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As a general rule, criminal defendants whose cases made it to the Supreme Court between 1967 and 1991 must have thought that, as long as Justice Thurgood Marshall occupied one of the nine seats, they had one vote for sure. And Justice Marshall rarely disappointed them – certainly not in cases of any broad constitutional significance. From his votes and opinions, particularly his dissents, many were quick to conclude that the Justice was another of those "bleeding heart liberals," hostile to the mission of law enforcement officers and ready to overlook the gravity of the crimes of which the defendants before him had been convicted.

A short conversation with the man would have put any such assumptions to rest. One needed only to sense his pride in his son John's work as a Virginia State Trooper,' his respect for clever but honest prosecutors, or his hostility and contempt for drug traffickers ("dopers" he would call them), to be sure that Justice Marshall had little sympathy for outlaws, and much for those trying to enforce the law. Furthermore, there was no disjunction between the Justice's privately expressed sentiments and public utterances. It is true that many of his criminal procedure opinions, had they become law, might have made it more difficult to convict criminal defendants. His legal positions, however, seem to have been rooted, not in any overarching ideology of limited government, but in an intense awareness, based upon long experience, that those who wield the authority of the state are but human actors. Just as he respected those who exercised this authority with decency and integrity, he sought to ensure that those who did not would not prevail. He was also keenly aware of the humanity of those against whom the forces of the state were arrayed, and he recognized that illegitimate coercion can arise as easily from a suspect's fear of official misconduct as it can from actual misconduct.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Law | Supreme Court of the United States