Bias in the American Justice System? (Well….it depends….where are you from?)

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If you grew up in American public schools, or if you are a naturalized citizen, you probably know all about the 3 branches of government (Executive, Legislative and Judicial) our democratic system utilizes. You also very likely know about the United States Constitution providing us all, without partiality or bias, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to a fair trial; the right to confront one’s accusers; the right to an attorney…..all wonderful rights provided to all, regardless of origin, in what is presumably the most democratic nation on earth.

You’re also aware of the Civil Rights movement, which ultimately led to the abolition of segregation. Those of us who have grown up after the 1960’s and ‘70’s (especially in the North), have been fortunate not to have witnessed any real racism – at least not to any great degree.

It is true that the citizens of the United States, by and large, are not prejudiced (racially or otherwise), in comparison with those of other nations. Of course, this is a blanket statement and there are many exceptions; but relative to other societies, Americans are pretty non-biased.

It is also true that the American justice system is far less corrupt than in most of the world – from appeals made to the Supreme Court, down to the traffic cop issuing a ticket. (In many countries, from Latin America to the Balkans, it is accepted practice to bribe the cop in order to avoid a fine. Don’t try that here.) Bribes are relatively rare; fraud is quickly exposed and punished; and judges and politicians rarely have ties to the Mafia. Even illegal immigrants are protected under our Constitution, so the right to a fair trial is guaranteed to everyone.

At least in theory.

Now meet your defendant: a 23-year-old Bulgarian student, who came to the United States on a seasonal work visa. Of course, as so often is the case, he overstayed his visa in order to continue working a minimum-wage job constructing houses for rich people in an exclusive, island resort. However, that’s not important now, because “Georgi’s” real crime was running a stop sign (downshifted from 5th gear into 3rd; didn’t come to a complete stop; lost control of the vehicle on an icy road; and hit a jogger who was pronounced dead at the scene). Vehicular homicide, while not a felony that carries a prison sentence, is always a tragedy. No alcohol, texting, or reckless driving was involved; it was just a tragic mistake that forever changed the lives of many people.

Georgi, who attempted CPR on the victim, was arrested immediately. His passport was confiscated to prevent him from fleeing before trial. The morning paper reported the death of the woman (a dearly-loved, wealthy philanthropist) at the hands of “a Bulgarian national”. No lawyer on the island wanted to take the case, as everyone in the community was so sympathetic to the victim. He had no family to post bail; no relatives to support him in the United States. He was completely alone.

When I was called in to interpret for this young man’s initial court date, the mother of a defendant who was in lockup with Georgi told me that he had been forced to sign papers that he did not understand. A limited-English speaker and immigrant laborer, Georgi was considered very much an “outsider” in this privileged community. When a defense attorney was finally appointed by the court, he tried (unsuccessfully) to get the case moved to the mainland for trial – stating repeatedly what everyone already knew: it would be impossible, in a community of 8,000 adults, for a Bulgarian immigrant who had hit a community pillar, to get a fair trial.

The judge denied his appeal.

Still think there’s no bias in the American justice system?

Georgi spent 7 months in jail – 199 days in total (and is now in federal custody, awaiting deportation). While his lawyer hemmed, hawed and tried to strike deals, everyone from the judge to the witnesses who refused to testify to the D.A.’s office remained committed to making an example out of this boy. The bail was set at $50,000 (a ridiculously high sum for a misdemeanor); and even a motion for his release with a security bracelet was denied (how was he going to leave without a passport? Swim off the island to Bulgaria?) By the lawyer’s own admission, this case brought out the deep-seated resentment held against foreigners (NOT necessarily illegal immigrants) in this country.

FACT: If Georgi had been an American, he would not have spent a single day in jail.

ANOTHER FACT: (Before I get screamed at) – I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I am as conservative as they come. I have never voted Democrat; do NOT believe illegal aliens should have entitlements (free healthcare; food stamps, etc.) and am well aware of how many cheat the system. (The stories I could tell from the Russian interpreters would shock most readers.) There are abuses, and I actually believe violent offenders should be deported much more frequently, rather than wasting taxpayer money in the justice system. But that’s not the point here. There are cases – many cases – where bias and a lack of support (family and financial) result in unfair circumstances.

