Who Must Police the Police? Concerned Citizens

Perhaps four months ago, I wrote a couple of pieces in response to Episode Six of the Netflix series, The Confession Tapes.  I wasn’t entirely prepossessed by these documentaries on extorted, distorted, or abused confessions.  Oh, I was outraged, like everyone else, at how two college boys were manipulated in Canadian sting (illegal on this side of the border) into admitting that they had brutally bludgeoned to death the family of the younger lad… but then, I also didn’t understand how both could have been left utterly without adult supervision.  The black D.C. teenagers convicted of gang-raping and murdering an old woman simply played one-by-one into the suggestions of the police interrogators; that story repeats itself almost every day, for reasons that the blanket “racism” explanation obscures more than elucidates.  Then there was the bizarre case of the father whose foot twitched on the gas pedal: he was able to extricate himself and his wife from the car as it sank into a river, but his three children went down.  As a father myself, I couldn’t understand caring about life as much as this man does after having lost all my children through some klutzy accident.  The fellow was not simpatico.

I don’t know why the Buddy Woodall case nagged at me as had none of the others.  They all bothered me, all right… but my “bother” threshold had perhaps been somewhat surpassed, as well.  The other cases had left me feeling jaded. It was all just too much… all those dramatized injustices on top of others that Netflix and the Hollywood/Newsroom elite have wanted very much to keep out of the news.  I sensed that I had been watching our “justice” system melt down for a long time. I had watched it send soldiers away for twenty years because they defended themselves in an Afghan wasteland or snapped a shot of a submarine to share with the kids… watched it export thousands of deadly weapons to Mexican cartels in a covert bid to subvert the Second Amendment… watched officers of that system destroy subpoenaed evidence with bleach and hammer even as their cronies were writing up a full exoneration… watched a dedicated cop with a spotless record be jailed for life because a feminist district attorney found him too masculine… watched a distinguished general take a plea after being “stung” (yes, those operations are supposed to be illegal) by the goons of a Special Counsel who promised to target his son if he resisted….  I’m getting sick all over again just in reviving the memory of a few cases from the past six or eight years.

Our justice system is crap.  I don’t trust it any more.  I just want to grow walnuts, pecans, sweet potatoes, and beans on my twenty-five acres.  Screw the system.  The republic is collapsing in the acid byproduct of overheated brains reared on iPhones, weed, kinky sex, and long conversations with “comfort” animals.  Screw it all, and stay off my land.  “Keep out: dangerous old white guy here.”

So what made Buddy Woodall any different?  To this day, I don’t really know.  He wasn’t a spoiled frat boy, nor was he a black kid from the inner city.  Either of those environments is as far from me as the other, and I feel powerless in both.  It is that feeling of powerlessness, perhaps, that makes one morose and defensive.  Buddy’s world, however, was not so very far from mine, either geographically or demographically.  And I didn’t detect the presence of pompous, virtue-signaling political theatrics in his prosecution (as in the West Coast tale of the two college students) or a media-fed rush to clear a sensationally lurid case (as in the D.C.P.D.’s ramrodding of several black youths through the system).  Nobody involved in the Woodall case seemed to be particularly malevolent.  There was just too much carelessness—too much laziness.

Laziness: Tocqueville noticed almost two hundred years ago that it is a distinguishing characteristic of us Southerners.  The climate is somewhat responsible, no doubt (for every Southerner did not have a slave, contrary to an assertion made in one of Tocqueville’s many rhetorical flourishes: not one in ten owned a slave).  So Buddy Woodall serves three life sentences because… because likeable but lazy detectives didn’t follow leads, and because a probably quite likeable but plainly lazy jury didn’t ponder the evidence put before it.  Everybody just dozed off.  Yeah.  A friend of mine back in Texas once lost his business because the judge dozed off during the critical portion of the testimony.  It happens a lot down here.

