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Trump's Public Comments In Tweets Could Affect Legal Cases

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump has been vocal about the New York City attacker who killed eight people and wounded several others on Tuesday. In one tweet, the president said the man should get the death penalty. It's unusual for presidents to weigh in on cases that will likely end up in court and for good reason. In some cases, those public comments can affect the outcome of a trial.

Norman Reimer leads the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Welcome to the studio.

NORMAN REIMER: It's great to be here. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: If you're representing someone accused of a crime and the president says that your client should get the death penalty, would that affect the way you approach the case?

REIMER: Well, it would certainly lead me to file certain motions with the court. It's absolutely inappropriate for the prosecuting authority to prejudge a person's guilt, innocence or what the propriety of the penalty should be.

SHAPIRO: The prosecuting authority is a chain of command that leads, in this case, up to the president.

REIMER: That's right. The president is the head of the executive branch of government. It's the executive branch of government that brings the prosecution. There are ethical rules that limit what lawyers can say about a pending case. The fact is that in our system of justice, we give people the presumption of innocence. We give them a fair trial. If the government can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, they're entitled to a conviction. But what they're not entitled to do is prejudge the case, poison the jury pool and create an atmosphere in which somebody can't get a fair trial.

SHAPIRO: There was a similar situation in the case of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and spent five years held by the Taliban. Now, Bergdahl is being sentenced in the military justice system as opposed to the civilian justice system. Does that make a difference?

REIMER: Well, from my perspective, there isn't all that much of a difference. I mean, the president is the commander in chief as far as the military goes, but he's the chief executive as far as the executive branch goes. Either way, there shouldn't be outside interference in the process by which a person's guilt or innocence is determined or by which a penalty is determined.

And I would say this. Yesterday, I think the president said something along the lines of - that our justice system is a laughingstock. Nothing would better typify a laughingstock justice system than the chief executive undermining the fundamental principles that support our constitution. That's why we send soldiers to fight and die - to defend those principles. We have to be willing to defend them at home.

SHAPIRO: Are there examples you can think of from previous presidencies where people have been asked to weigh in on things and demurred?

REIMER: Well, I can think of one example where we weren't dealing with a criminal prosecution but we were dealing with the criminal justice system. If I remember correctly, there was an episode where a professor was arrested up in Cambridge, and President Obama said some things which he very quickly came to regret.

SHAPIRO: This was an incident where police confronted an African-American Harvard professor who was trying to get into his own home. President Obama initially said police acted stupidly. And later he backtracked on those remarks.

REIMER: That is correct. And I think what he realized is that the power of that office is such that it needs to be exercised with great delicacy. Of course that's even geometrically magnified when it's in the context of a criminal prosecution, let alone one which is potentially a capital prosecution.

SHAPIRO: Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, thank you for joining us today.

REIMER: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.