This week's obituaries included the last living link to two landmark moments in the history of freedom of expression.
Bendich's New York Times obituary; the movie "Howl" is also a good primer.
A few years later, Bendich would successfully defend the performer Lenny Bruce. Of the four court trials that Bruce would endure, the case that Bendich defended was the only one to end in acquittal.
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I noticed Bendich's obituary while the law - and its many uses and abuses - was on my mind. We had just seen the documentary "West of Memphis," about a horrendous injustice perpetrated by the justice [sic] and legal systems in the US state of Arkansas. (A feature film "Devil's Knot" was also made about this case. It is terrible. Skip it and go straight to "West of Memphis".)
The personal and specific stories of what happened to these young men is awful enough, but far more terrible is the knowledge that these wrongful convictions were not unusual. The only unusual part was the public spotlight and their eventual release.
As we've learned through the work of people like Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, and Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions, wrongful convictions occur all the time. While they may happen for many reasons, most wrongful convictions have one root cause: political pressure. Prosecutors feel they must produce a suspect and get a conviction in order to retain public confidence in the criminal justice system, and ultimately, their jobs.
What kind of justice is that?
I can think of few things more awful - more frustrating, more anger-producing, more disillusioning - than a person serving time for a crime he did not commit. And I can think of few things more useless in terms of justice. Wingnuts who complain about the (supposedly) liberal fixation on wrongful conviction conveniently forget that each wrongful conviction represents a murderer and/or a rapist who is free to continue to terrorize and kill more victims.
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Center for Constitutional Rights and other left-leaning public-interest groups.
"West of Memphis" left me thinking about the many paths lawyers may take. For a long time, I worked as support staff in law firms where wealthy lawyers help even more wealthy corporations make more profit, pay less taxes, destroy the environment, and buy legislation to do more of all three. They're on one end of a spectrum that ends, for me, with the legal warriors who work to overturn wrongful convictions, defend the environment, defend free speech, defend human rights and civil liberties.
So... thank you, Al Bendich!