I wanted to see if other people of approximately my socio-economic, political, and religious profile would react to this case as I had… and so I assembled a kind of panel (whose exchanges required much editing, just because all of us passed long days devoted to other pursuits).  You can see the result of this nearly three-month experiment at Amazon.  The e-book is titled, Anatomy of a Murder Trial: A Citizen Autopsy of Buddy Woodall’s Conviction for “The Labor Day Murders”.  I hope my sometimes intrusive engineering produced a fairly readable text.  I’m far too close to it to say if the thirty-two chapters of analyzing trial transcripts are riveting or suffocating.  I only hope, like Hippocrates, I have done no harm in my groping efforts to do a little good.

I’ll leave off by advancing this remark, which reprises one I made in this space perhaps a quarter-year ago.  One of my respondents expressed his surprise that the prosecution seems to model leftist rhetorical tactics: specifically, that it employs “moral equivalency” (e.g., “You say our opening remarks alleged facts never offered in evidence.  Hypocrite!  Why, you also say that the defendant was sweated by interrogators for half a day!”  You’d have to be there… but the “facts” at issue were not remotely proved, whereas the period of psychological pressure was arranged by the interrogators themselves to extend beyond the tight room at the station.)  This recalled to me a remark I’d made about how courtroom dramas on TV have shifted from the defense attorney’s to the prosecutor’s table.  It’s true.  In the Fifties, Hamilton Burger represented Eisenhower America: hardworking, decent, upright, gray-flannel-suited… and also apt to stifle creativity or discount anomaly.  Perry Mason’s clients were innocent but slightly off-beat—society’s free spirits or ne’er-do-well’s who were in the docks for straying from the Standard Deviation.  Perry was the guardian of liberalism, that beloved American creed that licenses the individual to go his own way.

Now the political Left occupies the other side of the room: it is—or would be—the new orthodoxy.  All must condone gay marriage, late-term abortion, gun bans, ungendered pronouns, Sharia communities, hatred of white privilege, and anti-hate speech codes.  All must wear the gray flannel suit.  Though all may not think in the prescribed manner, they must speak and behave according to prescription.  Liberalism is dead.  The foolish, tardy Right hasn’t even abandoned the well-worn habit of defaming the word, although defense of the liberal is precisely where the conservative should be pitching his battle.  Profiting from this fatal confusion of his adversary, the leftist progressive proceeds to pound society into clones with the force of SWAT teams and stiff prison terms that the system has placed in his fist.

I don’t say that Buddy Woodall is some lovable, misunderstood beatnik: I say this, however, to my brethren on the Right in the aftermath of Buddy’s conviction.  Do not support police activities unconditionally just because the kneeling at NFL games and the wicked caricature of honest cops patrolling risky neighborhoods outrages you.  Police are but human beings, like you and me, and they are also minions toiling under the authority of a complex hierarchy.  If ordered one day to break down your door or my door and search our house for guns or porn or books about Nazism or liter-bottles of Coke or plastic straws or a garden glove that has dried in the “okay” sign, most of them will execute the order.  We need to protect the human being within the uniform, lest the uniform compel him to discard his humanity.

Don’t let these witless lines in the shifting sand blind you to the immutable presence of abstract moral issues.

Why I No Longer Support Capital Punishment

Netflix has decided that any documentary about psychopaths and serial killers must be a 98% match with my interests.  Thanks, algorithm.  All I want is something to run in the background while I do my daily workout… and now you’ve got me so depressed that I’m back to running 30-year-old video cassettes.  On the other hand, I suppose I profited from learning something about Ted Bundy.  (I originally thought I was opening a serial about the Unibomber—got my Teds confused.)  The sea change that my attitude about capital punishment endured wasn’t anything I’d remotely anticipated, but I’m no doubt the better for it.

My reaction to the serial’s first segment was one of irritation.  These dramatic profilings… “a misfit in school… wasn’t popular… kept to himself, a loner… classmates described him as peculiar….”  Well, that might as well have been me.  I’d better start digging up my back yard—maybe I’m such a psycho that I have a split personality and don’t even realize what carnage I have wreaked over the past half-century.

(Seriously, the yearbook chronicling my final dose of high school has a random photo of me sitting directly behind a young girl and peering forward under my then-heavy brows.  The caption reads, “John Harris contemplates violence.”  I tossed that book and all of its brethren in a dumpster within a few days of reading the caption, which I know was intended humorously and so taken by everyone but me.  After a seven-year diet of such humor, though… and, no, the remarks of all those years were not humorously intended.)

