Tag Archives: crime

If You’re Gonna Kill Your Wife, Don’t Be Weird Afterwards

Here’s a pretty shocking story from Texas about a guy who was convicted of murder, absent any evidence, basically because he acted weird after his wife was killed:

His stoicism and his apparent lack of sentimentality for Christine only fed [his next door neighbor] Elizabeth’s anxiety. She was astonished to see him two days after Christine’s funeral using a Weed Eater to cut down the marigolds at the end of his driveway, which she knew Christine had planted over his objections. […]

After a friend who worked in construction cleaned and repainted the master bedroom, Michael resumed sleeping there, on the water bed where Christine was killed.

These things seem callous because they go against the narrative of what you’re supposed to act like after your wife gets killed. You hear this in rape trials sometimes too, like ‘if the rape was so traumatic, why did you go to work the next day?’

It’s weird that we talk and think like this. How you behave after being the victim of a crime doesn’t indicate its severity. I’d love to talk to some cops about how people react to these kinds of crimes. There’s probably a surprisingly wide range, and ‘typical’ reactions probably encompass all kinds of behaviors you wouldn’t expect . People are different, and having a loved one murdered is such an extreme event that you could never foresee how you would react. Maybe you’d cry for days, maybe you’d go to Blockbuster and rent Lord of the Rings. Maybe you’d want to go to work, maybe you’d never work again. It’s not productive that our culture has a narrative for how one should behave in such a horrifying scenario.

When Michael himself took the stand on the fifth day of the trial, he calmly and steadily answered the questions that were posed to him, but he did not betray the sense of personal devastation that might have moved the twelve people who would render a verdict.

“During this whole ordeal, he never fell apart,” [his lawyer] Allison told me. “He wanted people to see him as strong. And I think in the end, that very trait worked against him.” Jurors were put off by his perceived woodenness on the stand. [The jury foreman] explained, “I would have been screaming, 
‘I could never have done this! I love my wife!’ ”

[Another juror] was not persuaded by his testimony either. “He just did not come off as genuine, because there was no emotion there,” she said.

I think if I was a lawyer I’d be endlessly frustrated at having to subtly manipulate jurors into believing what is true. Sometimes people don’t want to show their inner devastation to a creaking room full of strangers. Murderers can fake grief, and non-murderers can be stoic. This isn’t rocket science, Texas.

I read stories like this and I’m like ‘jury trials are the worst we have to stop them!’ This poor guy was convicted of murder based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence and some weak CSI shit just because the prosecution was able to convince 12 people that he was an asshole. Most people who kill people are assholes, so it must have been him.

It’s the kind of story that is meant to fuel outrage among its readers. But from what little I know about the criminal justice system, lots of crimes don’t have clear motives. And in many cases, circumstantial evidence and a convincing narrative are the only things that put genuinely guilty people behind bars. There’s a whole spectrum between an open and shut case and a true whodunit, and things like the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, rumors and past behavior is often the only thing investigators have.

So I guess what I’m saying is, there are probably a number of policies that would make American’s criminal justice much better. But I’m going to refrain from having an opinion on any particular one. This shit is complicated, and there are people who do it every day. I hope they’re reading this too.

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Filed under America, Journalism

Prison, Crime Rates and The Limits of Ideology

In a great  New Yorker article about American incarceration, Adam Gopnik dissects the drop of crime in New York City:

The change didn’t come from resolving the deep pathologies that the right fixated on—from jailing super predators, driving down the number of unwed mothers, altering welfare culture. Nor were there cures for the underlying causes pointed to by the left: injustice, discrimination, poverty. Nor were there any “Presto!” effects arising from secret patterns of increased abortions or the like.

The city didn’t get much richer; it didn’t get much poorer. There was no significant change in the ethnic makeup or the average wealth or educational levels of New Yorkers as violent crime more or less vanished. “Broken windows” or “turnstile jumping” policing, that is, cracking down on small visible offenses in order to create an atmosphere that refused to license crime, seems to have had a negligible effect. […]

Paragraphs like this demonstrate how weak democracy is for solving complex problems. The vast majority of the population doesn’t know very much about crime, policing, prisons or what is likely to produce a favorable ratio between the three. So we fall back on ideology.

Right-wing people want harsh sentencing and strong enforcement not because these have been shown to systematically reduce crime, but because they are a component of their ideology. This is the solution they propose regardless of the problem.

Similarly, left-wing people want more social programs, poverty reduction and equality promotion not because these are empirically effective, but because they are goods in themselves. These will be the first three suggestions for government intervention regardless of the subject matter.

Like all complex social phenomena, the effective intervention turns out to be more complicated and–sigh–as always, morally problematic:

Instead, small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk”—“designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.”

This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already. […] Minority communities, Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced. 

I don’t know how this policy came about, but if it’s actually the case that it contributed significantly to NYC’s drop in crime rates, I wonder if either the left or the right would accept it being rolled out more systematically. In other words, are we willing to accept something that doesn’t conform to our ideology if it’s effective at solving a genuine social problem? I fear not.

Anyway, this whole article just makes me never want to have opinions about anything ever again.

Gopnik concludes:

Every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world.

At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care. 

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious