They don’t call the U.S. Supreme Court a “temple of justice” for nothing.
The interior of the Fortress of The Law is cool marble and quiet dignity. The proceedings of The Tuscaloosa Lady’s Sunday Afternoon Tea Club and Literary Salon are a riot by comparison. Even the justices’ walkers are oiled so they don’t make a sound.
I once covered the Supreme Court as a reporter for The Washington Times and I never heard a voice raised in anger — or even believable passion (as opposed to thespian art from one or another advocate) — inside the court’s chamber.
Well, pretty much.
There was the morning in November 1983 when the Court was hearing argument in the case of Keeton v. Hustler. Porno magnate Larry Flynt, whose magazine was being sued, decided to weigh in. He hoisted himself up in his gold-plated wheel chair at the back of the spectator’s section and shouted a string of profanity. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger ordered the marshals to ”take that man into custody.”
For the most part, however, parties keep their mouths shut in the legal holy-of-holies. The lawyers who appear before conduct themselves in a most magisterial way. All the place needs is incense.
This week, the Court decided the appeal of Chicago gangster Michael Rivera, in the case of Rivera v. Illinois. The case arrived at the court on a technicality concerning a defense challenge to one member of the jury that found him guilty of first degree murder. In 1998 Rivera shot to death a man whom he mistakenly believed was a member of another gang.
Rivera presented no factual defense at the trial of the case, so the Court’s reported opinion — which ruled against Rivera — is strictly on the legal technicalities. It’s pretty dull reading for most of us.
But there’s a story behind every case that makes it up to the Supreme Court.
For example, there were a number of death penalty cases during the period I was covering the Court, I found it remarkable that the media hardly ever reported in detail the facts of murderers’ crimes. It was as if their brutal depredations had no place in the public debate about the ultimate penalty. I thought otherwise, and made it a point to dig the underlying facts out of the briefs so that my readers could have the whole picture.
The facts underlying the case of Michael Rivera are a perfect illustration of gangster culture as it is. The following summary is extracted from the report of one of Rivera’s several appeals in Illinois state courts:
Defendant was a member of the “Insane Deuces” street gang and held the rank of “chief enforcer.” In the early morning hours of January 10, 1998, defendant was riding in a van with several individuals who were gang members. Defendant saw the victim walking near a housing complex known as the Lathrop Homes. Defendant mistakenly believed that the victim was a “Stone,” a member of a rival gang. Defendant left the van accompanied by two fellow gang members. Defendant fired several shots from a revolver. One bullet struck the victim in the back of his head and killed him. After the shooting, defendant and the two other gang members returned to the van yelling gang slogans including “Stone killer.” Later, displaying the revolver to other gang members, defendant bragged that he was a “Stone killer.” The police recovered the revolver from another gang member.
There is no gang squad in any city of any size whose members can’t reel off a litany of similar murders. Gangster on the prowl are a small facet of Hannah Arendt’s philosophical concept of the “banality of evil” — the gangsters have normalized and rationalized their senseless killing in such a way that they think being a “Stone killer” is to be good, not bad. (In April 2008 six Insane Deuce gangsters were convicted in a federal RICO case in Chicago, some of them on several counts of murder.)
The facts of Rivera’s case fit seamlessly into the template of two Chicago gang murders I write about in my forthcoming book (No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement). Gangsters go out riding around with a gun looking for a rival or perceived rival to kill, because that is just what gangsters do. The murder for which Latin King leader Gino Colon was originally sent up was the same kind of random street assassination.
In another case I write about, the punk kid gangster doing the shooting missed his intended target. But one of the bullets he fired hit a beautiful seven-year old girl two blocks away in the back of her head, taking her innocent life.