ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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Forty years ago today the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Miranda vs. Arizona. The court held that criminal suspects must be informed of their right to consult with an attorney and of their right against self-incrimination before the police question them.
Commentator Melissa Waters teaches international law at Washington and Lee Universities and she says the experience of Iraqi lawyers and judges can be a window in the meaning of Miranda in the U.S.
MELISSA WATERS reporting:
No Supreme Court decision in history has had more impact on American pop culture than Miranda. Today, Americans everyone can recite, "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law." We know our Miranda rights so well that we take them for granted.
Over the past three years I've had a glimpse into a Miranda-less world as part of my work with Iraqi judges and lawyers in their brave struggle to rebuild the Iraqi legal system. For most Iraqis the right to remain silent seems downright puzzling, as one older gentlemen said to me. I do not think I understand this right. If a police officer cannot force a person to speak, how can he obtain a confession? Doesn't this right to remain silent make it much more difficult for the police? To the Iraqis it is incomprehensible that police officers would have an obligation to inform suspects of their rights.
But the fundamental premise of Miranda, that a suspect must know his rights in order to ensure a fair trial, is making some headway even in Iraq. My friend Ahmed, a lawyer in Bagdad, told me the story of a client of his who had been arrested by the police for a crime that he didn't commit. The police refused Ahmed to meet with his client, but he managed to send a message through the client's wife. When the police attempt to question you, Ahmed instructed, tell them under international human rights law and the Iraqi Constitution, I have the right to remain silent. I do not have to give you my confession.
His client was beaten black and blue by the Baghdad police, but Ahmed concluded triumphantly, they never got him to confess.
To my amazement, Ahmed described his client's encounter with the police as a major victory for human rights. How, I asked him, how could this represent a victory? He explained that his client refused to confess because, unlike most Iraqis, he understood his rights. And because the police were unable to force a confession from him, they dropped the charges and released him from jail. Ahmed told me, if my client had not known he had the right to remain silent, the police would have beaten a false confession from him and today he would be in prison.
Not exactly what we in American would call a major victory for human rights and yet we Americans grapple just as the Iraqis do with the balance between a suspect's rights and the criminal justice system. After all, Miranda has changed in the 40 years since its birth. Major Supreme Court decisions since then have significantly eroded some of its core protections. Police officers around the country learn how to manipulate police interrogations so that they can observe the letter but perhaps not the spirit of Miranda.
The American system is one of the strongest in the world, but it is far from perfect and we make a grave mistake if we urge the Iraqis to emulate our successes in protecting human rights without also acknowledging our struggles. The Iraqis have much farther to go in realizing the rights expressed so eloquently in their constitution. But the challenges are the same for both countries. We would do well to remain humble and to remember that no country has a monopoly on the perfect criminal justice system.
SIEGEL: Melissa Waters teaches international law at Washington and Lee Universities.