s acquittal in October of 1995 was one of the most divisive rulings in modern memory. When, in February 1997, another jury unanimously found O.J. guilty in the wrongful death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, these divisions were underscored. How could the same man, for the same crime, both be acquitted and be found guilty?
Gobs of money made the difference: money from huge NFL contracts, money from endorsements and money from acting gigs. All this money, multiplied in the stock market, enabled Simpson to be represented by a dozen of the best lawyers that money could buy. They simply overwhelmed prosecutor Marcia Clark. America learned that the justice system can be manipulated if you can buy enough legal power.
At least that’s what I learned. It was a sad realization. I began to wonder whether it was possible any longer to be certain that justice is available to those who cannot lawyer up as well as their opponent at law. I had visions of other rich people getting away with murder while poor people were wrongly convicted.
That is still a concern. When money runs the legal system, the poor are run over. But that is only the start of the problem.
Differences in legal power between two citizens can be vast, but that can never compare to the differences in legal power between any single citizen and the U.S. government. The government has access to the money of 323 million people. If the legal system can be manipulated by money, government itself can manipulate it most of all.
I didn’t notice this in the O.J. Simpson case. There, it was a beleaguered public prosecutor who was overwhelmed by private money. But since the O.J. trial, we have seen the tables turned.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases I could point to as examples of private citizens steam-rolled by out-of-control public prosecutors. I will pick only one.
Dinesh D’Souza is an immigrant from India who came to America on a Rotary scholarship as an exchange student. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth college and quickly rose to prominence publishing a half-dozen influential books. He loves America for her principles and for her freedoms and is an articulate defender of these principles in the public square.
This speaking and writing led him to produce two political documentary films that criticized the White House directly—an honored American tradition. But this is where his troubles began. After being personally attacked on the president’s web site, he was charged by the president’s Department of Justice with campaign finance violations.
When a college friend, Wendy Long, ran for New York’s senate seat in 2012, he had legally donated $5,000 to her unsuccessful campaign. He also donated $5,000 to her campaign in his wife’s name, and asked two other friends to donate the same, giving them $5,000 each.
These last three donations violated campaign finance laws. At a speaking engagement in Michigan D’Souza said, “I broke the law. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t realize I was breaking the law. But I did.”
Still, he believed that a jury of his peers would see it as an honest mistake. After all, when Hillary Clinton broke federal law by sharing classified documents she was declared immune from prosecution because James Comey didn’t think he could prove intent.
However, even though no one had ever been sent to prison for doing what D’Souza did, he was told that if he lost the trial, he could go to jail for two years. Then the DOJ added a second charge: “knowingly causing false information to be submitted to the federal government.”
This violation was not D’Souza’s doing. It happened without his knowing it. Nevertheless, the new charge carried the additional threat of five years in prison. Consider his situation.
He could take his chances at trial proving that he had knowingly done no such thing. He might even have 75 perent chance of acquittal. But on the off chance that the jury decided against him, he now faced five years in prison. That would effectively wipe out a successful career, destroy his family life, and put him out of business permanently.
Or, he could plead guilty to the first charge — which required him to say that he knew he was breaking the law (the very fact that he would have contested in a jury trial). What would you do?
With the stakes so high, and the government’s limitless legal resources, no reasonable person would chance a trial. So, on May 19, 2014 he pled guilty to violating campaign finance laws.
But the story doesn’t end there. Even though no one had ever spent time in prison for his crime, the Department of Justice asked for a sentence of 10 to 16 months in federal prison. The DOJ legal team cobbled together a sentencing memorandum that cited numerous federal cases where jail time was given, but they withheld crucial facts about every one of these cases, which would have revealed their dishonesty in applying them.
In the end, D’Souza was spared jail — sort-of. He was sentenced to eight months away from his home, in a “community confinement center.” He was placed on five years of probation and fined $30,000. Compare this to the obvious campaign finance violations that we see every day. Then, ask yourself if this is equal justice or politically motivated prosecution.
On Thursday, May 31, President Trump gave Dinesh D’Souza a full presidential pardon. I think you can see why. The disparity in treatment between D’Souza and every other violator of campaign finance law is blindingly obvious. We must regain parity and the assurance of non-partisan application of the law.
We must restore confidence in America’s legal system that crimes are prosecuted justly and reasonably. We must work together to see that all people are treated equitably and fairly. We must not let access to unlimited legal resources be the only determining factor of who gets convicted and who gets acquitted.
Our health as a nation depends on it.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.