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Legal Briefs

Aired January 12, 2003 - 08:19   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Pardons and blanket clemency by Illinois's outgoing governor is sure to fuel some legal fires. But that's not the only hot issue on our docket this morning. Joining us from New York now are trial attorney and talk show host Michael Smerconish and "Court TV's" Catherine Crier, host of "Crier Today."
Thanks, guys, for being here. And as we mentioned in the break, try not to hurt each other, all right?


COLLINS: All right. Let's go ahead and get to, at least in the legal realm of things, the biggest story of the week, which was clearly Governor George Ryan's decision to first pardon four inmates and then just yesterday announce the commutations of 157 more inmates in Illinois. Michael, why don't you tell us what you think about this? You like the idea?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, TALK SHOW HOST: No. Yesterday I said that I was troubled by the whole concept, and today I'm outraged by it. You know, the guy who is probably going to end up in the pokey is Governor Ryan, because there's scandal and mismanagement all around him when he was the head of the state department in that particular state. And I think that it's horrible that with one blanket executive order that he has released from death row all of these individuals instead of approaching it on a case by case basis. I'm a death penalty proponent, and I think he owes an apology to all of the families and victims of the case.

COLLINS: And Catherine, how about you?

CRIER: OK. Well, I'm a death penalty opponent. I was a prosecutor. The last case I was supposed to try before I left the DA's office ended up nine years later in a case of mistaken identity. This woman spent nine years on death row.

I'm very pragmatic about this. It's not the moral argument. It costs too much money, we make human error, it's not an infallible system. We have executed innocent people.

Why don't we quit this debate, life without parole, lock them up 24/7, which I think is a greater punishment, and we can get on with other things. Now this is not precedent for other states. The governor has taken his own action, but I think this is something we ought to be doing around the country.

COLLINS: Do you think the victims families have a say in that, Catherine?

CRIER: Our system is set up where we represent the people as prosecutors, the country as prosecutors. Victims have certainly a right to come speak out in court. But each individual case is not to compensate those left behind, as tragic as is. It is to have a system of justice that applies to all of us over the country.

SMERCONISH: But see, Heidi, people talk and Catherine talks about the delay that's been involved and the cost that's been involved. If we utilize the death penalty and really put the thing into practice, I don't think we would have these years of appeals. Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia murders Danny Faulkner, and for 20 years there's been an appeal ongoing. I think what we need to do is to shorten the appellate procedure and to really use the penalty. And to give in to the cost is to simply wave a white flag to the death penalty opponents, and I'm not comfortable with that.

CRIER: But tragically, it takes on average eight years to discover errors in case files. And we're talking about not technical errors to get somebody off, but finding those who were actually, actually innocent. Besides that, when we're talking about cost, that's you and I, that's the taxpayers out there.

There are about 3,200 people on death row. It costs over $1 million on average to try each one of these cases. We could incarcerate them for life and feed them pancakes and never let them out of the cells for a lot less money. Aren't we still getting our vengeance?

SMERCONISH: Let me say that if there's one area I'm prepared to pay more in taxes for, it's to put some of these dogs down.


COLLINS: OK guys, let's move on.

CRIER: If you gave me a choice between the death penalty and telling me you were locking me up the rest of my life, I'd say kill me.

SMERCONISH: But you'd never end up there; that's the good news.

COLLINS: All right. Let's move on to Newark. I don't know how else to say it, but just an absolutely tragic story there. Sherry Murphy, while serving a sentence for abuse of another child, Melinda Williams is taking care of the three young sons of Sherry Murphy. One little boy was found dead, two others abused.

A 16-year-old was arrested in the case. We're trying to figure out what will come of that. The issue here, among many other things, may be the caseworker. Apparently overworked. Michael, do you agree with that or do you think that's rubbish?

SMERCONISH: Well that's the easy explanation, because the caseworker in Newark apparently had, you know 107 files instead of 17 files. Here's the question that I'm asking: where are the fathers? Do you know that 70 percent of all the births at this Newark hospital, when it comes time for the birth certificate to be filled out as to name of dad, 70 percent of them they can't fill it in because they don't know. There's a social problem here. And I want to know where the hell are these families and why aren't they involved?

CRIER: Well I agree with that completely. Unfortunately, we also have to look at who is out there that we have to take care of now before we can get the new generations up to comply with that. And I remember (UNINTELLIGIBLE). There was a little girl that I investigated her death for ABC when I was still there, same situation. The caseworkers were all handling 70, 80 cases.

They would falsify documents because they couldn't make the house calls, they couldn't make the phone calls, and they were rewarded by closing files. Not by actually getting out there and doing their job. We're going to have to fund more workers, and please, lord, give them some training. These people oftentimes are not trained to take on these cases.

SMERCONISH: Heidi, they're not even computerized. Do you know that DYFS in New Jersey didn't even have a computer -- in this Internet age in which we live, they couldn't even go to a computer and track some of these kids. And that's why today they still don't know where a number of them are.

COLLINS: All right. Guys, we're going to move on to the last topic here: unfriendly fire. We have been talking about this with some of our generals who have been giving us a little bit of analysis on it. In fact, now we know that the families of one of the Canadian soldiers that were killed in April when an American fighter pilot -- actually, two of them -- dropped a bomb on them are now going to try to sue the U.S. government. Is this friendly fire or is it a question of whether or not these men, these pilots, were briefed on the fact that there was a live exercise going on down below -- Michael.

SMERCONISH: Well, I think it's outrageous that we have two majors, two air national guardsmen who have been charged with involuntary manslaughter as a result of this exercise. There was fire on the ground. It was a Canadian military exercise, and they just hadn't been briefed that this was going on.

Now the guy wanted to drop a bomb. He was told, hold fire. Ninety seconds later, he hasn't heard anything else, and so he drops a bomb because now again he thinks he's being fired on. What is it going to do to the morale of our troops if, in fact, we have a prosecution of these two guys in the case?

CRIER: Well, they did wrong. And in an airplane like that, a jet like that, to think that they are going come down with that so- called fire I think was a mistake. They are trying to defend themselves with the use of amphetamines, which is bringing on a whole new issue in the military. But...

COLLINS: This is not a new issue, Catherine. Those pills have been used for decades.

CRIER: Well exactly. But they are using it as a defense in this case, which is a new issue, trying to call them on the carpet. But you have got your B-52 pilots that have been using this stuff to fly 16 hours missions for a long time. These guys have been in the air six and a half hours.

But it's not a place to go for involuntary manslaughter. There are military repercussions. That's the pathway this should be taking. It's bad precedent.

SMERCONISH: The Canadians are upset. We're trying to politically appease the Canadians. That's not the way you handle it.

COLLINS: OK, guys. We're going to cut it off here. We certainly appreciate your time this morning. Animated discussions once again, no surprise. Thanks again, Michael Smerconish and Catherine Crier.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

CRIER: You bet.


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