If, by chance, you have not heard of this clusterfuck yet, Google it and read some. I’m not going to rehash the details (except as necessary to illustrate my point), since they’ve been discussed everywhere else, and they’re not particularly relevant to the issue. I’m not going to state an opinion on whether there have been violations of his civil rights or not (and if you make it to the end of this post, it should be obvious why), but I am simply going to use some of the events surrounding this incident to illustrate a point. So, in fact, it’s worth noting that I have not done a significant amount of research about the facts, and any reference to the facts may be incorrect, or incomplete. But the point is to use the incident to generate a hypothetical to illustrate the point…not actually analyze the incident itself.
The long and short of it is that there are a large number of people who are outraged that a non-African-American male (might be white, might be Hispanic) shot and killed an unarmed, African-American teenager. The caucasian male has not been charged, which has led to the most frustration, leading to this petition. I read earlier that Change.org said it was the second fastest growing petition behind one related to the Caylee Anthony case (go figure…another public-outrages-by-judicial-system petition). I found this petition by way of Facebook, and immediately pointed out horrible an idea this petition is.
Knowing What You Don’t Know
Eventually, I will get around to writing a full post about this subject, but not today. This whole public outrage, and creation of a petition calling for the PROSECUTION of an individual is a perfect example of failing to know what you don’t know, and this is frequently highlighted by cases involving the justice system.
First, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that more than 99% of the people signing this petition and calling for action are getting their information from their favorite news source. This is mistake #1. The media has a history of painting stories to be much more sensational than they really are (understandably…after all, that’s what makes them money), and in the process tend to leave out or emphasize certain facts (such as skin color). This means, at the very least, anyone getting their information from a news source should immediately assume they’re not getting the full story (and reserve judgment), or start to think of facts that could exist and make one’s reaction different. (This latter technique is dangerous if you can’t be objective, so I would recommend sticking to the former…no one was ever made to look stupid by reserving judgment.)
Second, once again I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that more than 99% of the people mentioned above have very, very little knowledge about the criminal justice system. On one hand, I blame them for this, because it is such a foundational part of our society; but on the other, there are a lot of things that are more relevant to most people, and so it’s somewhat excusable to not know much about it. (Of course…if you don’t know much about something…why would you voice your opinion on it?)
How many people actually understand what “reasonable doubt” means? Just look at all the outrage over the Caylee Anthony case. I don’t think anyone who have some knowledge of how criminal trials work, besides Nancy Grace, was surprised at the trial outcome. This is NOT an easy burden to meet. In a situation in which there was a confrontation between two people, no witnesses, and very little solid evidence pointing one way, is it a shock that the prosecutor hasn’t charged the guy yet? Why do we automatically assume that it was because of some racial bias and get outraged, as opposed to how the criminal justice system has been designed to work? I mean, that’s simply the burden of proof. Let’s not even bother talking about how many people actually understand the law in this area.
Here is a quote of one of the related points I made on Facebook:
The prosecutor is in the best position to actually know whether they have a case or not. It’s unethical for them to prosecute someone just because they think the person is guilty, they have to have a good faith belief that they can actually meet the burden of proof. They know the full range of evidence that’s available to them, and what witnesses are available, and what they’ll say. They also know what evidence is admissible in court. For example, the phone conversation that the kid had with the friend at the time? Might not be admissible at all. The evidence that the guy might have been looking for an excuse to do something like this? Again, might not be admissible. Take those two pieces away, and there is almost no way there could be a conviction. What percentage of the people signing that could actually state the burden of proof, much less actually describe where that sets the bar?
I think this makes it obvious what SHOULD happen: deference. The prosecutor has access to all the investigation reports and material the police did, the public does not. If you want to call on the police to investigate further, that’s one thing, and is VERY different from calling on the prosecutor to file charges and put the person through a trial. But won’t putting public pressure on the prosecutor make them take another look at it? Sure, but…
Putting public pressure on a prosecutor can lead to one really, really bad thing: overzealous prosecution. There are countless examples of prosecutors putting innocent people in jail, and doing it unethically. Public pressure only increases the chance of that. And, like it or not, the US criminal justice system has developed based on the thought that it is better to let ten guilty people off than put one innocent person in prison. Public campaigns like this go against that, and shows a distinct lack of understanding of how the justice system here works.
If this doesn’t scare you, then I’ll point you to the Duke lacrosse case and prosecutor Mike Nifong. This was a perfect example. High profile case, election year, ambitious prosecutor. Luckily for the lacrosse players in this case, they had money to hire good lawyers. Most of the time, this is not the case, and the defense is a single attorney who is overburdened by work and probably underpaid (these two things may be related). Of course, even if you remember the news when the Duke case broke, I’m willing to bet you didn’t hear much about the “rogue prosecutor” who was attempting to put innocent college students in jail. I mean, it IS more interesting when it’s a bunch of rich kids at Duke raping and abusing a poor female than it is a bunch of rich kids at Duke almost getting put in jail for something they didn’t do, right? How would YOU react with millions of people calling for you to take action? Or when the president is calling for investigations into whether the victims civil rights were violated (implying that you, as the prosecutor, failed at your job)? Whether a prosecutor is appointed, hired, or elected, one case like this can spell the end for your job. Let’s not pretend that that doesn’t factor into their decision-making, as much as we wish it didn’t.
And I ask you this: How many petitions have you seen about making changes to the justice system when it comes out that someone was wrongfully convicted and spent fifteen or twenty years in prison for something they didn’t do? Now THAT is fucked up.
A friend of mine pointed out that sometimes these people in the “better position” aren’t “better”, and are impartial and unjust. That is entirely true, and there are certainly edge cases where there is something to be outraged about. But here’s the deal: The color of ones skin does not make an edge case. You have to look at the case from a neutral viewpoint: if the case is a difficult case to begin with, when you ignore things like gender or race, the presence of those factors does not make it an edge case. And the Trayvon Martin case is NOT an easy case, and most people with some basic knowledge of the justice system should be able to recognize that. What is an edge case? Being a Haitian in New York Police Department custody and ending up requiring surgery to repair your colon and bladder.
The problem here is not the edge cases…those are usually caught. The problem is WHY the edge cases are usually caught: because EVERYTHING is an edge case to the general population. And this is simply incorrect.
The importance of liberty is one of the foundations of our country. To this end, the criminal justice system is set up to make it difficult to send a person to jail (thereby denying them liberty). But when the general population does not understand these basic facts, they are incapable of making informed decisions and understanding the consequences of their actions. In the end, they simply encourage prosecutors to push cases they shouldn’t, resulting in more wrongful convictions and LESS justice. This is what happens when you incorrectly make edge cases the rule, not the exception. The general population needs to learn to have some deference in these situations, and they need to learn what they don’t know. If an accounting firm came out and said a company a person was invested in is insolvent, would that person disagree with the accounting firm just because they have some kind of emotional investment in the company? Not usually, because most people realize they don’t know the least bit about accounting. Now they need to realize they don’t know the least bit about one of the foundations of our society.
I came across this related blog post that may help shine some more objective light on the situation: