Sunday, May 24, 2009

Widmer Case Illustrates Dual System of Justice

When former Bearcats coach Andy Kennedy was arrested late last year, I argued that the manner in which the case was proceeding was an excellent demonstration of justice for sale in America:  in other words, people in the criminal justice system often get exactly as much justice as they can afford.

To an extent, the Ryan Widmer case also serves as a stark example of our dual system of justice.  Leave aside the pre-trial and trial proceedings.  Widmer was able to afford high-priced private counsel, as well as a nationally-known forensics expert.  (Indigent defendants only get access to such experts when the court approves it, and then must sometimes demonstrate to the court a "need" for such experts.)  Forget all that, for the moment.  Focus instead on what's happened since Widmer's conviction.

Look at recent events.  The press coverage has been extraordinarily sympathetic to Widmer, who is now a convicted murderer.  (It helps, perhaps, that Sarah's family seems to have no interest in engaging the media.)  Hundreds have attended a candlelight vigil to "support" Ryan.  One expects, of course, Ryan's family and close friends to be heartbroken and moved to action by the verdict.  But people who have no discernible connection to Widmer and who certainly didn't sit through the trial or read the transcript are publicly lamenting the verdict as well.  What's more, before the ink was even dry on the verdict form, two high-powered appellate attorneys (including the director of the Ohio Innocence Project) had signed on to the defense team.

If Widmer weren't so upper-middle class, young, attractive, and white, would we see this outpouring of support for him?  I certainly don't mean to make race the sole factor here, as this is probably driven at least as much, if not more, by economic and social class.  (No one showed any sympathy a few years ago for Liz Carroll, although there was evidence that of the three involved in her foster-son's death, she was the least culpable yet received the harshest result; Liz was poor and white.)  And I don't mean to question the appellate attorneys' motives (OIP has been a tremendous force for reversing wrongful convictions in its few years of existence, and the other attorney involved devotes a significant portion of his practice to indigent criminal appeals).   But would the media coverage have been quite so favorable if the alleged murderer were poor or black (or both)?  Would the injustice of the conviction even showed up on the community's radar screen?

I have no idea whether Ryan Widmer murdered his wife.  I didn't sit through the trial and didn't read a transcript of it.  I'm bothered by the revelation of juror experimentation.  But the case leaves me wishing that the State was subject to such scrutiny in all criminal cases, not just the ones where the defendant is a young, affluent, white suburbanite.

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