Due Process Matters
Sheriff Terry Maketa, our previously well respected Sheriff of El Paso County, has been asked to resign by several public figures due to accusations of misusing his position. Though the sheriff and all three of the employees of the sheriff’s department accused of intimate relations with the sheriff have denied the allegations, some believe he should go ahead and resign.
If people do not resign, they are able to use the resources of the institution they are serving to ensure due process. In response to allegations, our sheriff emphasizes that a “fair and impartial investigation based on facts and law” will take place and he is insisting that everyone involved should “respect the legal process.”
He’s right. We as a civilization have worked for hundreds of years now to refine our process of determining truth, guilt, and consequences. We decided to start with the presupposition that people are innocent until proven guilty, that they have the right to defend themselves, and that their accusers have to present factual evidence of relevant wrongdoing. We continually work to refine an intricate process of determining which facts are relevant to any particular case, and who is permitted to decide if the allegations against someone are, in fact, applicable. Then, we try to thoughtfully determine the appropriate consequences we as a society should impose on those who violate the law. All of us should respect the processes we’ve established, and the continued evolution of these processes to improve them.
The press distorts this process, and the internet permanently records the distortion.
We instituted and defended the establishment of a free press believing it would protect us. The downside of a free press is that it is largely an unsupervised, unaccountable, maverick press. Because we hope their self-policing efforts are more effective than we would trust in the hands of any other institution, we in the general population read their papers and magazines, and watch or listen to their broadcasts. They influence us to the point that we wrongly believe we know enough about a subject to have an informed opinion. However, many of us who have had first hand knowledge of a situation and then contrast the facts we know with news accounts, too often, find the press inept.
Sheriff Maketa is saying, “let the process work.” The district attorney needs time to do his job. Federal officials and the county need time to establish facts. Only then, after professional investigations and legal reflection, consequences, if necessary, can be decided by appropriate authorities. Should the Sheriff resign, both he and his office would lose full participation and representation in the process.
In the midst of the media frenzy, it’s difficult to have long range judgment. But I think it’s important for all of us that Sheriff Maketa stay in office. I know from first hand experience that there will only be a fair hearing of the facts, and the facts will only have meaning, if he stays in office. Otherwise, the press and the web will spread every rumor and permanently record them, thus creating a permanent rumor-based record that will define the sheriff for the rest of his life, regardless of the facts, and without his having any due process or opportunity for response.
Let me give you a couple of examples of those who quit too soon, and those who kept going.
Judas and Peter both betrayed Jesus. Judas repented, but removed himself from any future representation by killing himself, effectively building a memorial to his betrayal in the minds of every generation since. Peter, in contrast, kept going. He also repented, but only 50 days after his betrayal of Christ, he began publicly preaching. He also wrote letters that are now in the Bible, and he became one of the best known apostles. He is now deeply revered and his betrayal has become only a small portion of his story, not the highlight. St. Peter’s Basilica is an enduring monument to his personal resurrection.
A more contemporary example might be Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon resigned, moved and California and died after Watergate, establishing the Watergate scandal as the only significant item in his life in most people’s minds. In contrast, Clinton’s scandal led to impeachment and disbarment. His offense was clearly an abuse of authority by a person in a position of trust and was followed by an official attempt to cover up, deceive the public and lie to investigators. Yet, we do not think of his violations as significant. Why? Because he kept going. He is a highly respected leader of the Democratic party and, polls show, if he could run again for president he would likely win. Bill Clinton’s scandal has diminished from the defining moment of his life to a chapter, then a page, and now a paragraph. In time, the Clinton scandal will, in effect, become a sentence.
Some of our most important American ideals are being threatened by people reading press reports and making judgments. I do not know anything about the innocence or guilt regarding our sheriff, but if he resigns, there will be a resounding presumption of guilt. No doubt, once the facts are established, we all support accountability and justice. We have a system for that, but if we are not careful, we all might unintentionally participate in the dismantling of that system by returning to, in effect, lynch mobs. Even if the accused is guilty, shouldn’t someone protect them from the crowd until the facts are established?