Opinion: Respect the rule of law

Published: 8/13/2022 6:03:29 AM
Modified: 8/13/2022 6:00:03 AM

Bill Pribis of Concord is a former trial lawyer and a current English teacher.  

On June 21, 2019, Massachusetts resident Volodymyr Zhukovskyy was involved in an accident in Randolph, New Hampshire, along with a number of members of the “Jarheads” motorcycle club. As a result of the accident, seven motorcyclists were killed and three were injured. Zhukovskyy was physically unharmed.

The State of New Hampshire sought to hold Zhukovskyy criminally responsible for the deaths and injuries. He was charged with a number of crimes, arrested and jailed. His multiple requests to have a hearing for an opportunity to be released on bail prior to his trial were denied.

Zhukovskyy’s trial recently concluded. After hearing 12 days of evidence, a Coos County jury found him “not guilty” on all charges. The jury deliberated for just over two hours before reaching their verdict.

When the verdict was delivered, Governor Sununu issued the following statement: “The Fallen Seven did not receive justice today, and that is an absolute tragedy. I share in the shock, outrage, and anger that so many have expressed in the three years since the seven members of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club were taken from us. My heart goes out to their families, friends, and loved ones on this especially dark day.”

The governor’s statement is clear. Sununu believes that the verdict is wrong and that Zhukovskyy should have been convicted and jailed. The fact that this did not happen is, according to Sununu, “an absolute tragedy.”

Many people undoubtedly feel the same way. However, our governor is charged with the responsibility of respecting our state’s constitution and laws. His statement in response to the Zhukovskyy verdict is inconsistent with that responsibility.

Yet it’s entirely consistent with the growing trend of politicians to ignore and even denounce the rule of law when it suits their political needs.

Under the constitution and laws of New Hampshire, if someone is charged with a crime, they have inviolable rights which fall under an overarching right to due process. These rights include the right to require the state to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a crime was committed, and the right to a jury trial under the oversight of a judge appointed by the state.

In this case, those things occurred. A duly seated jury of Coos County citizens heard 12 days of evidence. The state’s prosecutors, who have virtually unlimited resources (especially when compared to Zhukovskyy) were given all the time they needed to prove that Zhukovskyy committed a crime.

After hearing the case, the jury returned with its “not guilty” verdict in a mere two hours. Ask any seasoned trial lawyer what the likely significance of a two-hour verdict is and you will get this response: “It probably wasn’t a close case.”

Yet our governor apparently knows better than they do what the result should have been.

Why is it inappropriate for Sununu to publicly state that this verdict was wrong? Think of some of the implications of his statement.

It implies that his own Attorney General’s office and its prosecuting attorneys are incompetent. They couldn’t prove a case that they should’ve been able to prove. It implies that the state-appointed judge was incapable of performing his role of ensuring that a fair trial occurred. It implies that the jurors who interrupted their lives for more than two weeks to perform their civic duty were fools who got it wrong or were biased or dishonest.

But putting aside the disrespect, what Sununu is ultimately saying is that our rule of law does not work. That despite the fact that this entire case played out in accordance with our democratically established laws and processes, the resulting verdict was unjust and “an absolute tragedy.”

Juries render verdicts in criminal and civil cases across New Hampshire quite regularly. Sununu seldom, if ever, issues statements concerning those verdicts. Why did he do so in this case?

This was a terrible accident where New Hampshire citizens died. The defendant in the case was an out-of-stater with a very foreign-sounding name. It’s likely that a good number of Sununu’s base of voters will disagree with the verdict. Simply put, it was politically expedient for Sununu to issue the statement that he did.

And therein lies the rub. The problem here is not that Sununu disagrees with the verdict. The man is entitled to his opinion. The problem is that our governor is willing to publicly discredit and disrespect our criminal justice system and our rule of law to further his own perceived political needs.

Unlike the Coos County jury, Sununu didn’t hear the evidence in this case. He didn’t sit through over two weeks of trial. He didn’t listen to the witnesses testify. He cannot reasonably feel he is better positioned than the jury to determine what the outcome should have been. He cannot reasonably feel he is in a position to call the jury’s verdict “an absolute tragedy” and to do so without providing any supporting facts or arguments whatsoever. Yet he perceives that it might benefit him politically to do so and that’s all that matters.

The facts and circumstances underlying the Zhukovskyy case are indeed tragic on many levels. It’s tragic that people lost their lives. It’s tragic that people suffered what are likely life changing injuries. It’s tragic that survivors will have to live with the horrible images they witnessed. It’s tragic that a man sat in jail for years while he awaited a trial after which it took a jury only two hours to determine his innocence.

But what is also tragic is the growing number of politicians who are willing to discredit and ignore our laws and democratic processes if they believe it benefits them politically. Governor Sununu’s statement makes it clear that he is among this group.

Truly democratic leaders don’t publicly undermine the processes that take place pursuant to our rule of law under any circumstances. We need leaders who will respect and support our rule of law, our processes under the rule of law, and the participants in those processes, even if they disagree with the outcome. Sununu has shown that he is not such a leader.

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