Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that a surviving member of a team that killed more than a dozen people in San Bernardino is brought to trial in San Bernardino. Imagine that outside the courthouse, angry protesters are demonstrating and that their chants can be heard in the very courtroom where the trial is occurring. Finally, assume (as seems to be the case) that this was a terrorist attack, and that the trial judge made his name prosecuting terrorists.
In this scenario, isn’t it likely that many civil libertarians and others on the left would be complaining that the defendant might not get a fair trial? I think it is.
I haven’t heard such complaints from the left about the trial in Baltimore of Officer William Porter. Yet the chanting of an angry Baltimore mob has penetrated into the courtroom where Porter stands trial, and the trial judge, Barry Williams, made his name prosecuting the same type of charges leveled at Officer Porter — criminal police misconduct.
There are a few differences between Porter’s trial and the hypothetical San Bernardino trial I described. Porter is an African-American police officer with a good record; he is not a terrorist. Porter is accused of being insufficiently attentive to complaints of a street criminal with a reputation for asserting false claims of injury upon arrest. The hypothetical defendant in San Bernardino is accused of mass murder.
I don’t contend that Porter is entitled to a fairer trial than the hypothetical defendant, but surely his trial shouldn’t be less fair.
Porter may end up getting a fair trial. The jurors may be able to filter out the protesters and disregard the threat that their city will face more riots if they don’t convict. The former police-prosecuting judge may prove the very model of fairness and if he doesn’t, it may not affect the verdict.
But the appearance of unfairness is already present. I wouldn’t wish it on a defendant in a terrorist case tried in a regular court in this country, and it’s disturbing to see it in the trial of a police officer whose allegedly criminal conduct consisted solely of acts of omission.