Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lynch Mob Fever In CT




Serial rapist David Pollitt is good for one thing anyway. He keeps teaching Connecticut about due process of law.

It first happened last year when Governor Rell and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal tried to get Pollitt's sentence extended on the eve of his release from prison after a 24-year term. A Superior Court judge reminded everyone that things don't work that way, that a criminal sentence is fixed in court upon conviction and not rewritten in response to the desire of people who would prefer not to have an ex-convict as a neighbor.

Last week it happened again when the governor and attorney general seized on Pollitt's arrest on a probation violation charge and demanded that he be thrown back into prison immediately. At least the attorney general qualified his demand by acknowledging that Pollitt should be convicted before incurring more punishment.

As it turned out, the charge was dropped by the prosecution as soon as Pollitt was hauled into court. For the company that, under contract with the Judicial Department, operates the electronic monitoring bracelet worn by Pollitt admitted that it frequently malfunctions, falsely reporting him away from his sister's home and yard in Southbury, where his probation ordinarily requires him to stay.

If the governor and attorney general could have waited just 24 hours before trying to lead what Pollitt's lawyer, Ioannis A. Kaloidis, called a lynch mob, if they could have given the criminal-justice system just a day to do its job, as the system quickly was about to do its job, they would have spared themselves some embarrassment, even if they then might have deprived Connecticut of another lesson in due process.

While Pollitt's innocence of violating probation now may be widely known and the rush to judgment by the governor and attorney general now may be widely regretted, the incident still can't help but leave Connecticut with a damaging misimpression. That impression is that Pollitt poses the greatest threat of anyone in the jurisdiction of the criminal-justice system.

In fact, as such threats go, Pollitt is probably near the bottom of the list. His malfunctioning electronic monitoring bracelet causes probation officers to descend on him all the time, sometimes when he's asleep in bed, so he may be the most closely watched probationer in the state. Having so bravely made a home for him, Pollitt's sister and her family take responsibility for him too. Many years have passed since his last crime, and, having turned 55, he is probably not the threat he once was.

Meanwhile Connecticut is full of other career criminals on probation or parole or free on bond, like the two now back in prison awaiting trial in the triple murder in Cheshire last year, who had more than 40 felony convictions between them prior to the murders but who had been released anyway. Just a day after the state admitted that the probation charge against Pollitt was false, police charged a University of Connecticut student with breaking into an apartment in Mansfield and raping a woman there, and within hours he was released on $500,000 bond. Just hours after the probation charge against Pollitt was dismissed, two men were shot, one fatally, in separate incidents in New Haven, and while no one was immediately arrested, it is unlikely that these were the first serious crimes committed by the perpetrators. It is very likely that, as in the Cheshire case, the criminal-justice system already has had a crack or two or 10 or 20 at the perpetrators in New Haven.

But the liberty of the perpetrators of the Mansfield and New Haven crimes, which were so much more serious than any mere probation violation, passed without comment from anyone in authority.

Of course bond is not to be used to punish in advance of conviction, only to ensure a defendant's appearance in court. But if people are as free as the governor and attorney general seem to consider themselves to speculate about the guilt of someone on charges with which they have no special familiarity, why should Pollitt -- ankle-braceletted, menaced by his neighbors, politicians, and the news media, and leashed by his sister and her family -- cause so much more fear than all those other probationers, parolees, and bonded-out defendants?

After all, if criminals took responsibility for themselves, they would not be criminals, while people are elected to high public office in Connecticut on the understanding that they will take responsibility -- and they could be taking a lot more responsibility for criminal justice than they take by harassing David Pollitt.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.

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