portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article reporting oregon & cascadia

economic justice | police / legal | prisons & prisoners

The Prejudice of Popularity in Courtrooms

I found it interesting that Michael Jackson brought his family to court with him recently. What is the point of defendants bringing family members to court? It seems to go beyond the obvious, which would be emotional support. Instead, it separates society's vulnerable out for abuse.
The Prejudice of Popularity in Courtrooms
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

I found it very interesting that Michael Jackson brought Janet, Randy, LaToya, and Jermaine Jackson, as well as his parents, all dressed dramatically in white, to court with him recently. What is the point of defendants bringing family members and friends to courtrooms with them? It seems to go far beyond the mere obvious, which would be emotional support for the defendant. Bringing family and friends with you to courtrooms can actually sway your final judgment, is the reality.

I met a former prosecutor in Seattle, Wa. who said if a defendant showed up in a courtroom without any family or friends, and a public defender, he simply assumed guilt and went for the jugular. I did not have time to talk further with him in our short passing, but what he said has haunted me. Why would he assume guilt when a defendant showed up alone in court with a public defender? Is he assuming someone who was innocent would have a whole community of support arise for personal criminal prosecutions, *especially* if the charges seem absurd? Or is it assumed that popular people do not commit crimes? What is the logic there?

Honestly, if the activist community attended all hearings of people who were wrongly charged for petty crimes by biased prosecutors, there would be no time or money for broader issues such as stopping nukes, saving the forests, and peace. When people get very ill, they often sit alone in hospital rooms abandoned by family and friends. And how many single moms have found themselves trapped on welfare with no family support and no childcare for a social life? Many segments of society are in a certain state that does not lend itself to large showings in courtrooms. People who are living day to day cannot afford several family members taking days off from work for court, for instance. Nor can they afford travel expenses. And if single moms want to come in support of one another, they do not just show up. First, transportation to and arrangement of childcare must be arranged. Judging guilt or innocence upon one's showing of popularity is very dangerous and inherently prejudiced, in my opinion.

In Evidence class in law school, we were taught that "fleeing" a scene is not permissible as evidence of guilt. Simply running away from a scene does not provide a high enough bar to prove a wrongdoing for our criminal justice system. The logic in that is people run from police and situations for many reasons, not just guilt. Yes, often fleeing is brought into the courtroom to sway the jury, but on the whole, it has to be brought through a backdoor of sorts and fleeing, alone, is just not enough to convict someone of a crime. For instance, they could not have convicted O.J. Simpson for simply fleeing in the Bronco alone. You would hope that same train of logic would be applied to popularity. Simply because one person packs the audience seating with family members and friends, and another comes to court alone, does not mean the one with more people in the audience is innocent. And the Law *should* know that. But in reality, how many friends and family you can display in a courtroom for a judge *is* consequential and influential.

I asked some attorneys about their take on this situation. All three attorneys I talked to said that it *did* matter whether you brought family and friends to court as a show of support. Yet public defenders do not routinely tell their clients this. And also, the logic of this needs to be reviewed. One attorney said, "Remember, local judges are elected and they may be swayed to a degree in making their rulings by a large turnout in support. I do think that having family members appear in court day after day is helpful to show the jury that a criminal accused is a 'real' person, not a monster. I don't see it as a matter of protection or more or less rights." This attorney also said in a recent hearing with a defendant claiming innocence, the family showed up en mass for the first pretrial. She said when she got to the courtroom, the judge called her into his chambers and asked who all the people in the courtroom were. She said it was the defendant's family showing support. She said it seemed to make the judge nervous, and that before the next hearing, the judge appointed a magistrate to hear the case!

Another attorney echoed the sentiment that the logic in bringing people into the courtroom to show support was about humanizing the defendant, and showing that "the defendant is a person with connections to the outside world
and that there are people that care about him or her." This attorney said that part of the job of a criminal defense attorney (or public defender) is to stop the objectification that begins with labeling the accused as the "defendant." (And indeed, I think using the word "victim" for the other side, before guilt is even proven in the guilt proving stage, even, is prejudiced.) This attorney also pointed out that the "defendant" is often reduced to an identification based on the criminal charges, or what brought the defendant into court, such as prostitution, and so bringing in family and friends can show more sides to a person than stereotypes. This attorney also said that the more the judge or jury can sympathize or empathize with the accused, the better it will be for the defendant.

I would like to go back to the comment that bringing people into court with you shows you have "connections to the outside world" and that people care about you. That sentiment is the most troubling for me. That literally leaves the most vulnerable in society, as the most vulnerable in the criminal justice system too. That is obvious. The homeless, who already are dealing with societal isolation, should not now be prejudiced in the courtroom too, based on nothing more than mere lack of popularity. The law *should not* be a popularity contest. I am concerned that people who can show up in the courtroom with an entourage will get a far different trial than a guy who is down on his luck and many miles from his family. But the purpose of the law system was *supposedly* to equalize the playing field for all, rich and poor. This invisible popularity clause is really at the root of some serious inequity in our justice system. I think that even people with *no* connections to the outside world, and no one who cares about them, deserve a fair trial. That is much of the underlying purpose and intent of a legal system such as ours, frankly. To ensure the guy with no friends still gets a fair trial.

Two of the attorneys I talked to said that this popularity situation was definitely slanted to prejudice certain populations. And one attorney said she did not feel there was any inherent prejudice, but instead just felt it was more factual, that yes, presenting support for a defendant is good for many logical reasons. I see this as a serious problem. A true hole in the fabric of society, even. How many people are in jail simply because they had no one who cared about them, not because they committed crimes?

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com

[[[ 17.Aug.2004 19:55

[[

this happened to me.i had no support in town and it was assumed i did something,when actually somebody harrassed ME!!