A political trial is a criminal trial with political implications. A composite definition of a political trial might be "an examination before a court concerning the conduct of governmental affairs or somehow relating to government." T. Becker writes that "in a sense, all trials are political. Since courts are government agencies and judges are part of the 'system' all judicial decisions can be considered political." A political trial is characterized by the fact that public opinion and public attitudes on one or more social questions will inevitably have an effect on the decision.
Political trials can include trials for civil disobedience and other forms of protest against government policy. The government may use prosecution to frighten potential supporters and sympathizers of a movement, and to discredit a movement and compel its members to spend time, money and energy avoiding conviction and imprisonment. A defendant in a political trial may offer a "legal defense" or a "political defense". A technical defense would argue that the alleged crime did not occur as a matter of fact or law. In a political defense, a defendant may assert the political motivations behind the conduct in an attempt to convince the jury or the public of the justness of the political motivations and of the injustice of the prosecution.
There is some question as to whether political trials are necessary or if they are a disease of politics and law. Political justice is defined in terms of the state's reaction to perceived threat; and political prisoners are defined as those incarcerated because of either political crime (political criminals) or political justice (victims of repression).
Defendants in political trials tend to participate in the proceedings more than defendants in non-political cases, as they may have greater ability to depart from courtroom norms to speak to political and moral issues. It has been suggested that in political cases, justice will be better served if the lists used to impanel jurors are more complete and if challenges and excuses are minimized, in order to ensure that the jury more accurately reflects the diversity of the community.
In Northern Ireland, Diplock Courts tried anyone charged with a politically related offence and provided for delays in permitting legal access to suspects where the suspect could be interrogated for up to seven days. While suspects retained the right to silence, it was on condition that if they chose to rely upon it, a trial judge could later draw an adverse inference from their silence. One notable case, of many, arising from the British political courts in Northern Ireland is that of Belfast man Christy Walsh case.
Political Trials in the United States
- The trial of Anne Hutchinson has been described as a political trial.
- The trial of John Peter Zenger has been described as a prototypical political trial.
- The trial of eleven Communist leaders for teaching and advocating overthrow of the U.S. Government was described as something close to "a political trial with criminal overtones."
- Haymarket trials
- Dr. Spock conspiracy trial
- The Catonsville Nine
- The Chicago Conspiracy trial
- Wounded Knee
- New Haven Black Panther Party trial
- Bobby Seale Prosecution
- Panther 21
- Camden 28
- Attica prison riot prosecution
- Winooski 44
- Seabrook Power Plant protest prosecutions
- Tim DeChristopher prosecution
- Sacco and Vanzetti Case
Political Trials in Other Countries
- RP Sokol (1971), The Political Trial: Courtroom as Stage, History as Critic, New Literary History, JSTOR 468335
- K McNaught (1974), Political trials and the Canadian political tradition, University of Toronto Law Journal, JSTOR 825069
- Burnstein, Malcolm (1969), Trying a Political Case, 28, Guild Prac., p. 33
- Barkan, Steven E. (1976–1977), Political Trials and the Pro Se Defendant in the Adversary System, 24, Soc. Probs., p. 324
- SE Barkan (1983), Jury Nullification in Political Trials, Social Problems, JSTOR 800407
- Christenson, Ron (July 1986), What is a Political Trial?, 23, pp. 25–31, doi:10.1007/BF02695554, ISSN 0147-2011
- Political Crime, Political Justice, and Political Prisoners, 12, Criminology, 7 Mar 2006, pp. 385–398[dead link]
- J Van Dyke (1976), Selecting a jury in political trials, Case W. Res. L. Rev.
- AF Withington, J Schwartz (1978), The Political Trial of Anne Hutchinson, New England Quarterly, JSTOR 364308
- Finkelman, Paul (1994), Zenger's Case: Prototype of a Political Trial, SSRN 1507107
- Haber, David (1951), Lawyer Troubles in Political Trials; Harper, Fowler, 60, Yale L. J., p. 1
- A Lindenmeyr (2001), The First Soviet Political Trial: Countess Sofia Panina before the Petrograd Revolutionary Tribunal, Russian Review, JSTOR 2679365