This is the third in a series of posts in which I use the George Ryan trial to illustrate the unfairness of federal mail fraud and RICO prosecutions.
American courts ordinarily exclude “other acts” evidence. Although a defendant accused of purse-snatching may have been convicted a dozen times of purse-snatching, the jury will not learn of his prior convictions. This “character” or “propensity” evidence will be excluded on the theory that jurors should not be tempted to convict the defendant just because he appears to be a sleazy guy. They should focus only on the government’s accusation of a particular wrongful act at a particular time. The trial of George Ryan and Larry Warner will depart from this vision of justice. It will move toward the example set by Soviet trials for “hooliganism.” Ryan and Warner may be tried, in effect, for the federal crime of wheeling and dealing while sleazy (and, in Warner’s case, while rich and, in Ryan’s, while political).