One Toke over the Line

03-31-2019Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Now that Mueller Madness is over, we can all go back to ordering Russian dressing on our salads or even extra Russian dressing on those corned beef specials. One thing that always gets my goat about prosecutors is that they often take it a step too far, they just can’t seem to help themselves. Mueller did it by writing in his report that he couldn't find the evidence to bring an obstruction of justice charge but he wasn't exonerating the President either. A statement like that is over the line, unprofessional, unethical and defamatory. But prosecutors do it all the time, Mueller is no exception. It’s just their way of twisting the knife.

When prosecutors charge a person, have them do the perp walk and plaster their picture all over the media and then later the case falls apart and charges are dropped, prosecutors will often say things like, “well the guy was a punk anyway” or “he was the type of person who would have committed this type of crime”. Or after a trial and the jury delivers an acquittal, prosecutors don't usually accept defeat graciously but will make statements such as, “this acquittal doesn't prove his innocence, but only that we couldn't prove he did it”. They’re quick to remind us that “not guilty” does not necessarily equate with innocence.

I saw a lot of this when I worked in Prisons & Jails. One case comes to mind, in which two men were fingered for the crime of rape and murder of a young woman in an upscale area of town. But right away things didn't seem to add up: none of the evidence, fingerprints, blood stains, hair, semen matched the accused. But still the Prosecutor insisted they were guilty. Soon afterwards the Cardinal Archbishop received a letter from an inmate which he forwarded to me to respond to (which he usually did for all inmate correspondence). The inmate claimed that one of the suspects in this case had confessed to him while they were being held in the same jail. His dilemma was that he didn't know if he should testify because he was married to the accused’s mother. The inmates name was familiar to me as he was well known as a jail house informant. So much so that he was nick-named “the Monsignor” since he heard more confessions than a priest. Realizing the red flags, namely, that he might be lying to get a “get out of jail free card”, I responded to him by not telling him what he should do but giving him some principles by which to make his decision.

Pretty soon after that the Prosecutor let it be known that they had a star witness who could testify that one of the suspects confessed to him about the crime and not only that but he had a letter of endorsement from the Cardinal to do so. Needless to say, the Cardinal was surprised to hear that he had given his blessing. So, I called the Judge in the case and told her that the inmate did not have a letter or endorsement from the Cardinal but rather a letter from me and that I did not endorse his testimony. So, the Judge made the Prosecutors produce the letter and then subsequently instructed them to stop saying the Cardinal had endorsed his testimony. Next day the headline on the front page of the newspaper read in bold black letters: PRIEST FED UP WITH CONFESSIONS! I can tell you it’s never a good day when you are the headline. That put a fly in the ointment of the Prosecutors case and she was none too happy with me for de-canonizing her saintly jail-house snitch. As a result, my phones were tapped, an investigator was put on me, I guess to dig up dirt to discredit me if I were to testify (which I never planned to). Thankfully I lived a pretty boring life. The case went to trial, this was a first-degree murder with the death penalty case, and the jury after only 20 minutes of deliberation delivered a not guilty verdict. Years later the real killer was found and confessed to the murder and the blood, hair, DNA and fingerprints all matched him. But at the time all the Prosecutor could say was that the two defendants were thugs and probably got away with murder, with my help. No, maybe we fingered the wrong guys and we should look for the real killer. They closed the case and no further investigation would be forth coming which left the victim’s family distraught.

Our system of justice with its “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a high bar. Which means at times the guilty get off. But the reason for such a high bar is to ensure that the innocent are not victims of injustice. Remember we give prosecutors tremendous powers which require the highest level of accountability and control despite how that high bar might frustrate prosecutors. If not then we can all fall victim to trumped up charges, which is exactly what this whole Russian Collusion episode was.

So here’s the lesson: it is never a good idea to antagonize a prosecutor nor to malign the prosecutors best bud (Comey). Because even if the prosecutor can’t land a knock-out punch he has plenty of ways of leaving you with a black eye. The President couldn't resist taking personal swipes against the Prosecutor and his best bud, so what goes around comes around and in turn the Special Prosecutor took it one toke over the line. And now the issue of obstruction will dog the President for time to come and the rest of us will be subject to an endless series of investigations parsing the idea that someone could obstruct justice for a crime that the same prosecutor demonstrated never happened.

Fr. John B