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Larry Beinhart's Body Politic 

Justice: It's a System, It's a Show

click to enlarge Larry Beinhart - GILLIAN FARRELL
  • Gillian Farrell
  • Larry Beinhart

If anyone is unfamiliar with Hulk Hogan, he is to wrestling what Kim Kardashian is to reality TV. Very famous, with certain body parts just bursting with enhancement.

In 2006, Hulk visited one of his very best friends, Bubba "The Love Sponge" Clem. What can we say of Bubba? He's a fat guy who loves men who use steroids and women implanted with silicone, and desperately wants to be Howard Stern. According to Hulk's manly code, which he spoke of on Howard Stern's show, he would never sleep with the wife of a friend, even if they'd been divorced for a decade. However, on this trip he was "depressed," so he "gave up and gave in" to Heather Clem's sexual importuning. With Bubba's permission.

Unbeknownst to Hulk, he says, Bubba taped it. In 2012, the tape somehow made its way to Gawker, a website with the slogan "Today's Gossip Is Tomorrow's News," which ran the story with a couple of minutes of the tape.

Hulk sued. Hulk won. $140 million. Gawker filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Critics, especially at Gawker, have claimed this verdict is a grave threat to press freedom.

Indeed, it probably is. Normally—and this is a great thing—public figures are fair game. It may have been tawdry, salacious, and invasive, but Hogan had worked very hard to become one and had delberately made tales of his sexual conquests, the size of his penis, and the pleasures provided by his Fu Manchu mustache in that public persona. So a story about his sex life seems more than reasonable.

After the verdict, another twist in the tale was revealed. In 2007, Gawker ran an article with the headline "Peter Thiel Is Totally Gay, People." Thiel is PayPal. And more. A billionaire's billionaire. He was angry. Set on revenge. He had actively searched for a lawsuit that would damage Gawker. 

This feels like a frightening level of abuse. If you're rich enough, along with all your other privileges and powers you can now use the courts to pursue your private grudges.

Let's pause a moment. Let's say Hogan had a legitimate complaint. His net worth—before the law suit—was reported as $8 million. A lot more than the average teacher, truck driver, construction worker, or novelist. Couldn't he fund his own lawsuit? The answer is no.

Reports say that Thiel put in $10 million to bankroll the lawsuit. That hasn't been focused on, but it should be the most important part of the story.

It tells us that the legal is system is completely out of reach for ordinary people. It's even out of the reach of millionaires. It now belongs solely to billionaires bent on revenge, squabbling corporations with millions at stake, hedge funds speculating on lawsuits the way they speculate on repackaged mortgages, and law firms that can organize class action suits and take the risk of funding them.

Most of us have very little personal contact with the legal system and even fewer of us have looked at serious studies of how it actually operates. Indeed, most of what we think of our legal system, criminal as well as civil, comes from television.

The king of all crime and punishment shows has to be "Law & Order," with 456 episodes. It is astonishing how well written, acted, and shot its been through every single one of them. Yet when I was interviewing a New York City public defender for another TV project, he furiously burst out with the phrase, "fascist propaganda."

With thought, I realized that to a large degree he was correct. The first half of each episode is the crime and the investigation. The second half is a trial. The effect—inside this bubble land—is that every criminal gets a trial. It's a rough battle against defense attorneys are always tough, cunning, vigorous, and who never suffer from financial or time constraints. Judges stringently enforce artificial rules that favor defendants and keep truth out. Prosecutors are only concerned with justice, not with their conviction rates.

In reality, the vast majority of defendants are black or brown and very poor. Real public defenders have crushing case loads. Private defense lawyers only put in as much time as defendants can pay for by the hour. They rarely, if ever, put in days and weeks. In reality, the time they give their clients can be counted in minutes. The squeeze is on the courts as well (gotta cut taxes). The number one concern for most judges is speed.

The number one concern for all the professional is to get it over quick. The result is that between 90 and 97 percent of prosecutions are settled by a plea.

Do people plead guilty to crimes they haven't committed? Yes. Why?

Defendants without money for bail are kept in Rikers Island until they agree to a plea. The routine goes like this. Take a deal now, do two years. If your lawyer wants a few days to look at the evidence, ask for disclosure, even send out an investigator, it'll be five years. Go to trial, it's ten to twenty."Law & Order" went off the air in 2010. Dick Wolf, its creator, presented us with a successor in 2015, "Chicago PD."

The real-life Chicago Police Department has a terrible reputation. They had their own "black site," Homan Square, "where Chicago police detained more than 7,351 people...more than 6,000 of whom are black, but only permitted lawyers access 86 times." People were beaten, tortured, even died there.

This clearly has great dramatic potential. Some cops trying to do right, others the old, evil way. Innocent people swallowed up by the system. Defense attorneys futilely fighting for their rights.

While an episode of "The Good Wife" did briefly treat it that way, "Chicago PD" went in the other direction. Its band of hero police persons—each pretty enough for a separate modeling career—has some special cells down in the basement. Suspects are brought down there to be beaten and tortured. Is that a problem? No. It's the solution. They are always the right suspects. They've always committed particularly heinous acts. The information can't be obtained any other way and it's urgently, urgently needed to save a very, very nice person.

Chicago police, like many others, and more than some, shoot mostly black people.

In a recent episode, a young black man was shot by a really pretty and very good hearted policewoman. But then along came ugly, ragged, Black Lives Matter-type demonstrators and she was put on trial. At the trial, all ambiguities were cleared up. The young black male was not the clean-cut, aspiring-to-college type that he was painted as. He had, indeed, unprovoked, shot a cop from ambush.

Whatever its faults, "Law & Order" presented a world in which civil rights were right. Cops had to respect them or lose cases. Racism and racial profiling were depicted as things that actually existed and were wrong. If cops lost their temper and beat suspects, they had to be restrained. Torture was not an option, let alone the go-to solution for every crime.

Sometimes it's trite to look to TV, movies, novels, and comic books as socio-political cultural indicators. In this case, perhaps not. The disappearance of "Law & Order" represents leaving a certain type of civilizing order behind. In "Chicago PD," institutional racism is, at worst, the false appearance of necessities. Anyone who says otherwise is a phony. Beatings and torture are the only way to achieve justice. The father-figure leader is a corrupt cop with bundles of cash stashed behind walls, but only breaks them out to do good deeds. The consciousness bubbled up separately, up Dick Wolf's new heroes are the perfect delusional vision of Trump World.

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  • Larry Beinhart explains how the rich and privileged use the courts to pursue private grudges.

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