Guilty. Not guilty.
The moment in the courtroom when a verdict is delivered is a moment of high drama, potentially a life-changing decision for the accused.
Reading newspaper reports of court cases makes me feel uneasy. Is the verdict correct? How do we really know what happened? Can we be sure of the evidence? If it was a journal article under trial, would the reviewers be asking for more experiments?
In the UK we have seen plenty of drama this year in the Leveson Inquiry - an inquiry into the behaviour of and connections between the media, politicians and police. It is not a court case, but is under the control of a senior judge and features witnesses, evidence and cross-examination rather like a court case. It also features contradictory accounts and frankly unbelievable statements from various parties. The conclusions are expected to have a significant impact on the media in the UK, and possibly on some politicians. I find it quite impossible to know what to believe thus far, apart from a general feeling that “they’re all up to no good”. Luckily, I am not a judge.
Last week’s verdict on Hosni Mubarak, on trial for the murder of 850 unarmed protesters, was controversial. He was found guilty and given a life sentence but his assistants were all acquitted. In a second ruling Mubarak and his sons were acquitted of corruption charges. Commentators say that a life sentences for Mubarak had been expected “in order to placate a public hungry for justice”. He is expected to appeal the decision. Meanwhile, the public are not placated and are protesting against the acquittals. What is the truth? Is the public reaction justified or not? I don’t know.
I have been following another trial – this one was an impeachment trial in Manila. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, Renato Corona, was accused of failing to disclose his assets, liabilities, and net worth. He was reported to have 82 different dollar accounts in five different banks, amounting to over US$ 2million. Wikipedia reports that “according to a World Bank study in 2008, corruption in the Philippines is considered to be the worst among East Asia’s leading economies”. But, innocent until proven guilty.
As this was an impeachment trial the Chief Justice was tried not by a regular court but by the Philippine Senate, the upper house with 24 Senators, many of them trained as lawyers. In a drama-laden and drawn-out scene each of them delivered their verdict, giving reasons for their decision. Some voted to acquit the Chief Justice. Now you might think that those who voted in his favour were all his cronies, or had nefarious reasons for protecting him, but you would be wrong.
Miriam Defensor-Santiago is one of the most respected figures in public life in the Philippines. She delivered a coruscating speech to her fellow Senators before voting to acquit the Chief Justice. Her 20 minute speech was quite extraordinary in its power and ferocity. You can watch the video here – it is well worth it, though it is in a mixture of English and Tagalog. You may not understand all the words, but you will for sure understand her intent. Essentially she says the law is the law, and argues that the whole case was wrongheaded. Chief Justice Corona had admitted his failure to disclose the Statement of Assets, but Miriam maintained that this does not constitute an impeachable offence so he must not be found guilty. She asked whether such a failure to disclose assets should belong in the same class of offence as treason and said “a line has to be drawn between the rule of law and the dystopian concept of freewheeling ethics”. She spoke passionately about the need to respect the law and pointed out that an improper conviction was actually a sign of corruption rather than the reverse. Her arguments are summarised here. Her view did not hold sway though and Corona was found guilty by 21 votes to 3. He maintains that the charges against him were politically motivated and plans to appeal.
The reason that you should be interested in this is that Miriam Santiago will soon become one of the judges at the International Court in The Hague. I think her courage, forcefulness and clarity of thought will serve that Court well. You may hear more of her in the next few years.