Also not appreciated: the harping on Bundy’s early activism in the Richard Nixon campaign.  You’d have thought that Woodstock was healthy America going about its anodyne business and that Charles Manson, meanwhile, was rooting for Tricky Dick from solitary confinement.  Oh, yes: Nixon, I’m sure, is the key to understanding Ted Bundy!

But to cut to the chase… by the end, I was particularly disgusted to learn that Bundy had brutalized and murdered a twelve-year-old child.  That final atrocity put the hellish gilding on his monstrous psychological deformity.  You can see the contradiction, though, can’t you?  No man was ever more convincingly, inhumanly insane—and we don’t punish a human being who freakishly acquires the soul of a shark.  We lock him up tight for life, but we don’t handle him as though he truly understands what he has done. If ever a man were incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong… in fact, from my psychologist’s armchair, I would hazard the guess that Bundy genuinely believed himself innocent of the crimes. I imagine him so schizoid in his identity that he could not recognize the ravening beast (some of his victims actually bore deep bite-marks) as the suave, smiling grad student in the mirror.

Yet this dangerous lunatic was not only condemned to the electric chair; he was permitted by a clueless judge to defend himself in court.  No doubt, we should be grateful that the client had such an arrogant, unfocused attorney in this case, because the evidence was circumstantial: a competent defender might well have put Ted back on the streets.    Our judicial system, one must conclude, reached the right verdict for the wrong reasons, proving to me yet again—and my recent work has buried me in painful examples—that justice in America is a crap shoot.

If the guilty verdict was the correct one, however, the sentence essentially executed our mutant shark for being hard-wired to attack where he smelled blood.  Yet my newly acquired reservations to the death penalty aren’t primarily a matter of concern over undiagnosed insanity.  I have two observations at this point.  One is that, were I the father of that twelve-year-old girl, my daughter would not have been restored to me by seeing Bundy fry.  Her restless spirit would not have been somehow placated, as if the old videos of opening presents under the Christmas tree were now easier to watch because the animal’s brain had sizzled beneath a lightning strike.  No, I think my girl’s ghost would have been better satisfied to know that this one-in-a-million blunder of personality were being preserved under glass for further study, perhaps thereby reducing the possibility that another girl would have her vital thread cut by such a freak.

Somewhere at the bottom of the shrunken pit that had once contained Bundy’s soul, as well, lingered a spiritual ember.  I believe that, based on the testimony of the FBI agent who passed much of Ted’s final night with him.  To have that ember fanned until it warmed again into something human, and to know that the creature who savaged my and thirty-some-odd other daughters of grieving fathers would spend the next fifty years grieving with them—with us… that would have offered a far more pleasing sacrifice to my girl’s spirit than the scent of scorched flesh.

For Bundy, and the all too many of his ilk among us, is something like us.  He is not us… but he is not completely not us.  He is not the anti-human.  The seed of his depravity travels through human societies on a breeze that strokes all of us.  We deny this at our utmost peril.  We cannot exile that evil inspiration from the darkest reaches of our hearts by seizing upon someone in whom the seed has germinated and boiling him in oil.  The loathing we display in annihilating the darkly flowered plant is too emphatic in its obvious wish to nullify the species.  We run the risk of not recognizing that baleful sprout if it should happen to nudge up through the detritus of our own lives.

I’m not going to decry, from here on out, the proponents of capital punishment as worse animals than those whose lives they would terminate.  I am not going to mark out a morally superior high ground for myself.  I’ve occupied the other side of the line for most of my life, after all.  But I’ll finish with this.  If the spate of recent revelations about predatory males has revealed anything to us, it’s that the strange, quiet boys with dark eyes haven’t necessarily matured to be the men whom women should most avoid.  The fair charmer, confident and cajoling, may just be the last fellow whose sports car you’d want your daughter to enter at two in the morning.

To extirpate the poisonous plant entirely, you would have to vaporize the human race.

Would a Jury of Twelve Good Minds Be Better Than a Jury of Our Peers?

