31 March 2004

The Rule of Law

In a not entirely unexpected development, the International Court of Justice has ruled that the US violated the Vienna Convention in fifty death-penalty cases involving Mexican nationals (note: this is the ICJ's page on the whole case, which consists of several levels of links to PDF files). What this reflects more than anything else is true stupidity.

The point of any criminal justice system must be to obtain a just result. If the procedural rules designed to ensure justice are "inconvenient" to a local or state official's political ambitions to be "tough on crime," so be it; that's the price of the system. Further, given the huge delays that everybody already knows exist in the capital punishment system, there is no justice-based motivation to attempt to evade those rules and just add more possibilities for delay. Of course, that's not how all too many prosecutors see it: They see the system as one intended to result in convictions, not in justice, and resent anything that gets in their way.

The corollary is a simple one. Prosecutors who do not follow Vienna Convention requirements—they really aren't that hard, and require only some really routine cross-checking—must not have much confidence in their cases or their skills. If they did, they wouldn't mind touching second base. Cutting straight from first to third, though, is right out.