If you are an immigrant from Eastern Europe, especially a male immigrant with limited English, and you don’t have a lot of money, you will probably not get a fair trial. If you are an American, the cards are more inclined to be stacked in your favor. This is true not only in the justice system but in day-to-day life – although not always overt, there is a derisive attitude bordering on resentment that many Americans hold towards foreigners. Having been married to a Bulgarian for 20 years (who still has a heavy Slavic accent), I have experienced this first-hand. An engineer when we moved to the US, my husband was stuck working a blue-collar job for 10 years with tech-school dropouts. Despite being functional illiterates themselves, they rarely missed an opportunity to mock his English (which was my husband’s third language). Even I have received dirty looks in the supermarket, when talking on my cellphone in Bulgarian. People seem to assume I’m a “foreigner”, or that I don’t speak English. It’s a very subtle, passive-aggressive bias, but it is there.

Two things I have learned in my 15 years as a courtroom interpreter:

Justice is not always applied equally; and

If you have a high-enough-priced attorney, you can get out of anything. Part of the resentment comes from the fact there is a pattern of criminal behavior among Bulgarian student-visa holders (not all of them are actually students) in the resort areas of Massachusetts. Most of it is theft – everything from shoplifting Patriots memorabilia from Walmart to ATM “skimming” (sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars). Roughly 2/3 – ¾ of the criminal cases I’ve interpreted over the years have been for stealing, of one sort or another.

Unfortunately, the student-visa kids have made quite a bad name for Bulgarians in the Cape Cod area, but their lawyers are usually able to plea-bargain the judges down to make their offenses “misdemeanors” rather than “felonies”. This means that even if convicted, it will not prevent them from re-entering the US. There is some sort of agreement between the judges and Department of Homeland Security that if a conviction is reduced to a “suspended sentence”, it doesn’t result in deportation or automatic exclusion from the United States. A lawyer told me this.

Needless to say, a lot of defense attorneys are earning their paychecks – and a lot of Bulgarian student-thieves are receiving “suspended sentences”. Similarly, at least three times I have seen drunk driving trials end by being dismissed – the breathalyzer test was “inadmissible evidence” because the defendant (no matter how drunk he was at the time) didn’t understand that he had the right to refuse it. The language barrier also means that Drunk Bulgarian didn’t understand his Miranda rights, OR the police’s instructions on the field sobriety tests. In court, this is held up as a “handicap” by high-priced lawyers, and multiple times I have seen guilty defendants walk free.

None of that, however, helps Georgi – who was neither drunk, nor stealing, nor trying to hurt anyone in any way. He was simply on his way home, and made a fatal error in judgement. Unable to afford a high-profile attorney, he served as a community’s scapegoat for months until his lawyer finally advised him to plead guilty so he could be deported. Last Wednesday, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he listened to the prosecutor read the facts – replaying the events leading up to the woman’s death. As I stood beside him, interpreting every word from the bench, the judge added as an aside, “Although I didn’t know [the victim] personally, from all accounts she was a very special person and if I could turn back the hands of time, the person who killed her would spend a lot longer than 199 days in prison.” I put my hand on Georgi’s shoulder to steady him, and tried not to look in his direction (or I would have been in tears, too.)

This boy is somebody’s son. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that, in their zeal to protect their political and career interests.

Would the judge have said such heartless words if Georgi had been an American, the rich son of an island lawyer, perhaps? Um, unequivocal no, since vehicular homicide doesn’t even carry a prison sentence.

And human life is more or less valuable, depending on how “well-known and loved” the victim was?

What if he had struck and killed a fellow immigrant? What then? Would there have been so much outcry? No, because no one cares about “foreigners” in gated resort communities. Oh sure; they’re good enough for tending the gardens and children of the rich; but an incident like this? The community needed a scapegoat, and the judge probably needed re-election. All of the lawyers and judge in this case knew full well that defending Georgi would have been politically imprudent.

While he was in prison, I managed to send Bulgarian translations of “More than a Carpenter” and A.W. Tozer’s “Knowing God” to Georgi through the prison chaplain, who said that he was attending Bible studies (another Bulgarian in Massachusetts had sent him a Bible). I can only hope that something redeemed this travesty of justice, and that his life is not totally destroyed.

Yes, the American justice system is among the fairest and least-corrupted in the world. But there is wrong-doing and unfair practice everywhere. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking otherwise, and please let’s remember to view others – all of them, regardless of ethnic background or financial means – as deserving of the same rights, benefits and compassion that we expect for ourselves.

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