The American system of justice strives, in fits and starts, toward fairness. Several features help achieve this goal: trial by jury, clear rules of evidence and others.
But a central element — perhaps the central element — of the American justice system is that it is weighed toward the defendant. In the United States, the burden of proof resides with the accuser, not the accused. This remarkable feature of our justice system sets the United States apart from totalitarian and authoritarian systems both present and past.
Crucial to this system is that defendants are entitled to the strongest possible defense. John Adams certainly realized that. The Founding Father and second U.S. president was no fan of the king's rule, yet as a lawyer he defended British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, a brawl on the streets of Boston on the frigid, snowy evening of March 5, 1770, that ended with several Americans dead. Mr. Adams believed that every defendant, however greatly hated, is entitled to a defense. Otherwise our system of justice becomes a system of injustice.
It's safe to say Harvard Law School professor Ronald Sullivan realizes this too. Mr. Sullivan, a distinguished professor of criminal law, has helped defend several defendants accused of heinous crimes. In 2016, he led the defense of Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot who was tried and ultimately convicted of a double murder. And until recently Mr. Sullivan was helping to defend Harvey Weinstein, the former Hollywood mogul facing rape charges.
For the "transgression" of defending a widely despised figure, Mr. Sullivan has been subject to a torrent of abuse at Harvard and even professional censure. Mr. Sullivan had been the first black dean at Harvard to preside over a dormitory, but he (along with his wife) was stripped of that post. Harvard bowed to pressure from a mob of students who felt "threatened" by Ronald Sullivan because he dared play an important part in the functioning of the American justice system. (Mr. Sullivan also left the Weinstein defense team.)
"(W)hen Mr. Sullivan joined the defense team of Mr. Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, in January, many students expressed dismay, saying his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified Mr. Sullivan from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students," The New York Times reported. "As the protests continued, with graffiti aimed at Mr. Sullivan appearing on a university building, Harvard administrators said they would conduct what they called a climate review of Winthrop House. In recent weeks, tensions have escalated, with a student sit-in and a lawsuit sparked by a clash between one of the protest leaders and two Winthrop House staff members who were seen as supporting Mr. Sullivan."
It is disturbing that students at Harvard would fail to understand that Mr. Sullivan's defense of Harvey Weinstein hardly means he is endorsing his alleged transgressions. But it is perhaps more disturbing that the administration at Harvard ultimately stripped him of his post. Rather than stand up to the mob and defend a beleaguered faculty member who was simply filling a valuable societal role, Harvard caved.
This alarming incident at one of the nation's top law schools bodes ill for the future of our free society. What would John Adams, himself a Harvard alum, think?
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD
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