David Usborne: Our Man In New York

American justice: the good guys don't always win
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The Independent Online

I am not averse to the occasional night watching back-to-back episodes of Law & Order with the air-conditioning cranked high. I think it's partly the brainwashing: the very simple, reassuring message that here in New York, good guys win and the baddies get put away.

Of course, it's more complicated. Crime rates are down but the courts and prisons are bursting. Ask David Feige, a former public defender in the Bronx, whose new book, Indefensible: One Lawyer's Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, says everything about the difference between television justice and the real thing. The innocent do not always win, and sometimes the guilty do.

It worries me slightly that judges in New York were told this month that it is all right to carry guns beneath their robes while at the bench. The advisory panel did at least add they should behave "in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary" - ie don't shoot the defendants.

Some defendants fare better than others. For no particular reason, I offer four nominees for this summer's "Slipping-The-Cuffs Award" (with no apology for choosing high profile cases). Three are former cops, while the fourth is a physician with a fine home on the Upper East Side, even though he and his house can now only be spoken of in the past tense.

Congratulations first to Bernard Kerik, New York's former police commissioner, who recently arranged a plea deal on charges that he had a New Jersey construction company with alleged Mafia ties renovate his city apartment for free. Kerik was head of the city's prisons at the time and the company was looking for public contracts. He said "guilty" in court but showed no remorse after the judge accepted the plea, fined him $220,000 and allowed him back to his lucrative security consulting business without spending one day behind bars.

The case of the former policemen, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, is a story of justice gone haywire.

In March, a Brooklyn jury agreed that while serving as detectives, the men had moonlighted for the Mob, setting up or actually committing eight murders. They were sentenced to prison for life - until the same court overturned their convictions in June on a technicality. Although the judge last week denied bail for the pair pending a retrial on lesser charges, they may still go free.

Kerik, Eppolito and Caracappa all benefited from lawyers who understood the way the system works. Our fourth man, Dr Nicholas Bartha, never even got that far. He committed an act of great violence the other day that rattled the dentures of society ladies up and down the length of Madison Avenue as well as the plate-glass windows of my 38th-floor office. Unwittingly, he may also have provided us with the outline of a sequel to The War of the Roses, Hollywood's 1989 study of marital meltdown and revenge.

Bartha, 66, is the man, who blew up his $6m (£3.2m) house on East 62nd Street earlier this month apparently for the sole purpose of denying his ex-wife the pleasure of seeing him comply with a decree from the divorce courts that he leave the house, sell it and share the proceeds with her.

His trial, I think, would have been brief. There is the evidence found by police in the rubble of a rubber hose illegally attached to a gas main as well as the e-mail Bartha sent to his ex-spouse just before the blast saying she would find herself transformed "from gold-digger to ash and rubbish digger". However, because the doctor opted, like a good ship's captain, to go down with his house, he is no longer around to face the music. After clinging on to life in a Manhattan hospital, he finally expelled his last breath six days later. His was a most drastic means of cheating justice, for sure, but an entirely effective one.

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