You can’t claim to bring someone to justice and then not go through with the justice part. When Whitey Bulger was captured last week, the phrase “brought to justice” was thrown around by more than a few newspapers. The Courant used it in a headline. The Herald used the phrase in articles and columns. The LA Times used it in reference to both Bulger and Bin Laden.
Whitey is now making the rounds in federal court in Boston. But is there justice yet? At the time of this post, the district court has not yet decided whether he will have court-appointed counsel (with his $800,000 nut seized, Bulger claims he cannot afford legal representation). Some people, notably two columnists of the justice-waving Herald, Howie Carr and Margery Eagan, believe that Bulger should not be provided counsel by the court. They argue that a reputed mob boss who illegally made (and might still have) millions in a life of crime and then hid, costing the taxpayers millions in detection and now prosecution, should not now have his legal bills paid by those taxpayers. How is this justice?
It is because justice, rights and the Constitution are all-in or all-out concepts. You cannot have it both ways: if Whitey Bulger or any other defendant is to answer in court for his alleged crimes, he must do so with the same rights as any other defendant. The Sixth Amendment establishes the right to counsel in criminal cases. The right to counsel includes the right to appointed counsel for indigent defendants. Whitey Bulger is not typical of the accused one can see in public defenders’ offices throughout the country. But with his money seized, for now he is indigent (while it would not be surprising that he has money stashed somewhere, it is likely that would be seized as well if he tries to access it). Even if he had his money back, the $800,000 would likely not cover the defense of the complex case of murders and racketeering he will face in federal court.
Whitey Bulger is not a beloved defendant. Few defendants are, especially those accused of murder. Rights, justice and fairness however are not reserved for those who appear innocent or who aren’t charged with terrible crimes. These rights exist for everyone. All defendants are innocent until proven guilty in court. There are in fact defendants who truly are innocent. Denying any defendant his or her basic rights is the denial of all of us of our rights. Limiting the rights of a defendant charged with serious crimes only make it easier to erode the rights of a person charged with any crime, or even someone charged with no crime at all.
For there to be any justice in this case–in any case–all of the tenets of justice must be respected. Boston provides a historic example of zealous defense for unpopular defendants: the cases of Rex v. Preston and Rex v. Wemms et al, better known as the Boston Massacre trials, in 1770. The defense for the British captain and his soldiers was led by John Adams, the most prominent attorney in Boston at the time as well as a patriot who became our second president. An advocate for the Bill of Rights of which the Sixth Amendment is part, Adams won acquittals for Preston and six of the Wemms defendants with the other two being convicted of manslaughter and not murder. After 240 years, a written Constitution and legal precedent, the rights and their importance remain.