Trump’s Tweets Calling for Death Penalty Disrupt Fairness of the American Criminal Justice System

Home Depot Truck Used in NYC Attack

Sayfullo Habibullaevic SaipovOn Tuesday,  Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov killed eight people and injured several more when he drove a pickup truck onto a bike lane in lower Manhattan. The act is being described as the city’s first terror attack since 9/11.

It is probably not surprising that the current Commander-in-Chief has since taken to Twitter to express his opinion about the incident. In his many tweets, President Trump has expressed his desire for federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Saipov.

The death penalty process in America is not particularly swift. According to one analysis, the average death row inmate will spend approximately 17 years on death row before they are actually executed for their crime(s). In some cases, death row inmates can spend upwards of 25, 30, or even 40 years in solitary confinement waiting for their executions to be carried out. This is especially true for high-profile criminal defendants who have a considerable amount of national attention.

When Trump publically called for the death penalty against Saipov, you could almost hear the frustrated sighs of federal lawmakers, prosecutors, and attorneys across the country. Federal prosecutors will now face the additional challenge of finding an unbiased jury pool for this trial. Saipov’s criminal defense team will undoubtedly use Trump’s public call for the death penalty to argue that the jury pool has been tainted. This will most certainly extend the already lengthy death penalty process.

Why does it matter that the jury pool is untainted? Can a jury pool in today’s digital and on-demand world truly be unbiased? Crimes, especially ones of such a large magnitude, are frequently discussed and dissected on the evening news. It is not unrealistic to believe that every potential juror could have already formed an opinion about such a newsworthy event. Does it really matter that the President of the United States voiced his opinion about the matter, too?

In short, it really does. The President holds a powerful office and his voice is quite persuasive. Offering such a strong opinion about how a case should unfold places a lot of pressure on the criminal justice system. Jurors may have been given the opportunity to learn about the incident and hear from journalists. However, they could digest this information and make a decision for themselves. When arguably the most powerful person in the country makes such a bold statement about how a criminal trial should end, it is conceivable that it will have a persuasive effect on potential members of the jury.

The purpose of a criminal trial is to weigh the facts, evidence, and circumstances of an alleged crime to determine the guilt of the accused. There are specific rules and procedures that dictate how this criminal trial will unfold. Prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys must walk a fine line when they make statements, ask questions, and introduce evidence. This process has been designed and fine-tuned to help ensure that a criminal defendant’s rights are protected and that the process is fair. When the President of the United States makes bold statements about a criminal defendant before his trial, the likelihood of achieving a fair trial is slim.  

The death penalty is the ultimate punishment. The primary reason that death row inmates sit in prison for such a long period of time between sentencing and execution is because we, as a country, want to make sure that the process is fair and certain. There are mitigating factors that could be unknown to the public, and a criminal trial can help to ensure that we only execute those individuals who acted with purpose, malice, and intent. As a country, we are hesitant to execute individuals who have not been given a fair trial or who exhibit mental deficiencies.

The purpose of a criminal trial is to make sure that the accused is given a fair hearing and sentenced to the penalty that is most appropriate for the crime they have committed. Even those defendants who are clearly guilty of heinous crimes, like Saipov for mowing down nearly twenty people in Manhattan, are given the opportunity to wade through this process.  You can release someone from prison who has been wrongfully convicted, but you cannot bring someone back to life. When we, as a country, execute someone for their crime, we want to make sure that they had a fair chance to defend themselves. When the call for an execution comes from the very top, that fair chance vanishes.

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