Over the past thousand years, mankind has wrestled with the concept of assessing and punishing guilt. Innocent until proven guilty; trial by a jury of one?s peers; decisions based on fact, not hearsay--each was an irreducible cornerstone of how justice is supposed to work.
A fair trial, or in many cases a trial of any kind, is however no longer required in the United States.
Instead, more convenient forms of justice have been adopted: trial by media, guilt by association and lifelong detention without trial.
It is hard to imagine individuals less similar than Michael Jackson, Maurice ?Hank? Greenberg and the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Yet each has one thing in common: the inability to obtain a fair trial, or in the cases of Greenberg and the ?Gitmo? inmates, a trial at all (thus far).
Set aside whether Jackson is guilty or not. The judge in his case permitted allegations of previous misbehavior, never proven in a court of law, to become the heart of the prosecution?s case against him. The word is Jackson would have won his freedom had the ?testimony? been excluded from court.
Does Jackson deserve the same level of justice as anyone else? Apparently not in California, where in cases relating to sexual misconduct, it is enough that someone says you did something. No longer is the burden of proof on the prosecution. Gossip suffices.
Several individuals are being held by the U.S. government without trial, or even access to attorneys, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the name of national security, the United States has suspended their civil and human rights. The detainees may have committed dreadful crimes, for all we know. But, then again, they may not. Denied a trial, they will never have a chance to prove their innocence.
In that light, what happened to AIG?s Greenberg may not sound so awful, but he too has been denied even the most basic legal niceties, such as the right to defend himself. He was fired, and his reputation destroyed, by a man with the most blatant conflict of interest. Should Greenberg ever have his day in court, a ?not guilty? verdict would come too late to save his name.
At AIG, accounting irregularities may have occurred. Unable to prove it--or he would have brought criminal charges--Spitzer blackmailed AIG to get his way and enhance his own reputation in the eyes of the voters. He reportedly told the company that if Greenberg did not resign, AIG would face criminal charges.
Denied the opportunity to defend itself, and fearful of an Arthur Andersen-style meltdown, AIG forced Greenberg out, despite general agreement that the company had not carried out criminal misbehaviore--even Spitzer said as much.
The rule of law is supposedly based on the concept of justice for all. In the United States today, it is instead based on a concept that has little to do with justice: fear. Saddam Hussein, reportedly a mass murderer, receives a trial; Hank Greenberg, the greatest businessman of the second half of the 20th century, doesn?t. Go figure.
a writer, editor and former accountant, is a regular columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He also covers issues on alternative risk.
June 1, 2005
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