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Straining at gnats, swallowing camels.

Before allegedly abducting and murdering 11-year-old Carlie Brucia on February 1, Joseph P. Smith had compiled a distinguished record as a thug: His vita includes 13 arrests since 1993. Notes the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: "Time after time, Joseph P. Smith received second chances. He was put on probation and sent to treatment programs instead of jail."

Last December, after Smith violated the terms of his probation, Circuit Court Judge Harry Rapkin declined to sign an arrest warrant, insisting that there was insufficient evidence to justify sending the recidivist back to jail. Rapkin's decision left a career criminal free on the streets of Sarasota, where--according to videotaped evidence--he seized Carlie on her way home from a slumber party. Her lifeless body was found shortly afterward.

In a television interview following Carlie's murder, Judge Rapkin insisted that it would have been tragically unfair to punish Smith for his failure to pay court-ordered fees: "You can't incarcerate someone for not having money." No, but a judge can, and should, send an unregenerate criminal to jail for failing to fulfill the terms of his probation --lest the criminal become a lethal threat to the innocent, as Smith apparently did.

In the case of Joseph P. Smith, the justice system was culpably indifferent to the rights of the law-abiding, and perversely determined to leave a dangerous criminal at large. Ah, but in all fairness shouldn't we recognize that the system has successfully snared such truly dangerous figures as Martha Stewart?

Smith's alleged crime is easily described and understood: kidnapping and murdering an innocent child. What is Stewart's supposed offense? In late 2001, after consultations with her stockbroker, she sold a quantity of stock shortly before its value plummeted, thereby netting a relatively modest profit. Federal prosecutors initially wanted to charge Stewart with "insider trading" but were stymied by a lack of evidence.

As Investor's Business Daily points out, Stewart was hardly an "insider." She simply "sold her shares on her broker's advice" --and did so long after the stock in question had started its decline. "The record shows Martha is guilty of nothing so much as selling stock that was on the way down," commented the paper. "If that's a crime, then we're all guilty."

Indeed, demonstrating that "we're all guilty"--that we're all lawbreakers who enjoy our liberties only by the grace of the almighty state--is the central purpose of the Martha Stewart show trial. Given the relentless accumulation of laws, regulations and bureaucratic decrees, it's almost certain that each of us is guilty of some offense against the State.

Martha Stewart committed no offenses against persons or property, yet she had the audacity to proclaim her innocence. Outraged by such an affront--imagine, an American citizen daring to invoke the presumption of innocence--federal prosecutor James Comey indicted Stewart for fraud and began a campaign to demonize her as greedy, manipulative and arrogant. In such fashion did the feds set out to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to prosecute a nonexistent offense rooted in a relatively small stock transaction.

The federal jihad against Stewart borrows liberally from the tactics used against New York hotel owner Leona Helmsley. With Jacobinical zeal the feds depicted Helmsley as a hateful aristocrat, a super-rich "Queen of Mean" who disdainfully insisted that only "little people" pay taxes. Accordingly, Helmsley went to prison as an "enemy of the people," despite paying nearly $54 million in federal taxes during the period she was supposedly defrauding the government.

Armando Valladares, in Against All Hope, his memoir of two decades in the Cuban gulag, points out that in Castro's jails, common prisoners--thieves, murderers, and the like--were treated much better than those who were jailed for crimes against the State. Similar totalitarian priorities are at work in our society when violent criminals like Joseph P. Smith are treated with solicitude, while entrepreneurs like Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley are subjected to the unfiltered wrath of the state for "offenses" that are, at most, insignificant violations of esoteric federal regulations.

In principle, governments exist to protect the law-abiding from the lawless. In practice, nearly every government is more inclined to use the police function to break the will of its subjects than to protect their rights. Criminologist Gene Stephens of the University of South Carolina, who has trained many of those currently in federal law enforcement, states the proposition quite tidily: "It's not a question of 'us' versus them; it's us--we're all criminals.... [W]e don't like government, we don't like authority, and we don't like being told what to do."

Loathsome criminals like Joseph P. Smith are a threat to the law-abiding, but effectively punishing kidnappers and child murderers does little to encourage docility on the part of the public at large. But occasionally slapping down a successful entrepreneur does. That's why the increasingly criminalized state that allowed Smith numerous second chances seeks to put Martha Stewart in prison.
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Title Annotation:The Last Word
Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Date:Mar 8, 2004
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