Show Trials

Show Trials


The term show trial is a pejorative description of a type of highly public trial. The term was first recorded in the 1930s. There is a strong connotation that the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt of the defendant and that the actual trial has as its only goal to present the accusation and the verdict to the public as an impressive example and as a warning.

From Wikipedia.

Attorney General Eric Holder decided to try several terrorists in criminal court … in New York City. At the scene of the crime, as it were.

This decision led to a large rally in opposition this past weekend, as chronicled in the FrumForum:

The growing public outrage over Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try the 9/11 plotters in a civilian court was on full display this past weekend in New York City. A rally organized by 9/11 Never Forget drew a large crowd of protesters and a list of high-profile speakers to Foley Square, the heart of the federal government’s court system in Manhattan. Cold temperatures and driving rain did not deter those assembled from letting it be known that no good can come from Holder’s plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in federal court.

Despite the fact that the long-standing tradition of trying war criminals in military tribunals, and the Congress’ work in formulating tribunal procedures that passed constitutional muster, Holder expressed the view that trying the mastermind of the largest attack on a civilian population would somehow show the world how noble we are.

But a recurring theme of the political leaders is that the trials could not possibly result in an acquittal for the defendants, so “don’t worry” about that. Republicans and Democrats have echoed this view, including Senator Lindsay Graham in the first 25 seconds of this video, with Holder’s agreement:

The U.S. legal system purports to offer “blind justice”, complete with robust constitutional rights to protect the accused. These trials violate at least two of the principles underlying that goal.

It is unthinkable that the accused would be forced to stand trial in the emotional center of the crime. An inflamed jury does not reach a fair and impartial decision. An attorney that doesn’t promptly ask for a change of venue from “the scene of the crime” provides grounds for an appeal.

It will be hard finding an impartial jury anywhere in the US, but nearly impossible in New York City. Moving the trial to another large city, with the necessary security apparatus already in place, is a must.

But its unlikely that this very basic legal protection will be afforded these defendants. One of the stated purposes is to hold the trial at the scene of the crime, and defense attorneys, wishing for the most publicity they can garner for their own self-aggrandizement, will short change the rights of the accused.

Even if the trial is held in, say Chicago, the most serious problem still exists: we do not pre-judge the outcome of trials. While prosecutors often state their confidence in their cases, the mayor, governor or, even our dear President, should not:

In one of a series of TV interviews during his trip to Asia, Mr. Obama said those offended by the legal privileges given to Mohammed by virtue of getting a civilian trial rather than a military tribunal won’t find it “offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”

Mr. Obama quickly added that he did not mean to suggest he was prejudging the outcome of Mohammed’s trial. “I’m not going to be in that courtroom,” he said. “That’s the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury.”

President Obama, as quoted by CBS News.

Despite his legendary quick thinking, evidenced here by the President immediately trying to wipe the doo-doo from his shoe, his administration’s plan is revealed: the fix is in.

Holder has already told us the outcome of the trial regardless of the verdict: if found not guilty, we will detain and try the defendants as enemy combatants.

And that will show the world how fair we are?

Cross posted to

  • Rob

    I guess he had to say that they would be tried as enemy combatants, because of pearl clutching concern trolls like you.

  • Frank Hagan

    Rob, what is “pearl clutching concern”? Daniel Pearl’s parents submitted a statement for the rally just held that features prominently in the link I provided. Is it in reference to him? Or is your insult directed solely to me (I hope the latter.)

  • Transplanted Lawyer

    Agree that Holder’s remark calls into serious question the justice of the trial. If the consequence of the trial is pre-determined, we might as well not have a trial at all. Show trials were something Stalin and Hitler did; they should be anathema to a freedom-loving people who cherish the rule of law.

    Disagree that venue ought to be elsewhere than New York. The Constitution requires venue to be in the district where the alleged crime took place. As to the bias of the jury, do you think KSM would get a fairer trial in, say, Nashville, Indianapolis, or Des Monies? Or maybe San Francisco or Seattle?

