The State At Its Best

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An argument for the existence of government is that it provides justice for its citizens. That presupposes that we cannot achieve justice on our own, an idea that is carefully inculcated in us from childhood. "You can’t take the law into your own hands," is a shibboleth that is rarely questioned, although it would be hard to find hands more entitled to seize the law than those of a wronged party. It also presupposes that a justice system cannot exist except as an agency of government,

Even so, there are many who would tolerate government if it were, in fact, a protector of the rights of the people. Perhaps Larry Johnson would count himself among them.

Johnson was recently released from prison in Missouri after serving eighteen years for rape. The state, in an unusual move, flew Johnson to his home in St. Louis after his release from the prison in rural Cameron. Maybe that was the state’s way of saying "sorry," because Johnson hadn’t committed the rape for which he served eighteen years. It looks as though that’s about as much compensation as he’s going to get.

Johnson’s innocence was established by DNA testing. Since this procedure has come into use, 109 men have been released from wrongful incarceration; twelve of them have been compensated by the state which wrongfully imprisoned them. With few exceptions, those who have been imprisoned wrongly have little recourse.

Adele Bernhardt teaches law, specializing in compensation statutes. "Wrongful conviction cases are lots of times just unfortunate accidents," she says. The innocent prisoner is simply collateral damage. Sorry about that!

Missouri, for instance, is one of thirty-five states without a statute guaranteeing compensation for the wrongfully convicted. As if that weren’t enough, prosecutors and law enforcement officials are usually immune from lawsuits, state or federal, as long as they were doing their jobs. And should a compensation suit be filed, the legal complications and delays can means years of frustration and expense, with no guarantee of success, despite what seems an open-and-shut case.

It’s quite understandable, really. The prosecutors and police were simply doing their jobs, and the trial evidence was the best available at the time — prior to DNA testing. No malice involved, just one of those things.

Of course, a doctor sued for malpractice could make a similar claim. No malice involved, just doing his job. Sorry things didn’t work out. How well do you think that defense would do? Didn’t Adolph Eichmann claim that he was "just doing his job?"

Recall the lady who got a coffee-to-go from McDonald’s at the drive-through window, and put it between her legs? The coffee spilled, and she was burned. She sued (of course). Did McDonald’s avoid paying compensation because it was just doing its job, there was no evil intent, and there is no specific statute guaranteeing compensation to victims of hot coffee held in Styrofoam containers between the plaintiff’s legs?

Is there some general legal principle that guarantees one immunity for injuries inflicted in the course of one’s work? Or that a lawsuit cannot be brought in the absence of a specific statute permitting it? It would seem that such limitations do exist, but their applicability is very limited: only government officials can employ them.

Class-action lawsuits have found companies such as Ford liable for compensation to customers who were injured because of faulty design of its products. No one maintained that Ford specifically intended to hurt these customers, or that the company wasn’t "simply doing its job" in designing and manufacturing the automobiles. But it was claimed, probably correctly, that Ford knew of potential defects, and chose to ignore them. (Of course, it is hard to see how one could design a car that didn’t include some potential defects.) Is there a law professor willing to say "Wrongful death or injury cases are, lots of times, just unfortunate accidents?"

Couldn’t it also be claimed that prosecutors and police had to be aware that they were, inevitably, going to convict a number of innocent men and women? Did that stop them? Indeed, the very prosecutors who expressed shock and outrage that Ford would sell a product with known safety hazards, and thus should be held accountable, may have themselves sent innocent people to jail, with no shock or outrage at all when the truth emerged.

Larry Johnson was twenty-seven years old when he was convicted, wrongly, of rape. He was forty-five when released from prison in July, 2002, after proving his innocence. The state gave him a free plane ride home. That’s it, Larry. Good luck!

If governments have a reason to exist, it is, we’re told, to guarantee justice. When its own self-interest is involved, the state guarantees injustice. We’d be better off without it.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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