The Criminal Legal System for Radicals
Tilted Scales Collective, July 10, 2016
Setting and Balancing Personal, Political, and Legal Goals
This text is a chapter-length excerpt from the upcoming A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, to be released ideally near the end of 2016 by Combustion Books.
As a political defendant, you will be dealing with the criminal legal system on its own turf. The political level of your situation includes largely unfathomable technicalities and procedures that are designed to disempower you and make it necessary to hire an expert (i.e., a lawyer). You can also approach your predicament on a political level, which may be more familiar ground to you and your supporters. A political defense may be less limited by the court’s rules, ranging from complete disregard of those rules to calculated rebellions against the court’s authority while attempting not to jeopardize your case entirely. Regardless of the balance you strike between political and legal defenses, you will also need to think about the personal level: what you want to achieve and what you are willing to endure.
This chapter is meant to help you think about your charges in broad, strategic terms. We explore three goal areas in this chapter: personal, political, and legal. These goal areas overlap a lot, but we have broken them down to facilitate their exploration. We also offer thoughts on ways to effectively balance these goal areas, although we do not presume to be able to tell anyone how they should handle their case. Rather, we encourage all defendants to consider the different ways in which their decisions affect them and others before committing to a course of action. Our social movements do not need more prisoners, yet when people are thrust into these situations, our movements do need dedicated, smart, and informed defendants who hold strong in the face of terrible consequences.
We must begin with examining one of the premises we bring to this chapter: criminal charges can be addressed with both a legal defense and a political defense. When we say “legal defense,” we refer to the legal process itself: pleading not guilty, filing pre-trial motions to dismiss charges and suppress evidence, going through all the stages of trial (from jury selection to the verdict), being acquitted, or being sentenced and mounting appeals. If your legal team sees an opportunity to create social change through your case, or at least to limit the most outrageous abuses of the criminal legal system, your legal defenses may be creative, push the boundaries of the established rules and procedures in court, and/or attempt to inject the politics of the case into the legal record through oral arguments and written motions.