The “Pay-to-Win” Justice System

In the capitalist society that we live in, being wealthy gives defendants an advantage in getting away with crimes.

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While money technically can’t buy everything, there are times when it feels almost as if it can. Instead of facing jail time, throwing money around in a seemingly “pay-to-win” justice system does the trick far more often than one may think. Other times, simply having massive amounts of money is enough to get away with crimes. It seems that with money, even acquittal is buyable.

One of the main reasons the wealthy can get away with crimes is because of our skewed court system. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court, under liberal then-Chief Justice Earl Warren, advocated for the rights of the poor; when former President Richard Nixon took office in 1968, he replaced the former court with wealth-favoring conservatives. In the 1983 Supreme Court case of Raymond Dirks, Dirks—a wealthy Wall Street investor advisor—illegally gave insider information to his clients in order to make money. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) opened an investigation that made it clear that Dirks had violated the SEC’s nondisclosure rule. Still, despite the evidence, Dirks’s conviction was overturned. This was because of the “white collar paradox,” where conservative Supreme Court justices show much greater sympathy toward rich defendants while rarely voting to overturn convictions of poor criminals. Since 2020, the Supreme Court has become more conservative than an estimated 75 percent of the U.S. public, skewing issues of policy, regulations, and criminal charges toward the wealthy. Though this biased court was established in the mid-20th century, it still exists today, with the ideological gap only continuing to grow.

The Supreme Court system isn’t the only thing that helps the rich evade admissions of guilt. Wealthier defendants are also able to hire better lawyers. Expensive lawyers are usually far more qualified and can identify loopholes, often entirely twisting a scenario in favor of the criminal. The famous O.J. Simpson case in 1994 had even more severe charges than Dirks’s—a prosecution of the double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Evidence of guilt was obvious from the blood drops found at the murder scene that distinctly contained O.J. Simpson’s genetic markers, the hair from one of the victim’s shirts being microscopically identical to Simpson’s, to the bloody shoe prints found at the scene from a unique Italian shoe brand in Simpson’s size. Despite all this, Simpson, a former NFL player, got off scot-free because his wealth and reputation allowed him to hire the “Dream Team,” a defense team led by Robert Shapiro that was recognized as the best lawyers that money could buy at the price of $50,000 per day. On the other hand, the victims’ families never got justice, and they expressed their indignance at the fact that the victim Ron Goldman would never be able to live his life while the killer was permitted to walk free. When Simpson was interviewed after his acquittal, he admitted that if he had been an average middle-class citizen instead of a rich ex-NFL player, he would not have had a chance in the case. 

While money plays a large role in helping the wealthy get away with crimes, it may sometimes instigate crimes too. Such cases have pegged the term “affluenza,” a psychosis associated with extreme wealth and status that results in the inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions. The 2013 trial of Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old who drunkenly killed four pedestrians after consuming stolen beer, popularized this term. Psychologist G. Dick Miller, who had been hired as part of Couch’s defense team, claimed that the teen suffered from affluenza, arguing that he should be sent to a rehabilitation center rather than serve jail time. This contention essentially meant that the Couch family’s extreme wealth prevented Couch from learning right from wrong, and thus shouldn’t be held responsible for the crime. In the end, Couch was sentenced to a mere 720 days in jail for killing four individuals, even though affluenza, according to Temple University Educational Psychology professor Frank Farley, has no medical basis whatsoever.

On the other hand, there are cases when the lack of money has ended in convictions without much evidence. In 1986, Keith Harward was wrongfully convicted in prison for murder and rape, despite having a strong alibi and several supporting witnesses. In 2016, 33 years following his initial sentences, he was conclusively exonerated by DNA evidence. The main piece of evidence that convicted him was based on “poor people science,” a term explaining how courts are far more lax with admitting evidence from defendants with limited resources, as opposed to wealthy defendants, for civil cases. In Harward’s case, this evidence was that his teeth matched bite marks on the deceased victim, even though the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Academy of Sciences have long criticized the validity of such evidence. 

Despite the presence of a clear “wrong,” in all of these cases, the U.S. capitalistic justice system has made it so that the rich can avoid admitting to their wrongdoings. While it’s hard to watch someone who had proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt get away with a mere slap on the wrist, it is also difficult to completely overturn America’s unjust court system at once, considering that it’s been established since Nixon’s presidency. Still, steps such as offering more qualified lawyers to poorer defendants, or promoting law to all socioeconomic backgrounds can be taken to help equalize the playing field between the rich and the poor. It might not stop the wealthy from getting away with crimes, but revising the biased court system can help make it so that the poor’s and middle classes’ lives aren’t ruined by unjustified sentences at the hands of a biased court.