What would Victor Hugo do?
What is just and what is legal are all too often not the same thing. Nina Totenberg’s recounting of the current Supreme Court case about prosecutorial immunity illuminates what Victor Hugo called “the quarrel between rights and law.” Not until that quarrel is resolved, he wrote in the preface to a collection of his socially-conscious speeches, will society reach true civilization.
In this case, attorneys for the Council Bluffs, Iowa, prosecutors argue explicitly, bluntly, that Americans have no constitutional right not to be framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee were imprisoned in 1977 for a murder they had no hand in. Tenaciously stating his innocence, Mr. Harrington was finally released in 2003 after a case review in which eyewitnesses recanted their testimony. Under Iowa law, neither man has legal recourse to receive compensation for the 25 years lost because of fabricated evidence. Their suit against the Council Bluffs police and prosecutor for violating of constitutional rights has reached the Supreme Court. An objective case summary shows that the police and prosecutor ignored evidence pointing to another, well-connected suspect and accepted testimony against Mr. Harrington from a man with a criminal record who erred in his story about the murder location and weapon involved.
Still, attorneys for the prosecutors, while hypothetically admitting that Mr. Harrington might have been framed, contend that such framing is legal, though perhaps not just. Victor Hugo must be raging in his Paris Pantheon tomb! Were he able to put pen to paper, he would this morning be dashing off a public letter. Justice is divine, he would write, far above the laws that people create. When everyone can see where justice lies in a cause, should we not choose what is just over what is legal? Why are laws not written to promote justice? Human rights come from God, and laws cannot morally overcome them. Jean Valjean, after 19 years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, learned this from a man of God. The author of Les Misérables would be making the case for Mr. Harrington, human rights, and justice.