One day after Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbeki immigrant, killed eight people in Lower Manhattan by running them over in a rented vehicle, President Donald Trump tweeted—the modern-day press release (in all capitals, no less)—that Saipov should get the death penalty. A day later he repeated his call that Saipov should be executed.
In 2016, during the election cycle, candidate Trump referred to Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl as a “dirty rotten traitor,” calling him “the worst,” saying that he was a “piece of garbage,” and a “son of a bitch.” He incorrectly called Bergdahl “a very bad person who killed six people.” He then advocated that Bergdahl “should be shot” and reminisced that “in the good old days, he would have been executed.”
A military judge denied a request by Bergdahl’s lawyers to dismiss the charges against him but indicated that the president’s comments would be taken into consideration as mitigation when sentencing Bergdahl. While the legal impact the president’s tweets will have on the ability of Saipov to get a fair and impartial jury seated in his case remain to be seen, it should not be debatable that the chief executive of the country must refrain from interjecting his or her personal views on the outcome of a criminal case.
This proclivity for putting a thumb on the scales of justice isn’t a new feature of politics introduced by our current president. Our former governor, Jodi Rell, vetoed a death penalty abolition bill in Connecticut, citing the lone survivor of a horrible triple-murder and home invasion. Former state Sen. Edith Prague famously suggested that we forgo a trial for the second accused (she used the term “animal”) in that triple murder and instead “hang him by his penis from a tree out in the middle of Main Street.”
There is nothing more insidious than an elected politician publicly advocating for a full-throated abandonment of the core principles of our justice system. Our justice system is built on the notion that every single person, no matter how vile or depraved, must be presumed innocent. Our nation prides itself on the idea that every single person deserves a fair and public trial. These are two of the defining features that we as Americans love to boast about in our justice system.
Yet our leaders are all far too quick to abandon this love of American Justice for the adoration of incensed masses who are too blinded by patriotic fervor to notice the erosion of their own individual rights. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, dissenting in United States v. Rabinowitz, “that the safeguards of liberty have frequently been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.” Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissenting in United States v. Salerno, reminded us that upholding the presumption of innocence is difficult and sometimes we must pay substantial societal costs to do so. He cautioned that “the shortcuts we take with those whom we believe to be guilty injure only those wrongfully accused and, ultimately, ourselves.”
Our president, our politicians and, indeed, all of us would be wise to heed his advice. We must not give in to our baser instincts and cheer on the erosion of the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, impartial trial simply because we do not like the accused or the act committed. If we mean what we say about our love for our country and its freedoms, then we must do our best to insist on these American rights, especially for those who hurt us.