No 'Mad Hatter' trial

January 25, 1998|By Jonathan Kirsch

STRANGE as it may seem, America owes Theodore J. Kaczynski a debt of gratitude. By pleading guilty to murder charges, the Unabomber has spared us all the sorry spectacle of a murder trial in which the defendant is opined to be a paranoid schizophrenic and at the same time competent to face a jury.

The Kaczynski trial was shaping up as yet another travesty of justice, no less a media circus than the criminal prosecution of O. J. Simpson and, even more to the point, the Long Island Rail Road shooter, Colin Ferguson. The Unabomber proceedings had not even reached opening statements before Kaczynski turned his murder trial into guerrilla theater, demonstrating his NTC demented state of mind by stalwartly insisting that, contrary to the opinions of his own lawyers, he was perfectly sane.

Judge Garland Burrell, counseled by a federal prison psychiatrist, tried to fashion a Solomonic solution to the dilemma presented by Kaczynski, ruling that the defendant was sane enough to be tried for murder but not quite sane enough to act as his own attorney.

Thus, the stage was set for a trial where the defendant would have been at war with the prosecution, his own lawyers and -- in a real sense -- the system of government that was seeking his life.

The trial of Colin Ferguson is perhaps the best example of how the Unabomber trial might have turned out. Despite the good intentions and best efforts of the judge and counsel, Ferguson succeeded in turning the orderly ritual of a criminal trial into a kind of "Mad Hatter's" tea party.

What we have learned over the past several years of media overkill in court coverage is that trial is a show trial, at least in the sense that our system of jurisprudence is meant to show us that the process of justice is being done. Almost by definition, a fair trial is one that persuades us that the verdict resulted not from passion or prejudice but the orderly, rational and considered process of weighing the evidence.

Lower temptations

When the participants in a trial succumb to the temptation to sensationalize or speechify or just act like raving lunatics, when the consideration of evidence and argument is subtly undermined by appeals to ignorance or bigotry or sheer lunacy, no one comes away from the courtroom (or perhaps more aptly, Court TV) with the sense that justice has been done.

Such was the damage that the Unabomber was prepared to inflict on a system of justice that he apparently loathes as much as airlines, universities and high-technology companies. By pleading guilty to the charge that he used homemade mail bombs to murder two innocent victims and maim two others, Kaczynski trades the showcase of an Alice in Wonderland trial for the certainty that he will not die in the gas chamber.

For that reason alone, of course, we might conclude that if Kaczynski is crazy, he is crazy like a fox.

Jonathan Kirsch, a California lawyer, wrote this for Newsday. He is author of ''The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.''

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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