Monday, July 6, 2009

Does Anyone Remember Billy Hayes?

Who remembers Billy Hayes? Oh yea. He was the guy who got caught allegedly smuggling hashish out of Turkey in 1970. For you movie buffs, Billy Hayes' story was chronicled in the 1978 film, "Midnight Express."

A harrowing tale, to say the least. Billy is caught at the Istanbul airport with 5 pounds of hash strapped to his belly. He is tried in a strange legal system, betrayed by corrupt lawyers, and toyed with by capricious judges. He was originally sentenced to about four years in prison, but later his prison term was enhanced to 30. After 5 years imprisonment, Billy Hayes escaped to Greece from his Turkish hell hole.

Besides being a great movie (with a great soundtrack, btw), what's Billy Hayes have to do with the price of tea in China? Well, imagine a friend or loved one arrested in a foreign country. Would we demand the justice system ensured our friend understood the proceedings in their native language, that they were represented by lawyers and investigators who understood American background and culture, and that they were able to consult with representatives of the United States government as part of the process? I bet we would and I doubt if Billy Hayes was afforded this basic due process.

Now imagine you are from Mexico, from China, or from Zimbabwe. You come to the United States and get charged with a crime. Will you get the procedural due process we expect for our friends and family accused in a foreign country? Maybe not bro. In fact, although the American system of justice is designed to provide this basic fairness, not all accused foreigners are getting it. They are put to trial without interpreters and are represented by lawyers who don't realize (or don't care) about the importance of cultural and ethnic issues in the zealous defense of their clients.

So what do we do then? Well, part of our job as patriotic Americans is to ensure our system provides this basic procedural fairness to people from other countries, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds. When you are called to jury duty and a foreign national in on trial . . . ask the questions. Does this guy need a interpreter? Does the defense lawyer understand the cultural issues involved in the case? And don't assume the judge gets it - they often are just as clueless.

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