Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stand Your Factual Ground

Sociological Images has a terrifying graph that documents racial disparities in justifiable homicide verdicts

Before I go any further, I want to stress that while this graph focuses on "Stand Your Ground" laws, contrary to popular belief that law was not the primary player in the Zimmerman trial. This graph is instructive not because of what it says about SYG specifically, but rather because of it what it documents about racial disparities generally.

That being said -- this is a scary graph. White-on-black homicides in all jurisdictions are far more likely to be considered "justifiable", but the disparity skyrockets where there is a "stand your ground" provision. What's more, blacks scarcely benefit from SYG at all, at least when the victim is White.

Reasons and Doubts Part II: After the Verdict

I posted this on my facebook wall, but it really is more of a post-verdict follow-up to this post.

* * *

In an idealized criminal justice system, 100 guilty men go free lest one innocent be convicted.

In an idealized criminal justice system, defendants are acquitted even when we believe they really did it, because one cannot dismiss an alternative account as unreasonable.

In an idealized criminal justice system, verdicts are rendered not just based off a gut sense of "justice", but based on careful weighing of all the evidence to determine if it does not just make guilt probable, but "beyond a reasonable doubt."

I've seen many people talk about the Zimmerman verdict with respect to these idyllic values of criminal justice. And they aren't wrong to do so.


We do not have an ideal criminal justice system. As a clerk, do you know how many cases I see where I read the record and go "beyond a reasonable doubt? Really?" It's not that I can't imagine they're guilty, or even that I don't believe they're guilty, but it's not like I can't imagine they're innocent either. Do you know how often I've seen a conviction reversed based on sufficiency of the evidence? Never. As a country, we have no problem convicting people -- some people, anyway -- based on factual records which by any objective metric leave considerable doubt.

We do not have an ideal criminal justice system. At least, not for everyone. The above principles, which should make guilty verdicts quite hard to achieve, are not enforced regularly or evenly.

After all, what doubts are "reasonable"? Narratives which are naturally coherent in our mind. Threat assessments we can imagine ourselves making. Stories in which we can imagine ourselves playing the leading role. All of these concepts are mediated through minds which remain deeply infected with racial bias.

As the Tampa Bay Times documented at the start of this case, a successful "stand your ground" defense is considerably more likely if the defendant was black. Blackness, in the aggregate, impacts our assessment of a reasonable threat, and impacts our assessment of how likely it is that there was a threat in the first place. This finding is no outlier -- anyone with a familiarity with the literature knows just how racialized our perceptions are in this arena. It is willful ignorance to pretend that "reasonable doubt" means the same thing for blacks (defendants or victims) and whites.

This critique isn't answered by referencing our high ideals, for it demands the question, "who is entitled to these ideals? Do we actually take them seriously?" No, we don't. For some defendants and for some victims, we rely on gut feelings and are stubbornly unwilling to imagine alternatives as "reasonable". For others, we demand prosecutors have an armory of smoking guns. The issue isn't about which system is better. The issue is about the distribution. We've established a two-tiered criminal justice, where some people get the benefit of our highest, most civilized ideals, and others don't.

The moral to all this isn't necessarily "George ZImmerman should have been convicted." But we can't keep on heaping black bodies upon the altar of a criminal justice ideal we don't actually have any intention of meeting. At some point, the "equal" and the "justice" have to be harmonized. Right now, they are badly out of alignment,

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Reasons and Doubts

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to serve on a jury. When I have this thought, it's invariably followed up by amazement that juries ever convict anyone. It's the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that trips me up. Officer Jones says he caught Smith with marijuana; Smith says Jones planted the evidence. Adams says he saw Green leaving the scene of the crime, Green says he was nowhere nearby. Daniels says Johnson attacked without provocation. Johnson says it was self-defense. It's not that I can't believe person A over person B. But can I really say that it's not even reasonable to think B is telling the truth and it's A who's lying? Sometimes there's a mountain of physical evidence that sufficiently tips the scales. But often it's simply about what narrative one believes.

I was thinking about this when reading Jack Chin's post (and the ensuing comment thread) on the Trayvon Martin case. Chin now has doubt as to whether the evidence is sufficient to establish "beyond a reasonable doubt" that a felonious murder was commited (particularly given Florida's putative standard whereby self-defense must be affirmatively disproven). I've had similar thoughts. It's not that I don't believe that Zimmerman killed Martin in circumstances which would constitute a murder. But can we say "beyond a reasonable doubt" that this is what happened? I'm not sure.

