Learning the Law: A Lesson for Lou Dobbs

Lou Dobbs was at it again last night, unleashing a foaming-mouth attack on the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which the CNN host variously described as “left wing,” “liberal,” “pitiful,” “an absolute disgrace,” and a “socio-ethnic

centric special interest” group with an “open borders agenda.” Dobbs was livid because a short, just-released story in the SPLC’s Intelligence Report — about two Border Patrol agents, Ignacio Ramos and José Compean, now serving 11- and 12-year prison terms for shooting an unarmed border crosser and then covering up evidence and filing false official reports — highlighted and criticized Dobbs’ glorification of the pair.

Repeatedly promoting his upcoming segment last night, Dobbs said he’d have a thing or two to say about the SPLC’s “concept of law and justice” and added that the SPLC “doesn’t understand the concept of justice and presumption of innocence.” “[I]n this country,” Dobbs sputtered once he finally got to his segment, “there is a nativist tradition that says people are presumed innocent until proved guilty. What the Southern Poverty Law Center doesn’t seem to understand is that in this country, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, not the defendants.”

Well, yes. But isn’t that, umm, before conviction?

“Dobbs just doesn’t get it,” said Richard Cohen, president of the SPLC and, unlike Dobbs, an actual lawyer. “The presumption of innocence applies throughout the trial process, but not after a jury has rendered a guilty verdict. Dobbs can presume Ramos and Compean to be innocent all he wants. But in the eyes of the law, they’re guilty because they’ve been tried and convicted.”

Not that there’s much to suggest that they shouldn’t have been. As pointed out in an excellent and exhaustive examination of the case printed last September in Salon.com, there is virtually nothing substantial to back up the assertion that Ramos and Compean were unjustly convicted — aside, that is, from the narrative of the events dreamed up by the far right. In the words of Salon.com, this right-wing narrative was “cobbled together from speculation, rumors, misstatements of fact and various unproven assertions cherry-picked from the case the defense presented at trial.” Salon.com also noted Dobbs’ preeminent role in promoting this apparent fairy tale.

Of course, it’s always possible the agents will prevail on appeal. Certainly, many right-wing politicians and pundits think they should. But for now, the jury has spoken. And so have a whole series of journalists a lot more serious than Dobbs.

Salon.com, a relatively liberal online magazine, was hardly alone in its picture of the case. Texas Monthly, a prestigious regional magazine, ran a similarly exhaustive piece that painted a similar picture of the facts. The magazine also criticized Dobbs’ role, noting that, as of late August, he had promoted the case of what he called “these two outstanding Border Patrol agents” at least 131 times on his show. The Wall Street Journal editorially denounced Dobbs’ “pseudo-reporting” on the case. Even Bill O’Reilly, hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, reminded viewers of his Fox News Channel show that the agents had “shot the guy in the butt when he was running away.” (The victim was badly injured but was able to flee back to Mexico.) As The Houston Chronicle asked in an editorial of those who promote the two agents’ claims: “Why have they chosen to make deceitful law enforcement officers their darlings?”

But it was the prosecutor Johnny Sutton, a highly conservative Texas lawyer who worked for President Bush in Texas and Washington, who may have said it best in a comment to Texas Monthly. “What makes America great is the rule of law,” Sutton said. “It applies to everyone, no matter how powerful and important they may be.”