January 01, 2012

Advance Sheet: Gaining Perspective from Abroad

The French and British legal systems feature different standards of guilt and innocence than the American systems, and different standards for how the accused may be treated.

Robert E. Shapiro

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It was a scene worthy of the most corrupt Wall Street trader. On a May afternoon in 2011, police officers surprised an alleged wrongdoer in the midst of his working day, clasped him in handcuffs and, before a crowd of gawking bystanders, marched him off to jail in a show of law-enforcement zeal. With the media well notified in advance, the TV cameras rolled as the arrestee arrived at the processing center and was paraded for the world to see in the famed “perp” walk, an indignity that in some jurisdictions has become a standard feature of American criminal law. Its supporters tout its usefulness as a visible reminder to lawbreakers that they will pay a high price, including public humiliation, for their mistakes. Critics note that the practice seems to be favored particularly by those prosecutors dependent on the ballot box for their survival.

Whatever the motive, its impact is undoubtedly dramatic. Who could forget, after all, the scene early one snowy December morning in Illinois when a sitting governor was confronted by police officers on the stoop of his home, handcuffed unceremoniously and walked off to jail to face charges of having attempted to sell a seat in the United States Senate? No one can know for sure what role, if any, such memories had on the members of the Illinois legislature who later impeached and convicted Rod Blagojevich, removing him as governor, or on the federal jury that convicted him on multiple counts of corruption. Are we prepared to say it was a negligible one?


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