Annals Of CourtWatch: Why I Love My Job

John Demjanjuk, second from right, is taken from his home in Seven Hills, Ohio by immigration agents as former son-in-law Ed Nishnic, top, looks on, April 14, 2009. Demjanjuk is being deported to Germany to face charges he was a guard at a Nazi death camp during World War II. (AP Photo/Jason Miller) AP Photo/Jason Miller

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

Let me share with you my day, Tuesday, which to you was probably just another ordinary day in the march of the law. I woke up, bolted down some coffee, and before 7 a.m. did a radio interview with our Las Vegas affiliate about the second-degree murder conviction of Phil Spector Monday in California. The host at KXNT was remarkably chipper for having to be on the radio at 7 in the morning in the real city that never sleeps.

Next, I learned from Blog of Legal Times that federal prosecutors offered former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens a plea deal before he was indicted last year. Of course, now we know why the feds offered the deal: Their case was in trouble and they knew it. But just imagine how Alaskan history might have been different had Stevens swallowed his pride and accepted that deal. Would Alaskans have re-elected him? I'd love to know what he thinks about that.

Then for a few hours I followed the story of the Spanish prosecutor intent upon charging former Bush Administration officials with torture. I asked the Justice Department for comment and got none. And my colleagues at the White House asked Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the matter but got nothing from him as well. If Spain goes ahead with the case it will have legal, political and diplomatic ramifications but all I really want to know is whether and to what extent President Obama is going to protect Bush-era officials.

Somewhere in here, I got an e-mail from a colleague here at CBS News whose wife is a lawyer. Never a good sign. She wondered why the Somali teenage pirate cannot be charged with the death penalty here in the States under the felony-murder doctrine. The doctrine allows prosecutors to go for capital punishment in cases where a murder occurs during the commission of a felony even if the original intent of the defendant was not premeditated murder. Does the doctrine extend under federal law to deaths caused directly, as here, by law enforcement officials? Imagine the ramifications of that!

Then I learned that Joseph Naccio, the former head of Qwest Communications, finally was forced to report to a federal prison following an insider trading conviction two years ago. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer ordered him to prison even though Nacchio's appeal is still live. Shows you what the Supreme Court and the 10th Circuit think about Nacchio's chances of ever winning that appeal, right? I've been covering this story for years, too, although it pales now in comparison to the Madoff story and other more recent accounts of corporative greed.

Next it was the arraignment of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. As expected, he pleaded not guilty. As expected, his legal team is in chaos right now. As expected, Blagojevich misquoted a famous person in trying to gin up public support for himself. What a zoo that case will be. So far though no truth to the rumor that Blagojevich wants to be tried in Kenya with aforementioned pirate suspect so he can get a fairer trial.

On a more serious note, then came the John Demjanjuk story, now square-on into its second generation of frustrating delays. The Department of Justice first accused this guy of being Holocaust death-camp guard "Ivan the Terrible" in 1977. I was 11 years old at the time and was fascinated by the case. And here I am, 32 years later, covering his legal challenges to yet another deportation effort. He has been fighting extradition for so long that he is now old enough to add to his arsenal of arguments that he's too old to be shipped to Germany for trial; that it would amount, literally, to torture.

I was certain that, this time, Demjanjuk actually be forced out again for trial. For those of you joining the story late, the Ohio-resident was forced out of the States during the 1980s and was tried In Israel, convicted of war crimes, sentenced to death, then freed by the Israeli Supreme Court over a witness identification issue. Israel then sent him back to the States where he's been, for about two decades, until Germany, of all nations, decided to bring him to justice.

The pictures on television of Demjanjuk being taken from his home were disturbing. But yet again television images weren't able to accurately inject any context or perspective into the story. This frail old man has received more due process from American courts than any other person in the history of the country. If I am wrong about this than name another. I bet that no fewer than 100 judges, justices or immigration officials have reviewed his file since 1977. The case went to the Supreme Court, how many times? Yet none of that comes across when you see an old man in a wheelchair grimacing.

I was certain that he'd be gone, for good this time, but I was wrong. I hate being wrong. I should have known that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as it has now since the Carter Administration, would come to Demjanjuk's rescue, at least for the moment, while it ponders his novel claim that the United States, under whose protections and rights he has lived for all these years, would be violating international law by expelling him. You want some context and perspective? Read this brief (PDF) filed by the government-probably the 1,000th and hopefully the last-- such document filed in our name since 1977.

So a day that started with creepy Phil Spector ends with creepy John Demjanjuk. And, in between, it was one fascinating thread after another, some connected, some totally random, all involving events and issues which mark the noble ideal that we are still a nation of laws.
  • Andrew Cohen

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