More troublesome is that Chin seems to think that an acquittal might be good for people of color because it would reject the validity of convicting a defendant based on "impeachment and insinuations about motive in the absence of meaningful evidence that they actually committed crime." Given that minorities are more likely to be vulnerable to this sort of prosecution, Chin argues, permitting Zimmerman "to be convicted based on thin and ambiguous evidence . . . will harm blacks and the poor much more in the long run." The problem is that acquittals are not precedents -- no black defendant will be able to point to a George Zimmerman acquittal and say "therefore, you must acquit me too." It's not as if Chai Vang was able to cite Bernard Goetz.

This observation leads to a more fundamental one. "Reasonable doubt," I suspect, is about whether juries can envision other plausible narratives of the events other than those which lead to a conviction. An all-White jury hopefully can envision "paranoid White vigilante attacks and kills unarmed Black teen" as plausible given the undisputed facts, but it probably can also envision "Black teen attacks Zimmerman and Zimmerman, in fear of his life, pulls the trigger." With two plausible narratives, one which leads to a "not guilty" verdict, then there is "reasonable doubt" and there cannot be a conviction. If the races were reversed, however, and a Black man jumped an unarmed White teenager walking home from the convenience store, there isn't even a controversy about this case. The only "plausible" narrative to the White jury's eyes would be "Black thug kills innocent White kid." An attempted "self-defense" narrative would be laughed out of court. "Reasonable doubt" is not entirely disconnected from the individual facts of individual cases, but it also has much to do with the limits of our imagination, and those boundaries are set by forces long predated voir dire.

One can say, perhaps rightly, that Zimmerman should not pay the price simply because we do not do justice to Black defendants. But the systematic inequality would still remain, and this case most certainly will not be "precedent" that will help any minority defendant.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Transportation Gridlock

I want to give some props to Robert Farley for writing a very rare sort of post: Taking a topic I don't really care about but am predisposed to adhere to a particular narrative, and clearly explaining why my instincts are too simplistic.

His target is a David Ignatius column on proposed Air Force cuts. The Air Force had proposed reducing large quantities of its transport aircraft (C-130s and the like). Congressmen and Governors objected, particularly because such aircraft often are used by local national guard units for civilian aid missions. The theme of the column is how meddling politicians are blocking cuts even the Air Force wants and maintaining a bloated military because they want to preserve local pork.

I will cop that, as a complete non-expert, that narrative appeals to me too. I think our military budget is bloated, and I'm inclined to attribute large parts of this to politicians thinking parochially. And I'm particularly prone to think this when a service branch is blocked from making cuts it itself thinks are warranted.

Farley takes me to task, and his analysis is worth reading in full. The short version is that the Air Force has a long-standing ideological aversion to transport and other "support" roles, that the Air Force's conception of its own needs is as parochial and self-interested as any other segment of bureaucracy, and that the only way to resolve competing conceptions of how our military resources should be prioritized is through the political process (and if the result of that process is that more dollars flow to planes that can be used to fight fires and conduct local search and rescue, and fewer to long-range strategic bombers, that's not necessarily a bad thing).

Again, good analysis aside, it's always good to have casually-formed and weakly-supported intuitions popped -- and it's not the easiest thing to do (particularly when its convincing a liberal that we should keep military hardware that a service branch claims it doesn't need on the advice of politicians). For accomplishing this somewhat rare feat, I give a hearty salute to Mr. Farley.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Shining Moments

As he departs office as President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reflects on his greatest accomplishments:
Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a farewell ceremony that publicizing his Holocaust denial was a major achievement of his presidency.

“That was a taboo topic that no one in the West allowed to be heard,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech Sunday, according to the Iranian Fars news agency. “We put it forward at the global level. That broke the spine of the Western capitalist regime.”
Ahmadinejad’s remarks on the Holocaust appeared on the Fars news site in Arabic, but not on its English website, which covered other aspects of the speech.
Some things never change.

But perhaps more interesting was the response of the incoming Iranian President:
President-elect Hassan Rohani described Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel remarks as “hate rhetoric” that had brought the country to the brink of war, the German news agency dpa reported.
Some things change quite a bit. Very interesting.