Q&A on DSK or: How Just is Justice?

Sometimes current media items that would presumably fit nicely under our claimed umbrella of legal/economic topics are nonetheless difficult for us to write about. Sometimes, particularly with regards to a very recent and hot story, 'the facts' are complicated; sometimes they are contradictory; sometimes there are just too many threads to a particular story and a wealth of information can lead somewhat ironically to an A-grade case of writer's block. Sometimes in situations like this, before all the facts on the ground are clear, it helps to simply grab hold of one of the compelling and unanswered questions surrounding the story and work with that.

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair provides a good example of this. For one, the situation has stimulated a seemingly never ending parade of interesting questions; some about the man, some about the situation(s) he got himself into, some about the institution he had, until his recent resignation, run. These questions fall across the entire spectrum, including the absurd. For example, 'Wait, someone named Dominique with a hyphenated surname is a man?' has shown up with alarming frequency, only sometimes tongue in cheek.

They obviously range to the far more serious as well. For example, if the allegations are true, everyone should be wondering if the potential victim is okay. Others include 'Why does Europe have such a strangle-hold on leadership of the IMF?' 'He has had similar allegations levelled against him in France?' 'What will happen to the hierarchy and respectability of the IMF during a time in its history when both are important?' and 'How did a former Communist Party member get elected as head of the IMF?**'

In addition to the types of questions one would expect in a situation like this, there have been others asked. Some of the questions that have been put into the public consciousness over the past week include the more fundamental kind, those that get to the heart of our legal systems and structures themselves. For example, much has been made in the French media about the now infamous 'perp walk' Mr. Strauss-Kahn was forced to take, like so many others before him, on his way to his day in Manhattan court.

In truth, this is mostly because the French don't like seeing a citizen and presidential front-runner unceremoniously paraded about (by Americans no less!) for the pleasure of the media out of their control or protection. However, in addition and providing a solid footing for their complaints, they also have laws against this. In short, the French have a law which makes it illegal to show alleged perps in handcuffs as it works against their presumption of innocence.

Before discussing whether handcuffs are indeed a sign of guilt, we need to dispense with a few things***. First off, despite sniping coming from across the pond, we don't want to likewise focus on the inadequacies of the French legal system, such as the lack of free speech rights.  Nor will we spend much time on the fact that their handcuff laws were written and passed by those most likely to be impacted by them. Let's also put aside the idea that French law doesn't really apply in the US, and that French citizens who have the extreme privilege of visiting the States either for work or at their pleasure (which seem to mix uncomfortably frequently in Mr. Strauss-Kahn's case) need to follow the rules just like US citizens in Paris have to when they enjoy the City of Lights.

Let us focus instead more abstractly on the idea of fairness, and whether the legal system should be allowed to parade the accused in front of camera's with handcuffs on. In other words, how just is justice? There is, as is so often the case, a spectrum of potential answers. Among others might be that the perp walk is awful in a system which supposedly presumes innocence. These folks might think that the very idea of the perp walk is entirely contrary to the notions of justice and fairness which have been won and continually fought for in this country.

Others might be uncomfortable with the practice, but realize that it is so ingrained that no one believes that it is actually a sign of guilt. In other words, we recognize the prosecutorial showboating for what it is. Others might feel that, so long as the system gets it right in the end, what happens leading up to the result is inconsequential. Moving right along to the other end of the spectrum from the folks who find the practice abhorrent would be the 'screw 'em, they're guilty' crowd.

Though we don't have the means or time to poll the American public, both personal experience and some quick water cooler chats have revealed that many people fall somewhere in the middle. In other words, many people feel that as long as justice is served in the end, that it is served overall. Another line of reasoning is that, even if the perp walk works against the presumption of innocence, it doesn't do so any more than prosecution itself. And, others have pointed out that, even if the perp walk isn't just overall, it is at least egalitarian (maybe this is why the French disapprove of the practice so highly...)

I would like to think that the American legal system gets it right more often than not, that justice is served whatever social, racial or economic class an individual falls in. To the extent that it doesn't, it is hard to believe that it is the perp walk which sways the minds of jurors and judges. And to those who feel that it isn't fair to those who are actually innocent, well then neither, it could be argued, is prosecutorial discretion. For now, even if it does cause some reputational harm to alleged criminals, it is hard to see what the French are making such a fuss about. You need to play by the rules wherever you play. And, if the former presidential hopeful is found guilty of what appears to be a serious crime, his moment in front of the cameras is likely going to be the last thing he has on his mind.

* And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Writer's Workshop Tip of the Day.
** On a side note, it is interesting to see how much information that was already available to the public gets thrown into the spotlight at times like these, but such a digression could be an article all its own, so let's move on...
*** So often topics involving France can turn into a hodge-podge of insults and snarkiness...therefore we feel almost compelled to dispense of some of the types of thoughts and comments which could undermine the more fundamental question we are trying to ask. It is also, frankly, good fun.

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