Resources, time wasted in Tripp prosecution

August 05, 1999|By Robert Reno

SOL WACHTLER, former chief judge of New York, once said, "Any prosecutor who wants could indict a ham sandwich."

This became part of judicial folklore, a chilling reminder of how little removed every slob of a citizen is from the expense and grief of a criminal trial.

If Linda Tripp were a whole ham, she couldn't be less a threat to public safety. But, as Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser points out, she has the misfortune of always managing to look like she's chewing a rancid anchovy. For this and similar sins, she has become one of the most reviled women in America.

Poor Ms. Tripp had the rotten luck of working in the White House at a time when it became a fad to imagine there wasn't an unpleasant or naughty thing that couldn't be fit into the pages of an indictment or, in some cases, an impeachment, and that there was a criminal charge to match anything censorious, spiteful people disapprove of.

Not a typical case

In the real criminal world, what prosecutor's office would have wasted a single resource chasing down facts that involved a couple of silly career girls exchanging insipid office titter, some of it tape recorded, about consensual "sex" one of them had with a boss who never once got her into the sack?

As long as there's a single unsolved murder or case of extreme cruelty to an animal to be investigated in all Maryland, most of us would expect the prosecutor to throw Ms. Tripp's case in a file reserved for complaints about barking dogs. But, of course, when Congress starts hurling the dirty undergarments of a nation onto its front lawn, when Rep. Henry Hyde swoons about "the rule of law," what do we expect?

If a Free Linda Tripp movement develops, I will join it. Surely this is a case that could have been speedily plea-bargained down to an agreement in which Ms. Tripp agreed to smile more, stop chattering at the office and to cease and desist frequenting Radio Shack stores or associating with known airheads.

We have stuffed jails so full of nonviolent people that a higher percentage of our population is incarcerated than in any other civilized nation. The statute Ms. Tripp was indicted under was written to protect the privacy of people like Ms. Lewinsky. This is the screaming irony. Even before she wrote a vapid book invading her own, privacy wasn't exactly something Ms. Lewinsky desired. The celebrity-crazed woman came out of Beverly Hills craving the opposite.

Reconstruction-era defense

Meanwhile, Ms. Tripp's lawyers complicated things by advancing a cute idea known as the "ex-slave" defense. They assert her innocence based on an 1871 federal statute designed to -- get this -- protect witnesses who were former slaves. How's that?

I said I sympathize with this miserable, meddlesome woman but nobody suggested some sadistic plantation overseer drove her with a barrel stave to make such a wretched mess of her life.

Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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