An impassable and unnerving contradiction arose last night in the Republican Presidential Debate.
When asked if they would support Donald Trump as the candidate for President even if he was convicted for the crimes for which he is currently indicted, all of them said yes except Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie.
He was followed over the next few long seconds by the surrounding candidates on the debate stage — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — raising their hands too, some after looking around at their neighbors.
To be perfectly explicit, these people who want to be our President are saying “even if juries of his peers finds Donald Trump guilty of obstructing the official proceeding of democracy, defrauding the United States, violating his oath as President, forgery, falsifying financial records to pay off a pornstar for her silence, etc — even if juries find this man guilty, we will not believe them and still place our trust and confidence in him as the leader of the free world.”
Beloved, this argument so completely undercuts any trust in the judicial systems in four different states (well, three states and one District) that I cannot support any candidate who holds to that position.
You see, for me that is a pro-life concern.
Pro-Life Means Pro-Jury
The telos of the Pro-Life movement for many is some form of Abortion Abolitionism or Prenatal Equality: the idea that killing a baby in utero is equivalent to murder.
Murder charges require jury trials. Jury trials require a collective confidence in a jury of peers to render just verdicts. Jury trials are where 12 random people decide between the prosecution and the defense in applying the statutes passed by legislators as overseen by judges.
The moment you say “the courts are all completely” is the moment you betray Prenatal Equality. People who want to prosecute abortion as murder really need to have faith in a judicial system which will carefully judge the question of abortion and decide when and if a murder has happened. If courts and juries cannot be trusted to try the indictments against Donald Trump, why should they be trusted to render verdicts on abortion? Or any other crimes?
Now, you might say “it is those courts which are unjust, because they are in New York or Florida or whatever.” But my friend do you not realize that most abortions happen in New York and Florida and LA? That these major cities which elect Democratic prosecutors are exactly the places where abortion murder trials would have to take place?
What has happened: different grand juries in different states and different courts have returned the decision that enough evidence was available to hand over indictments. The system is supposed to work like that. Your peers did that.
Now what happens is entirely different juries will consider the evidence presented to them and render verdicts on the basis of that evidence. The system is supposed to work like that. Your peers will do that.
If you cannot trust the judicial system to handle Donald Trump, then you cannot trust the judicial system to handle crime generally. You yield any semblance of “law and order.”
Considering the Courts
Now if you want to question criminal courts in general and have a new appreciation for injustices that often occur therein, you could do so in a more informed manner by wrestling with America’s criminal justice system as a whole! Consider the track record of something like the Innocence Project, with 199 people freed by DNA, many of them in prison for murder. Read a book like Devil in the Grove about the Groveland Boys.
Want to question the justice system? Read this and weep!
Thomas, Shepherd, Irvin, and Greenlee (then 16) were accused of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett and assaulting her husband on July 16, 1949, in Groveland, Lake County, Florida.
On July 26, 1949, Thomas fled and was killed by a sheriff’s posse of 1,000 white men, who shot him over 400 times while he allegedly fled after being found asleep under a tree in southern Madison County. Greenlee, Shepherd, and Irvin were arrested. They were beaten to coerce confessions, but Irvin refused to confess. The three survivors were convicted at trial by an all-white jury. Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison because he was only 16 at the time of the alleged crime; the other two were sentenced to death.
In 1949, Harry T. Moore, the executive director of the Florida NAACP, organized a campaign against the wrongful conviction of the three African Americans. Two years later, the case of two defendants reached the Supreme Court of the United States on appeal, with special counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Thurgood Marshall as their defense counsel. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a retrial after hearing the appeals of Shepherd and Irvin. It ruled they had not received a fair trial because no evidence had been presented, because of excessive adverse publicity, as well as because black people had been excluded from the jury. The court overturned the convictions and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial.
In November 1951, Sheriff Willis V. McCall of Lake County, Florida shot Irvin and Shepherd while they were in his custody and handcuffed together. McCall claimed they had tried to escape while he was transporting them from Raiford State Prison back to the county seat of Tavares for the new trial. Shepherd died on the spot; Irvin survived and later told FBI investigators that McCall had shot them in cold blood and that his deputy, Yates, had also shot him in an attempt to kill him. Harry Moore called for the Governor of Florida to suspend McCall. On Christmas Night 1951, a bomb went off below Moore’s house, fatally wounding both him and his wife; he died that night and his wife followed nine days later. The bombers were never caught.
At the second trial, Irvin was represented by Marshall and again convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. In 1955, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison by recently elected Governor LeRoy Collins. He was paroled in 1968, but died the next year in Lake County, purportedly of natural causes. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and lived with his family until he died in 2012. In 2016, the City of Groveland and Lake County each apologized to survivors of the four men for the injustice against them. On April 18, 2017, a resolution of the Florida House of Representatives requested that all four men be exonerated. The Florida Senate quickly passed a similar resolution; lawmakers called on Governor Rick Scott to officially pardon the men. On January 11, 2019, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency voted to pardon the Groveland Four. Newly elected Governor Ron DeSantis subsequently did so. On November 22, 2021, Judge Heidi Davis granted the state’s motion to posthumously exonerate the men.
Rank injustice like the Groveland Boys has been a part of the American judicial system since our founding. Much of it has been centered around the abiding role of prejudice, be it racial, religious, economic, or other forms of prejudice.
The question we constantly have to ask ourselves as Americans is: do we believe such prejudice means the justice system is lost entirely? Do we believe it cannot be recovered?
Certainly one of the main people at the center of the Groveland cases believed the justice system could be changed for the better. “The process of democracy is one of change. Our laws are not frozen into immutable form, they are constantly in the process of revision in response to the needs of a changing society.” Even knowing the fundamental injustice of the Groveland cases more intimately than anyone, he persisted in seeking change through the judicial system. He did not denigrate the juries he knew to be wrong but pressed into the possibilities for change in the hopefulness of a reckoning over civil rights.
Some have wrestled with the justice system and arrived at the conclusion that everything needs to be restarted or torn down or what have you. But where does that leave advocacy? Where does that leave hope for change?
In the American project of constant renewal, in the hope of democracy providing the opportunity for us to constantly better ourselves, I still believe our justice system can work. If it cannot work, and we think it cannot work because of Donald Trump’s arrests, then what are we advocating for when we try to change laws? Why be pro-life regarding the law, if nothing matters and it is all too corrupt anyway?