In pursuit of justice, we must not trample rights of the accused

December 09, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- What does Khaled al-Masri of Germany have in common with Stanley "Tookie" Williams of California and Steven Avery of Wisconsin? Each offers a bracing example of why, in pursuit of justice, we need to respect the inescapable ability of human beings to make mistakes.

A big mistake was made in Mr. al-Masri's case. He's the German national of Lebanese descent who Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed to German leaders was mistakenly snatched into America's anti-terrorist snare on New Year's Eve 2003 during a vacation trip in Macedonia, all because his name sounded like that of an al-Qaida suspect.

In a lawsuit, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. al-Masri says he was taken to a U.S. prison in Afghanistan, where he was tortured and interrogated until March 2004, when authorities realized they had the wrong man. Still, he is reported to have been held for two more months before being flown to Albania, where he made his way back to Germany.

However his lawsuit turns out, Mr. al-Masri's case illustrates the worst fears of fair-minded Americans. Human rights need to be respected, even in pursuit of terrorists who show no respect for anyone's rights but their own. After all, if we don't respect human rights, what does that make us?

The al-Masri case also illustrates the real reason why I don't think celebrity death row inmate Stanley "Tookie" Williams, co-founder of Los Angeles' infamous Crips street gang, should be executed as scheduled Tuesday.

Now 51, Mr. Williams has changed his ways, by all accounts, and that's good to know. But he is hardly the first bad guy to have a death row conversion.

I oppose Mr. Williams' execution for the same reason that polls have shown declining support nationwide for executions in recent years: I've seen too many people sent to death row by mistake.

In Illinois, 18 men and women were exonerated by the late 1990s, leading former Gov. George Ryan to empty the state's death row of its 164 prisoners.

All of which brings me to Steven Avery.

Mr. Avery was freed two years ago by DNA evidence from a rape conviction reopened by the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

After a missing woman's remains were found recently in a salvage yard owned by his family, Mr. Avery was accused of her murder. Calumet County sheriff's police say a sport utility vehicle that belonged to Teresa Halbach, who disappeared Oct. 31, contained her blood and Mr. Avery's, though Mr. Avery denied ever being inside her vehicle.

At a time when the death penalty appears to be losing ground, advocates for executions have seized on the Avery case to argue ... what? Do they really want to jail people for crimes they have not committed on the off chance that another crime might be avoided?

Of course, Mr. Avery's earlier conviction makes him a poor poster child for revoking the Constitution's protections against preventive detention. Convicted of rape in 1985, Mr. Avery was freed in 2003 after new DNA testing of a pubic hair found on the victim linked the crime to another man already in prison for another sexual assault.

Most of the death row inmates who have been exonerated have not been accused of new murders. Focusing on one who has is like focusing on an airliner that has crashed: It's news, but only because it is not typical of what usually happens.

More typical is another nagging reality: Punishing the wrong suspect also leaves the real one not only unpunished but also free to commit more crimes. When we shortchange the rights of the accused, we dilute our ability to protect ourselves.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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