    Agree that a military tribunal is not necessary unconstitutional and that in this case it would probaby have been a better way to go than a civilian court. The reason why is that the trial would inherently involve the finder of fact viewing confidential information.

    Disagree that a courthouse and holding facility in New York City cannot be made adequately secure to hold the trial. It’ll be expensive, sure, but adequate security would be expensive in Nashville, Indianapolis, Des Monies, San Francisco or Seattle, too.

  • blackout

    Good Lord, Frank. Even if you didn’t know the phrase, try a search engine for pete’s sake. Daniel Pearl? Really?

  • Nick Benjamin

    @ Frank:
    Elected officials frequently comment on the probable outcome of a trial. In some cases their failure to condemn the accused actually gets them in trouble. My own Gov. Granholm caught hell for not taking a side during Kwame Kilpatrick’s legal saga.

    As far as defendant’s attorneys out for self-aggrandizement what do you think would help an attorney’s career more? Saving KSM from the chair in some backwater, or losing in a large media market? If I was a really rich dude accused of some horrendous crime I’d hire the dude who saved KSM in KC over the dude who got KSM fried in NYC.

    As for the enemy combatant argument, isn’t that the legal equivalent of saying “We’re gonna try him for being a drug lord, but if he gets off we’ll hold him on unrelated charges.”

  • Frank Hagan

    TL – good point on the venue issue; still, NY is a big state, and holding the trial in a less affected place “within the district” would be more fair to the defendants. Change of venue is a common, and necessary, protection for the rights of the accused.

    blackout: I wasn’t aware of the phrase that arose, according to your link, from the “gay Maryland circle”. Its clear from my post that I’m not concerned about security, not gasping in shock, but stunned by the cheapening of our legal standards by those sworn to uphold the Constitution. I have found that any criticism of the current administration throws some supporters into a reflexive defense mode where invective replaces discourse. The “pearl” reference seemed weak to me, unless it was a play on Daniel Pearl’s parents letter (read it in the link to see where I thought it might apply). They seem to be clutching at their (Daniel) Pearl’s memory and saying there is a danger from these guys. Perhaps if I saw my son beheaded on the Internet I might say the same thing.

    Nick – “unrelated charges”? Really? I supsect the Supremes will rule on this, if it happens, and decide that a person acquitted in criminal court cannot be held on the same charges as an enemy combatant. ‘

    Its a mockery of our system, not a shining example of it. It is a sham.

  • Tully

    Of course, “rob” thinks that writing your own post makes you a “concern troll” when the only “concern troll” behavior is his own and post authoring is definitionally not trolling at all — that’s reserved for the commentariat.

    So perhaps you should make allowances for diminished capacity. 😉

  • kranky kritter

    I find the idea that the defendants could get a substantially fairer trial anywhere else in America preposterous.

    And I agree with everyone who thinks that there is absolutely no chance of a verdict of not guilty. But I don’t find it especially troubling. Where TL calls it predetermined, I would substitute inevitable, which is a little different. The way I figure it, with 7 years to cross the T’s and dot the I’s, the choice of trial signals only that Holder et al harbor no doubts about any weaknesses in their case.

    Given the choice between a military tribunal and the course Holder has chosen, it’s pretty obvious to me at least that the criminal trial gives a better appearance to America in terms of our faith in our system of justice.

    But let’s face it, we don’t really expect the trial to change any foreign minds about America, right? I mean, seriously. We don’t expect anyone to say “well I used to think that America was the Great Satan, but after the trial, well I saw how seriously they cared about justice and fairness.” I mean, come on.

  • blackoutyears

    Frank, that was merely the first link that popped up using Google; I believe the next one was from the Urban Dictionary if that’s butch enough for you. While it’s not to your discredit that you are not aware of the phrase, it is to your discredit that you’d post a response before cutting and pasting some combination of *clutching* and *pearl(s)* into the search engine of your choice to see what it meant. Any possible connection to Daniel Pearl was tenuous at best, which is generally a reliable sign that there’s an alternative meaning to your surmise. Just saying.

    I don’t think the charge applies to you FWIW.

