To the Editor:
Your latest edition reports on an individual, Richard Morris, with three pending criminal cases in Edgartown, now being held without bail, and posits on the Editorial Page (Feb. 3, “Questions for law enforcement and the courts“) that the case proves that the system of justice on the Island is lenient and “nonsensical.”
In fact, a careful analysis of your own reporting shows the opposite. You ask the court for an explanation. Judge Williams is probably constrained by legal ethics from public comment on a pending case. As an Island resident and a lawyer, I am not.
First, a disclaimer. I know nothing about the case that you report on, other than what I have read in your paper.
Under our system of justice, the state depriving someone of liberty is properly viewed as a momentous undertaking. When state agents like the police arrest and charge an individual with a crime, the law does not presume guilt. In fact, an arrest and charge trigger a bedrock principle of law called the presumption of innocence. An individual cannot be punished unless and until the state proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This happens at a trial. The accused has a right to a trial by a jury of his or her peers.
Since the accused is presumed innocent, he or she is entitled to release from jail on bail. Bail cannot be used as punishment, since the charge has not been proven. It is used only to ensure the presence of the accused in court. Our system does not envision an Alice-in-Wonderland like approach where it’s off with their heads and on with the trial. Punishment comes after a finding of guilt.
State law allows for a revocation and 60-day detention if you are arrested on a charge while on bail for another matter. The first case is then advanced for trial during the period of detention. This strict provision of law has apparently been imposed in the Morris case. He is now being detained in jail without bail pending trial.
The assertion of systemic leniency in drug, alcohol, and domestic violence cases on the Island is utterly false. There are seven police departments on this small Island. They aggressively enforce the laws, especially operating under the influence of alcohol, minor in possession, domestic abuse, and drug violations. The district attorney is ably represented. Judge Williams is no shrinking violet. He administers justice sternly, but fairly. When appropriate, he does not hesitate to take that momentous step of depriving a person of their liberty.
Of course there are repeat offenders on the Island. A prior record does not extinguish the presumption of innocence on a new charge. You are still entitled to a reasonable bail. Sentences reflect a person’s prior record and are scaled upward upon conviction. Sentences to prison on the relatively minor crimes common in district court are of short duration, of two and a half years or less. The person will get out of jail and be back among us. Does anyone who rationally analyzes the system and believes in freedom think that it should be otherwise? The process contemplates neither banishment from the Island, nor a flogging on the public square.
It is easy to sit back and make simplistic criticism of the system of justice by isolating a particular example out of context, and, of course, like any system administered by human beings, it is imperfect, but no one should lose sight of the fact that we all benefit immensely from the principle that our freedom will not be denied by the state without due process of law.