Published September 11, 2007
We live in a country of laws created out of a fundamental concern for the rights of all individuals. Our legal system is a complex structure of checks and balances meant to offer equal protection to all innocent parties.
As participants in this legal and judicial system, we must put our trust in the wisdom-- and sometimes, plain common sense-- of those who are sworn to uphold these laws and protect our rights.
It is important, of course, especially in the heat of a courtroom battle, to remember that all of the individuals – the defense attorney, the courtroom clerk, the expert witnesses, and most especially, the presiding judge – are just regular people when they are not on the job. They have good days and bad days and days when they no doubt bring their own concerns and thoughts to work with them – just as we all do.
But in the end, they have taken an oath and they are bound by a higher responsibility to respond to the facts of cases and make careful and just decisions. When they do not, they risk the loss of the trust of the very people they have sworn to serve. And when these individuals, upon whom we place a higher burden to make wise decisions, choose instead to interpret the law in a way that is both incomprehensible and ultimately disregards the interest of the victim in favor of the interest of the accused, they must be called to task.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, in the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Katherine Savage, charges against a Liberian immigrant accused of repeatedly raping and molesting a seven year old girl were dismissed after defense attorneys were able to delay a trial for over three years.
In general, the judges who preside over our courts strive to balance the laws of our constitution with the interests of all involved. And if this were the whole of the story, I might be inclined to give the judge the benefit of the doubt – allowing her some latitude in her interpretation of the 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial.
But as happens, far too often, in our legal system, the real story is one of legal loopholes and maneuvering that manage to obscure what should be a fundamental component of any judge’s decision: Basic. Common. Sense.
The defendant, Mahamu Kanneh, who had been granted asylum, had been living in the U.S. since 2001. Although he was born in Liberia, at a very young age he moved with his family to Guyana. He was living in Maryland at the time of his 2004 arrest. In fact, he’d been living in the United States long enough to finish high school and attend community college.
When he was arrested, he was read his rights and responded to the detectives. He was held overnight in prison and released on a $10,000 bond and the condition that he have no contact with minors.
Instead of moving swiftly to a trial, the state and the defense began repeated rounds of arguments over whether or not Kanneh needed an interpreter to fully understand the legal proceedings. A court-appointed psychiatrist was hired and recommended an interpreter who spoke Vai, a tribal language from West Africa, be provided for the defendant.
The first interpreter broke down in tears, dismayed by the horror of the charges. The second was deemed “faulty”. A third could not show up at the last moment because of a personal family emergency.
Finally, a suitable interpreter was found and sworn in. Shortly thereafter, the judge dismissed the case, saying that all the delays in the case had violated Kanneh’s right to a speedy trial. From the bench she claimed it was “one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in a long time.”
How can our legal system fail so spectacularly? And more importantly, who is accountable when the law decides to ignore certain facts: the defendant graduated from a community college in the United States; the defendant held a job in the United States; the defendant communicated with the police and his attorneys in English.
The defendant waived his right to a speedy trial. The defendant was not incarcerated and suffered no hardships while awaiting trial. Oh, and let’s not forget, the official language of Liberia is…English. Oh, and it’s the official language of Guyana as well.
So who is at fault for this corruption of the process of justice? Was it the court psychiatrist who assumed that the translation of the legal terms and concepts of the American judicial system, when translated to Vai (a tribal dialect of the defendant’s native Liberia), would give the defendant a more complete sense of the seriousness of the charges against him?
Was it the judge who ruled that a translator must be found? Was it the court clerk, who after three years time was unable to locate a suitable translator who spoke the dialect – despite the fact that as the story broke, the Washington Post was able to locate three Vai speakers, including one in the defendant’s hometown of Gaithersburg, MD?
Was it the grandstanding defense attorneys who managed to delay a trial for over three years – despite the fact that on their advice, their client waived his right to a speedy trial so they could conduct their own analysis of the DNA evidence?
Or does fault ultimately lie with the judge – a judge who hid behind the Constitution while ignoring the basic rules of the courtroom, such as allowing a hard-to-find interpreter to flee the courtroom because her job was distasteful, instead of demanding she comply with her sworn duties or risk charges of contempt.
A judge who was possibly weary of a case dragging out on an overfull docket, perhaps cynical herself about the due process of law, or simply ready to be done with adjudicating a crime so distasteful, so potentially inflammatory? When such an egregious wrong has been perpetuated in the justice system there can be no shirking from accountability.
And in an ironic footnote to this story: as soon as the charges against him were dismissed, what did the defendant immediately do? Skipped town and missed a court hearing to determine if he should have any conditions imposed on his release during an appeal by the prosecution. He was arrested as he attempted to escape when the police arrived at the residence in Philadelphia where he was staying. So perhaps the court system will get a second chance to get it right this time.
I contend that it is our right as Americans to be able to rely on the courts and those who serve the justice system. And although when I hear about a case such as the one above, I’m equal parts enraged and dismayed, I am not utterly without hope. We do have some wonderful jurists in this country, including, Fox News’s judicial analyst, Judge Napolitano.
While I hope that decisions such as the one made by Judge Savage in Maryland are not typical, when I hear of such a misguided interpretation of our laws, I cannot help but question the qualifications of the ruling official.
All too often, our methods of selecting judges can result in placing incompetent or corrupt individuals in positions where they wield power over citizens' lives. When judges are appointed to pay back a political debt, or nominated as a favor to someone in the system, we run the risk of installing individuals who lack the experience, the wisdom, and apparently, sometimes the simple common sense to protect the rights of the most innocent of victims.
When I hear of a case such as the one above, I have to ask: Where are our courts headed? It is a question every American citizen should ask – loudly and often. If those who wear the black robes become weak, then the system is doomed to fail. Decisions such as Judge Savage’s must be followed and not forgotten. All too often, a ruling perpetuates a further injustice, but the case is closed and never revisited again. In these days of outrageous violence, the courts must uphold our constitution, but not forget basic common sense. It is imperative that we demand accountability from those we entrust with our most fundamental rights.
Robert Massi has been a Fox News legal analyst covering high-profile court cases since 1998. He is the author of "People Get Screwed All the Time: Protecting Yoursel from Scams, Fraud, Identity Theft, Fine Print, and More" (Collins Books 2007), and the host of a popular Las Vegas radio show that focuses on everyday legal issues. He is a lawyer in private practice and is the founder of The Conscience of America, an organization dedicated to improving the way citizens are treated by the legal system.