A jury of his peers

December 02, 1993|By James Lileks

EVERY time we get a spate of Supreme Court decisions, there are always a few losers -- cases that the court just plain refuses to hear. The justices rarely give a reason, which is probably a good thing. You'd lose faith if judges said they refused to hear a case because it was "too depressing" or it "had many large, confusing words."

But sometimes you really do wonder what criteria the court uses. The case of Bernard McCummings, millionaire goon, is a perfect example.

In 1984, Mr. McCummings was injured on the job in the New York subway system, and sued the city for the usual millions. A jury awarded him $4.3 million dollars. Standard stuff, right?

Well, Mr. McCummings' profession was thrashing old people and stealing their money, and he was injured when a cop chased him and put a bullet through his spine. Paralyzed, he sued, and won. The city appealed, and now the Supreme Court has ended the case. Mr. McCummings is a millionaire.

This isn't surprising. When it comes to handing out the public RTC money, juries do it with a steam shovel. Sue the city for providing an unsafe work environment where "sharp-edged, unsecured pieces of paper" led to "painful cuts" and your average jury will back the Brinks truck up to your front door.

But cases like these make you wonder what sort of dunderheads are sitting on juries. And the answer is: New Yorkers! The best kind! Decades of gooey blatherings about the need to treat the criminal with weepy compassion have left New Yorkers deeply confused about crime. They loathe the one theoretical thug who could rob them tomorrow, but they hold the criminal class blameless, regarding them as victims of capitalist perfidy.

These notions collided in the last mayoral election, where a common line of opposition to Rudy Giuliani was his past life as a federal prosecutor. Imagine! He put people in jail for a living! Start laying the rails to the camps if he's elected! The fear of Rudy the Just was so great that one youth interviewed after the election said he now stood a greater chance of going to jail than to college. Well, if you intend on paying for your tuition by sticking a knife into old ladies, perhaps.

Put these people in a safe, well-lighted jury box instead of on a dark, dead-end street and an odd thing happens. They see a Symbol, not a person. Mr. McCummings was a Symbol of the hurtful, demeaning oppression criminals face at the hands of the law. No doubt the jury felt that it was perhaps rash of Mr. McCummings to pummel a 72-year-old man to the consistency of steak tartar, but the police had no right to shoot a fleeing victim of society. What the policeman should have done was this:

A) Run after him, shouting I UNDERSTAND!

B) Read him his rights, including the right to post bond, jump bond, disappear, rob countless other people, have a drunken argument with a confederate, get shot and end up in an emergency room, nursed back to health at public expense.

C) Apologize for putting on the handcuffs, explaining that if he finds them demeaning, he can file an application for counseling to help him deal with the blows to his self-image.

D) Carry Mr. McCummings back to the squad car, because he's probably exhausted from all that running.

L D) Provide make-up and flattering lighting for the mug shot.

E) Testify at the trial that Mr. McCummings showed excellent fleeing skills, and should be given probation and a slot at the Olympic marathon.

F) Take up a collection at the station to buy Mr. McCummings a car, so he won't be tempted by the people in the subway, some of whom undoubtedly are guilty of hiding legally earned money in their pockets.

In other words: When they say protect and serve, it has to mean the crooks, too. Otherwise we risk polarizing society between the haves and have-nots -- specifically, those who have criminal records, and those who don't.

Maybe the Supreme Court passed on this one because they figured that justice was served. People who dole out millions to ballistically challenged criminals deserve the society they get. There were no flaws in the case. Think of it: Mr. McCummings robbed an innocent citizen. The jury stuffed millions of tax dollars in his pocket.

Obviously, the man got a jury of his peers.

James Lileks wrote this for Newhouse News Service.

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