Rights for the Worst of Us

Sometimes, when people are fighting for their rights, someone is able to make a case in court that their constitutional rights were violated and change must happen. Too often, the response – even from people who believe in the right at the middle of the challenge – is that the person making the challenge is not the right person to make the challenge. You see this in non-court proceedings too, with “non-respectable” people being shunned by the very movements they are fighting on behalf of.

Let me tell a story (this will be US-centric, since that’s what I know) about a man arrested for the rape of a teenage girl in Arizona. After he was arrested, a confession was sought. The police did have a lot of evidence that this man did the crime, but of course they wanted to build a stronger case. So, during their interrogation, they managed to get the suspect to confess to the crime. With this and other evidence, he was tried and found guilty – and received two sentences of 20 to 30 years each, one for kidnapping and one for rape.

This man – Ernesto Miranda – challenged the ruling, saying that while he did write the confession and did sign a statement that he was aware of his rights, he never was told that he had the right to an attorney during questioning. This case of course became famous – the Supreme Court of the US decided that the confession was wrongfully obtained and could not be used. This created the important “Miranda Warning” protections we have in the US today (well, for some people). It also wiped out the trial court’s verdict, so a new trial was held.

During this new trial of Ernesto for the rape and kidnapping of the teenager, he was again found guilty, this time without his confession being introduced as evidence. He was sentenced to 20 to 30 years, but ultimately released in 1972 on parole. Ironically, when he was murdered in 1976 during a bar fight, his suspected murderer, after being advised of his Miranda rights, chose to remain silent, the case against the suspect ended up dismissed due to a lack of evidence.

Miranda was guilty of his crime, with or without his police confession. Rape and kidnapping are pretty disgusting crimes. Yet, this very non-respectable person managed to get the rest of us some rights.

We saw the same thing in Lawrence v. Texas, where sodomy laws were challenged. Lawrence and Eugene were charged with sodomy (actually, “deviant sex”). There is a lot of debate about whether or not we was having sex (two of the four officers responding did not report seeing any sex, the third officer said he saw oral sex, and the final officer said he saw anal sex), but at the end of the day his legal team fought the charges on the basis of equal protection under the law, not lack of evidence that the crime was being committed, in a desire to change the law. What isn’t as commonly known is that Lawrence was with not one man, but two. The man he was accused of committing sodomy with was a roommate of the third man at Lawrence’s apartment. Both Garnet (the man Lawrence was accused of having sex with) and Eubanks (the roommate of Garnet) had criminal histories. After an drunken argument broke out (with loud shouting and threats, that were heard by neighbors), the third man, insulted that the other two were flirting with each other, called police and reported “a black male going crazy with a gun” in the apartment where all three were. Police responded, although what happened following this differs in the police version vs. Lawrence’s versions of events and isn’t really relevant, other than the fact that in the various reports, Lawrence was quite angry and upset about police busting into his apartment without a warrant – and made that clear to them.

So, one of the pivotal cases in gay rights revolves around a possible love triangle involving three drunk men arguing, two of which had prior criminal histories. Not quite the message HRC wants to put out about who gays are (nor is it an accurate reflection of who they are). Yet, at the same time, they did have rights – and those rights, as recognized by the courts, included the right to consensual sexual relations within a private home – an important right for all of us, gay or straight.

These are hardly the only cases where rights were recognized as a result of less-than-presentable people bringing challenges to the law. So the next time you see an autistic person who isn’t as presentable as you might like, remember they might win the battle that you’re also wanting.

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