Covering courts has opened my eyes to some amazing issues of injustice, partiality and collusion, in a system that is supposed to be blind. From civil and business courts, and to criminal as well. While there are those who subscribe to a notion that the system is too lenient to criminals, and therefore prejudice that stops bad people up is good, I still believe in due process and the ideal that courts should be fair and equitable. I am old fashioned that way, adhering to the axiom as stated by the legal scholar Sir William Blackstone, who said, “It is better that ten guilty Persons escape than one innocent suffer.”
The United States criminal justice system is renowned for its intricacies and established protocol. Under the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, individuals accused in criminal acts are guaranteed the right to a swift and public trial by their peers as well as proper legal counsel to assist in their defense.
Unfortunately, the system is not perfect, and more often than not, legal cases where multiple parties are involved are prone to disparities. Here, I am referring to asymmetrical sentencing, which has been the subject of intense criticism, especially due to the fact that multiple parties implicated in a collective crime are tried separately, increasing the probability of unfair and unjust sentences. Asymmetric sentencing is a fundamental flaw of the U.S. justice system, and an example shone through the Brooklyn, New York case brought against those involved with the infamous NXIVM group.
Mind you, this is a post on due process and a fair judicial system and not one about the guilt or innocence of anyone, or my opinions on the seriousness of the allegations. While the charges facing specific members of this organization are serious and despicable, the corresponding investigation dug deep into the underworkings of the group and implicated many individuals for their involvement in the group’s activities. Notably, the group’s leader and founder, Keith Raniere, was found guilty of seven felonies, sentenced to 120 years in prison, and given a court-ordered fine of $1.75 million. While Raniere’s sentence was the most extreme, other NXIVM members were charged for their involvement in the group’s criminal activity.
Allison Mack received only a three-year prison sentence after she was found guilty of recruiting individuals for sexual services on behalf of the group, in addition to brutally burning and branding them.
Lauren Salzman was sentenced to time served and five years of probation and assigned 300 hours of community service for her involvement in racketeering and conspiracies to commit criminal acts on behalf of NXIVM.
Then, there is Clare Bronfman, the daughter of late billionaire businessman and former Seagram’s liquor chairman Edgar Bronfman Sr., the Jewish philanthropist who helped causes such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which he was credited with helping revive in the 1990s.
The U.S. Prosecutor pursuing the allegations recommended that the judge sentence Bronfman to five years in prison, yet the most substantial and arguably asymmetric sentence was handed to Bronfman, the alleged “financier” of the NXIVM group.
United States District Court judge, for the Eastern District of New York, Nicholas G. Garaufis gave Bronfman a six-year, nine-month prison sentence for her role in “aiding and abetting” (A/K/A Financing) the group’s activities. Bronfman discovered the group in its early stages during a pivotal and quite vulnerable time in her life, and found meaning alongside many other individuals who were taken under its wing.
Bronfman quickly rose among the ranks of the group to gain a seat on its executive board, a position that some claim was granted due to her considerable dedication to the group as well as her generous donations which financed day-to-day expenses. For her involvement in the group’s financial affairs, Bronfman was sentenced more harshly by the judge.
Comparatively, the sentence is egregious when looked at from the roles others played. This judicial decision is believed to be a response to criminal findings of a sub-group of NXIVM, the self-named Dominus Obsequious Sororium, referred to as simply “DOS,” which Bronfman testified to having no knowledge of or participation in and Judge Garaufis even backed her and up and expressed his belief in her testimony, saying, “To be crystal-clear, Ms. Bronfman was not convicted of any of those [DOS] crimes, Ms. Bronfman was not convicted of participating in any racketeering activity, and there were many aspects of Mr. Raniere’s crimes in which Ms. Bronfman very well may have not have been familiar.”
Clare Bronfman testified that she allocated funds to NXIVM because she was a proponent of its self-help aesthetic and because she was fond of the group’s core teaching, in addition to its breakthrough program helping people afflicted with certain neurodevelopmental disorders.
Those with lighter sentences were quick to turn against the leadership, as was the case with Ms. Salzman and Ms. Mack. Though it became her downfall, Bronfman’s reluctance to speak out against anyone there only reinforces her stance that she believed, even naively, she was funding a good cause.
If the severity of her prison sentence was influenced by the fact that she did not condemn the actions of Reinere, Bronfman’s constitutional right to freedom of speech was withheld – especially since this freedom includes the right not to speak for or about anything against one’s will; Bronfman has a constitutional right to silence.
Under the United States Constitution, and in protecting perhaps the best legal system in the world. legal rights and provisions must always be protected. Those accused of crimes should be granted a fair judicial process, which is unalienable for even the worst offenders – regardless of what social media warriors demand. Whereas in the case of the NXIVM members, some of those charged took part in highly illegal and horrendous acts and one, Bronfman, unknowingly financed the acts that were shrouded behind the scenes.
Point to the justice in that.
Allocating or donating funds to support legitimate organizations is an individual liberty. The ability for those funds to be misappropriated or misallocated does not directly indicate culpability to those who gave those funds. As such, giving financial support to a legitimate cause, even if it was discovered to be a fraudulent one, is undeserving of excessive and severe punishment. Is everyone who supports Catholic charities guilty of supporting the alleged crimes of priests?
Here, Bronfman had no criminal history or accusations of violence prior to the charges presented against her for her financial role. Bronfman and her lawyers demonstrated cooperation with investigators every step of the way, yet she was considered a violent offender and flight risk, held under a $100 million bond; an inconceivable number and could point to bias due to her substantial wealth, and likely also the case – due to her unwillingness to denounce Raniere.
After presentation of charges against her, she was sentenced to 81 months in prison, almost triple the prosecutor’s recommendation of 21-27 months. The “justice” served to Bronfman points to a seemingly unconstitutional penalty for refusing to publicly disavow those whom she regarded.
Still, there are specific steps necessary to ensure that justice is provided to those accused of crimes in the legal system. The application of justice cannot be one-sided or biased. More often than we like to believe, sentencing is motivated by emotional responses to the crime at hand, and are based on factors that should otherwise be irrelevant – a problem that has persisted over centuries to the current day, as is clearly an issue in the case against Bronfman.
If justice is blind, a judge should be held accountable too – to the law they serve. Our courts must find a way to get back to offering true justice that is blind and fair. Judicial activism is not due process.