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Arbitrary Justice, Hidden Truth

Eric Lotke

Purely by chance, I was in the middle of reading Katharine Graham's autobiography when President Bush commuted I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's sentence.

I had just reached the part where Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post during the Watergate era, was despairing as the trail grew cold. The Post had published a connection between the Watergate burglary and the Nixon re-election campaign, but crucial connections continued to elude them. Graham worried whether her paper could conclusively prove all of the claims.

The conviction of the Watergate burglars changed everything. James McCord had been sentenced to prison, but before the gates clanged shut he offered to trade information for leniency. The case broke open. "What a relief," Graham wrote 20 years later.

Today the American people may be denied that relief. Scooter Libby will never face hard time. He will never experience the incentive that broke the Watergate crew. President Bush commuted the prison portion of Libby's sentence, leaving only a fine easily within reach of his politically organized legal defense fund. We may never learn the connection between Libby, his White House bosses, and the outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. Many people suspect the White House manipulated intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war. The suspicions just got harder to prove.

President Bush may have commuted more than Libby's sentence for obstruction of justice. Bush may have obstructed justice on his own.

The thinness of President Bush's reason for the commutation makes it look even murkier. The sentence was "excessive," he said when he issued his commutation, and the stigma is profound; his "wife and young children have also suffered immensely," he said.

As a former defense attorney, such reasoning is music to my ears. U.S. prison terms are often "excessive," especially for nonviolent crimes. Many a girlfriend has been prosecuted for refusing to testify about her boyfriend's alleged drug dealing.

But please. If fairness, proportionality and family responsibility are suddenly relevant in sentencing, let it happen for everyone. Not just those whose song might expose the very people who offered commutation.

Libby's sentence was not only legally appropriate, it was legally required. It followed the same mandatory federal sentencing guidelines applied to the 190,000 people in federal prisons. And it reached the same result.

Victor Rita's case highlights the injustice. Rita entered the Federal Bureau of Prisons on nearly the same date that Libby's prison term disappeared. Except for the result, the two cases are eerily parallel. Similar crimes. Both Libby and Rita were convicted of obstruction of justice and lying under oath. Similar punishments. Both were sentenced under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Libby received 30 months in prison. Rita received 33. Personal history. Both Libby and Rita had served their country. Rita served 24 years in the Marine Corps, including tours of duty in Vietnam and the first Gulf war, where he earned over 35 medals and awards. Personal present. Both Libby and Rita are getting up in years with devoted families and supportive networks who begged for mercy. Rita's personal health is failing. All of Rita's requests for relief were denied. Libby received relief before his case even finished in the courts.

Wednesday the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, no longer under Republican control, held a hearing on these matters. Little new information came out, but then Scooter Libby wasn't on the stand. Neither was Dick Cheney or Karl Rove. The only person to serve time on this matter was Judith Miller, the reporter for The New York Times who refused to reveal her sources.

The committee hearing was one small step towards holding the administration accountable for its misbehavior. One small step towards the American people regaining control of our government. Let's hope it's not the last.

© 2007

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