  • Nick Benjamin


    S11 is far from the only dirt we have on this guy. AQ is a paramilitary force that fights us, so if we can prove that he is a member he’s an enemy combatant. Period. His participation in a specific attack is irrelevant to that.

    IMO he’s actually probably best off being tried by us. He’s also been linked to the Danny Pearl murder in Pakistan, and the Bali Bombings in Indonesia. Indonesia has already executed several Bali Bombers, and I sincerely doubt the current Pakistani gevernment would be slow to hang a friend of the Taliban.

    I agree this won’t convince Bin Laden and true believers we’re angels. But it will make it difficult for them to recruit. If you’re an idiotic teenage boy who do you join for glory — the Egyptian Army, which managed to almost beat Israel that one time, or a group that forced the US to ignore the Bill of Rights?

    Get KSM out of GitMo and he is instantly demoted to the Tim McVeigh league of terrorists.

  • kranky kritter

    I have a very, very difficult time imagining an idiotic teenage muslim boy who appreciates the distinction between a military tribunal and criminal trial. Especially given that probably 95% of American teenaged idiots couldn’t do so.

    The idiotic teenage muslim boy understands glory and jihad and martyrdom pretty well. My suspicion is that a muslim boy will gather little more than that a purported muslim hero is being paraded in a show trial, and is destined for glorious martyrdom.

    In the intervening years since 9/11, I’ve heard lots of people make lots and lots of different clams about recruitment of new muslim terrorists and how various policies, statements and actions will affect such recruitment. Every one of these statements has felt to me like pure speculation designed to support the speculator’s political inclinations within whatever context the idea arose.

    I don’t pretend to have the ability to predict how our actions and policies affect the perspectives of potential recruits. IMO, if we want to stem the flow of new recruits, we should stop trying to get into the heads of potential recruits and concentrate on continuing to thin the ranks of the recruiters.

    I have yet to come across an argument about how our policies and actions effect potential terrorist recruits that strikes me as especially worthy of being taken seriously.

  • Nick Benjamin

    In my experience idiot teens are not idiots because they’re actually stupid. They’re idiots because they have no real-world experience, particularly with strong emotions and hormones.

    Teens are very good at excuses. And if the pro-American adults start making excuses for our treatment of GitMo detainees this is what will penetrate their fevered brains:

    1) America claims to stand for certain absolute moral principles, and then does the exact opposite. Otherwise would not be making excuses.

    2) They only do this to AQ, as makes no excuses about Tim McVeigh.

    The only logical conclusion anyone can draw from that is that AQ is one of the most important organizations in the entire world.

    Obviously this trial won’t totally end that dynamic. But it will start.

  • kranky kritter

    You owe it to yourself to watch translations of all the al-jazeera coverage of this trial when it happens. Keep track of how often commentators point out the symbolic importance of trying KSM in a criminal proceeding instead of a military tribunal, so that Al-jazeera viewers can grasp this distinction. Forgive me for thinking it won’t come up very often. Only an educated guess on my part.

    I sincerely think it’s preposterous that a teenage muslim boy would view this trial and grasp your cpntention that its a bold counterexample to America claims to stand for certain absolute moral principles, and then does the exact opposite.

    Bear in mind of course, the high probability that this hypothetical muslim boy is being educated in a mosque, or not at all.

    I hope my comments here don’t offend you, I’m not saying them to be demeaning. I honestly think this idea is just completely ridiculous and utterly unrealistic. Americans who traffic in such ideas do so because they find them comforting. But where’s the reality check on whether a teenaged boy watches TV while forming subtle philosophical and sociopolitical distinctions?

    The way you reach people like our hypothetical boy is by delivering a generation of political stability where expectations are met, promises are kept, and hopes for a future with reasonable opportunity can be formed. If we can’t help willing muslims make local chaos and strife a distant bad memory, then we couldn’t win their respect by electing KSM president, never mind convicting him in a fair criminal trial.

  • Nick Benjamin


    You seem to think I’m saying this trial will magically end the war in Afghanistan. I’m not. I’m saying it’ll hurt AQ recruiting. Maybe not by much, but in a war it’s pretty silly to give the other guy an advantage you don’t have to give him.