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Justice for One

May. 28, 2008
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A former Milwaukee elected official just completed his first year behind bars—and he hasn’t been convicted of any crime. This man is being held without bail even though he has deep roots in the community and is not considered a risk to flee the city—though a lot of people in power wish he would.

Former Alderman Michael McGee Jr. would never give his political enemies the satisfaction. But the longer McGee is incarcerated without trial, the more obvious and embarrassing it becomes that there is one system of justice for Michael McGee Jr. and another for everyone else.

Both Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm and U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic have acknowledged that the controversial black politician is being treated differently from others accused of similar crimes. But both have said the public should wait until all of the details come out at trial before judging whether the unequal treatment of McGee has been justified.

The public’s wait just got longer. The trial on state charges started last week. A jury was seated, one of the most racially balanced juries in Milwaukee County history, consisting of eight whites, six blacks and one Latino, including alternates.

Then, before any opening statements or testimony could begin, the trial was abruptly blown out of the water. The jury was dismissed and any further decision on how to proceed on state charges was put off until July. There were already enough racial overtones in this trial of a young black leader who uses fiery rhetoric to call out the city’s white establishment on behalf of the black and the poor. Now, success of both the state and federal charges against McGee may turn on Arabic language translations of recorded conversations involving a key witness against McGee in both trials.

Incredibly, the Arabic translations were not turned over to McGee’s defense attorneys until the day the trial began. And even the district attorney agreed that the conversations could provide the defense with legal arguments that the government entrapped McGee.

Presiding Judge Dennis Moroney had previously berated prosecutors for failing to provide ordered documents to the defense as required by law. Moroney is scheduled to rotate to civil court in August. Since it is unlikely a new trial could be scheduled before then, the case will likely pass to Circuit Judge Richard Sankovitz, who could proceed very differently from Moroney.

Moroney had set up a bizarre trial with two juries to decide different charges in the case. (We told you there was a unique system of justice for McGee.) Both juries would have heard some evidence and arguments simultaneously. Then, the juries would sit through separate trials, one right after the other, in which jurors would hear only evidence and arguments relating to the charges they were to decide. Then, both juries would deliberate separately, simultaneously.

Anyone who watches “Law & Order” could predict how fraught with legal errors and appeals that two-ring courtroom circus would be.

Federal Violations?
The federal trial against McGee also could be threatened by the latest developments. The Arabic translations that caused the state trial to implode involve the same key witness in the federal case. The recordings were made by an undercover federal agent, and the witness’ credibility already presented problems for both state and federal prosecutors.

The witness is an Arab businessman who calls himself Adel or Jack Kheirieh. He’s alleged to have used other names for himself and various businesses. Kheirieh was primary accuser who claimed McGee solicited a bribe in exchange for supporting a business license. Kheirieh also was a candidate for McGee’s aldermanic seat after McGee was arrested last Memorial Day.

Federal investigators regularly met with political enemies of McGee. More than one candidate for McGee’s aldermanic seat wore hidden recording devices to gather information for federal investigators, according to preliminary testimony.

The recorded Arabic conversation which Kheirieh and others discussed how to get McGee to violate campaign-funding laws took place during a meeting of a federal agent and the men at a fund-raiser for the recall effort against McGee. There are very good reasons why all of us should be wary of growing government intrusion into our private lives, including the use of wiretaps and hidden recording devices.

Private speech, once protected in this country, can now become a crime punishable by a year or more in jail without a trial. Many people who don’t like McGee are perfectly happy to have him in jail whether he is ever convicted of anything or not.

The problem with setting up a special system of justice to jail Michael McGee Jr. that we never know when some of us might need those constitutional guarantees of fair trials and equal justice—the same ones we’re tossing in the trash.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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