Friday, August 31, 2007
Free Larry Craig!
Jose Luis Vela of Alton, Texas stands accused of sexually assaulting two men during parties at his house. On the strength of criminal complaints from the two alleged victims, Vela was arrested, and investigators from the Sheriff's Department "searched his home and office for evidence that would corroborate witness statements," reported local television affiliate KGBT.
As it happens, Vela is Alton's chief of police, and the alleged victims are his employees. The latter claim that they were assaulted during parties at Vela's home that involved the use of alcohol and drugs taken from the property room at the police station.
This squalid affair -- which, unfortunately, seems typical of the troubled Alton municipal government -- offers a pretty good example of how a criminal investigation should unfold. There is the accusation of a specific crime (and a pretty horrific one) against individuals. A criminal complaint was sworn out, an arrest made on the basis of multiple witnesses, and once the suspect was taken into custody police began canvassing for evidence to substantiate the charges.
None of those elements can be found in the incident that led to Senator Larry Craig's guilty plea on charges of lewd and disorderly conduct.
As I have previously established, I offer no brief on behalf of either soon-to-be-ex-Senator Craig or homosexual conduct of any sort. One reason for my disenchantment with Craig has been the suspicion that his much-discussed moral weaknesses left him compromised, and this appears to be true of the incident leading to his arrest in Minneapolis last June and his subsequent guilty plea.
Had be not been so concerned with image maintenance and damage control, Craig most likely would have fought the charge in court, as he should have -- not only on his own behalf, but also as part of the fight against the relentless growth of pre-emptive law enforcement.
The only evidence against Craig is the unsupported word of the police officer who arrested him. This isn't enough to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly in a case involving conduct that is not, on its face, illegal. The conduct in question is (I'll be charitable) eccentric and unsettling, but only by supplying a subtext of dubious reliability can it be called "lewd."
It is significant that Craig told a consistent story during his interrogation. It is just as significant that the officer's clear strategy was to maneuver Craig into a guilty plea by using a solo version of the legendary "Good Cop/Bad Cop" dialectic. And there may be some justification to Craig's anguished claim that the cop "solicited" and thereby entrapped him.
"Trust me -- I know what I'm doing": Actually, Detective "Sledge" Hammer rarely did. He also generally forgot to yell "Freeze!" before shooting. Clearly, the star of that mid-80s sitcom was a man ahead of his time.
Consider a couple of critical statements from Sgt. Dave Karsnia, who has the utterly thankless assignment of patrolling the restrooms at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport:
*"I am trained in this, and I know what I am doing." (Am I the only one to hear an echo of Sledge Hammer's frequently uttered assertion of misplaced self-assurance, "Trust me -- I know what I'm doing"?)
*"I see it happen [the semaphore used to arrange homosexual bathroom trysts] every day out here now."
Like most people, I am gratefully unfamiliar with the covert signals used to conduct sexual transactions in public restrooms. I'd imagine that the same would be true of most jurors had Craig's case gone to trial, and those jurors would probably be inclined to defer to Karsnia as an expert witness. But he would be the only witness, as well as the sole accuser, regarding all of these charges.
A reasonably adept defense attorney could persuade a jury that someone as immersed as Karsina in the arcana of "cruising" can easily misinterpret innocuous behavior. Consider: A weary traveler of unusual physical stature, enters a restroom after a long flight and finds the stalls occupied. Understandably impatient, he peers into the stalls to see if one user is winding up his business.
Is this creepy and intrusive? Yes. Is it a prelude to a sexual overture? Not necessarily.
Once a stall becomes vacant, the traveler gratefully takes occupancy and -- wary of contaminating the slacks of his expensive suit on the bathroom floor -- assumes a "wide stance" that causes one of his feet to trespass in the adjoining stall.
Is this odd and unsettling? Sure. Is it a covert signal that means, "Come and get it"? Again, not necessarily.
But given Karsnia's background, an innocent action of that sort would likely be interpreted as a signal that the guy in the next stall over is cruising. That perception would color Karsnia's recollections of the encounter. And since Karsnia's recollections of what happened, and his "expert" analysis of those purported events, are all that the prosecution would have had if Craig had fought the charge in court, the Senator may well have been exonerated -- and should have. In fact, had Craig been willing to fight the charge, it may well have been dropped.
If he was as innocent as he now insists, Craig had a moral duty, as both a citizen and a self-described public servant, to fight the charge against him. Every innocent citizen has a moral duty not to reward abuses of state power by refusing to submit to unjust prosecution without a fight. That duty is even more pronounced on the part of those who call themselves our representatives.
On the same day he was pleaded guilty to the lewd and disorderly conduct charge, ironically, Craig volubly denounced the "Gestapo-like" tactics of the FBI in conducting a raid on the home of Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens, the GOP's paladin of pork.
He had a chance to do combat the police state, and flinched from the battle -- in all likelihood because he knew the charge would end his political career, even if he had been completely innocent.
That career was mortally wounded when Sgt. Karsnia flashed his shield beneath the partition separating him from Larry Craig. Since his career was over anyway, Craig had nothing more to lose if he had chosen to fight on behalf of principle. But he is a politician, and therefore not made of the stuff that inspires people to fight for principle.
The principle at the center of this sordid mess is alluded to in the thirty-eighth paragraph of the Magna Carta:
"No bailiff, on his own simple assertion, shall henceforth any one to his law, without producing faithful witnesses in evidence."
Agents of the state should not be able to convict citizens of crimes on the basis of their uncorroborated testimony. In our increasingly degenerate, authoritarian society, this kind of thing happens all the time, particularly when police are deployed to enforce "laws" that criminalize vices.
Had Craig fought the charges in court and won, I would have been the first to applaud him -- and then to demand his resignation.
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