The current story in the Wall Street Journal about how prosecutors in Milwaukee during an alleged political vendetta allegedly ruined the finances and employment prospects of Kelly Rindfleisch, 45, a former midlevel official in the Wisconsin governor’s office, over a misdemeanor e-mail infraction of sending of fundraising e-mails from her personal computer while employed in a government building, has generated outrage.
When the chief of staff to the Illinois governor made a similar e-mail infraction in 2010, he stepped down, but was not prosecuted.
The Milwaukee example dramatizes the plight of many poor people entangled as witnesses in criminal and drug investigations, whose lives are ruined as collateral damage, with little recourse. There are few checks on prosecutorial power in our society except the press, and few consequences for those prosecutors lacking a sense of proportion who may abuse their power. Many, many more people have been and are caught in predicaments like Ms. Rindfleisch.
The first purpose for the secrecy of grand juries is to protect the rights of citizens before felonies are charged, not to shield prosecutorial overkill or to make those prosecutors who abuse their powers unaccountable to anyone.
Years ago, Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote an article about how he learned over time not to completely destroy with his journalism the life of a common, everyday person who made a mistake, to relent, and to not totally ruin the life of some “poor slob” who fouled up and had already suffered the consequences.
Erich Fromm once described totalitarian societies as societies without mercy, without forgiveness. Those who make politics a blood sport, and who destroy the lives of common citizens for no good reason, erode the very democratic nature of our society.
It is time for Congressional hearings on prosecutorial abuse. But it is also time for a wider, bipartisan discussion of how such abuse hurts innocent people, thus eroding justice and our confidence in our government.
As Euripides said in his play Trojan Women, “What the law permits, let shame forbid!”
© Copyright 2014, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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