January 26, 2005
Personal attacks threaten true justice
A lawyer for Bernard J. Ebbers, the former chief executive
for WorldCom who's accused of securities fraud, won the
right last week to use personal details about the prosecution's
main witness to discredit him. A federal judge ruled
that Ebbers' defense could cite "marital infidelities" by
Scott D. Sullivan, WorldCom's former chief financial
officer, because it would help jurors assess his reliability.
In corporate fraud cases, is an executive's personal life
relevant to determine guilt or innocence? Is the executive's
private and personal behavior fair game when looking for
Crystal-clear responses are always preferred. But there
are times when both yes or no appear impossible to divine.
Such is the case regarding vetting and discrediting witnesses.
The bigger issue is how our society is taking to an extreme
-- and thereby putting at risk -- the very structures
that enabled America's success with democracy and free
Given the willingness, even eagerness, of many people
to embarrass, trivialize and root out "rascals" who've
made any mistake, eventually no one may want to seek
public office, serve on a jury, testify in court or even
stop along the road to lend a helping hand.
Self-righteous litmus tests are becoming ever more
rigid in the name of openness and tolerance. They extend
from political correctness and religiously driven "rightness" to
ecological oneness and cultural-racial-sexual-lifestyle
sensitivities. In very legitimate efforts to improve
all aspects of life, we could set the bar so high that
complete compliance is unattainable.
Even the ancient Greek tragedies allowed their heroes
a fatal flaw. Today, one might say that "they cut
them some slack" and were appreciative of their
assets, willing to live with certain frailties.
But neither is this column advocating the philosophy
of the former powerful House speaker from Texas, U.S.
Rep. Sam Rayburn, who suggested: "To get along,
you must go along."
Somewhere between the extremes exists both intelligence
and integrity. In other words:
- Can a convicted felon teach valuable life lessons?
- Might an alcoholic be a legitimate witness concerning
the destructive behaviors of an out-of-control drunk?
- Does a cheating husband retain enough intelligence
and judgment to identify a boss's fraudulent behavior
- Might a drug user offer valuable testimony against
a drug dealer?
With their scorched-earth approach to tearing down
witnesses, aggressive attorneys and investigators are
coming dangerously close to the unscrupulous lawyer who
tries to intimidate a rape victim by delving into her
While such inquisitions are perfectly legal, they may
actually short-circuit justice, not to mention common
sense. Must someone be above reproach to offer a reproach
It's time that all of us demand a clearer distinction from
our judicial system between what's legal but destructive,
on one hand, and that which is both moral and sustaining
of our culture and our values, on the other.