Last week I heard a certain television personality portray the kind of “loser” who (and I paraphrase, for I don’t have every detail by heart) inhabits his parents’ basement at age 30, plays video games in his underwear, and believes that “9/11 was an inside job”.  Lest I myself appear to meet the last qualification, I stress that my “takeaway” from the mass of contradictory 9/11 analysis has never been that it was an “inside job”.  My concern, rather, is that we cannot know what truly happened in such a scramble of disingenuous patching and plastering.  Naturally, the “wackos” turn out in full force to speculate when so little is nailed down… and this—another point I have stressed over the years—merely serves to discredit further any honest search for answers.  Indeed, a classic tactic of Soviet disinformation was to publish and circulate outlandish conspiracy theories about any event that the Party desired to conceal.  People quickly sigh, “There’s that annoying kid screaming about a wolf again,” and turn their backs.

I understand that the TV personality in question is something of a comic and caricaturist.  I’m not going to pretend offense at the genre.  There’s a real risk, though, of our admitting such witty slapdashery into our serious processing of events.  Excessive finesse—not being able to see the forest for the trees—characterizes the pettifogging scholarly world, and it can be very tiresome and enervating to behold; but excessive generality typifies the undisciplined lurches of popular group-think, and—entertaining though it can be—brings great risk.  At worst, it produces lynch mobs.  Even at its best, it creates shallow minds that imagine they have thought through an issue just because they’ve been able to torture a couple of weak analogies into a couple of cartoonish stereotypes.

Now, I would be writing almost nothing in this space if I could speak only with an expert’s authority.  I don’t have such authority in very many subjects.  I actually enjoy speculating, though, and suppose it to be healthy if done in a “maybe I’m wrong, but…” vein of poking around.  I hope I may attempt a general statement today that doesn’t put me in the camp of the caricaturist skipping merrily over details to sketch out a shocking, balloon-like picture.

Certainly in legal matters, I have no formal credentials whatever.  I expressed some genuine vexation last time with the slipshod manner in which judgments can be made from the bench, however… and I was stunned by how much applause I drew, some of it from people clearly more knowledgeable than I.  I had already planned on staying within this area for one more imaginary stroll; and I’ll begin down that path now after repeating that I’m just out for a stroll—I am not a trained jurist and expect that I will overlook a few intricate, important details.

Nevertheless… I can say with some assurance that a bad judge wouldn’t have a chance to pass an unjust sentence if the jury did not first convict; so my focus this time is on that “jury of peers”.  It’s important in a free republic, to be sure, for a defendant’s case to be heard by ordinary blokes like himself, and not just Milord in a powdered wig.  I see an increasing problem, though, with our “ordinariness” as jurors.  Let’s assume, against everything that practical experience has taught me, that those of us with a college degree or other evidence of ability to think independently (not that the former signifies the latter any more) have a chance of being selected and seated.  Even if my college major were biology, I could easily get lost in the muddy layers of today’s DNA evidence.  If a prosecutor tells me that the defendant’s DNA was on the knife, and the defense attorney says, “Sure, but the cops planted it,” how am I to weigh the two claims?  So the prosecutor says, “It was a hot day, and Smith’s hand sweated as he clutched the murder weapon,” that sounds plausible.  Then the defense attorney says, “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.  The State has found far more DNA on this handle than sweat could possibly leave.”  Wow.  Now I’m ready to toss a coin.  What I’ll do in reality, of course, is cast my vote on the basis of how I feel about cops, how I feel about Perry Mason over here and Hamilton Burger over there, how I feel about the defendant’s looks… and now I’m no better than the hyper-politicized judges about whom I wrote last time.

But what else can I do?  I’m in over my head.  I am being asked to arbitrate scientific questions over which people with graduate degrees might have an honest and long-standing argument.

In the real world, of course, the exchange I imagined above is unlikely to happen just because most of the heavy artillery is sitting behind the prosecution’s table.  The State (any state) has unlimited resources to go out and recruit expert witnesses—or so its agents seem to think, sitting prettily on our tax dollars.  Prosecutors appear also to know how to “share” evidence with the defense, as legally required, in ways that bury the good stuff.  (For instance, in Steven Avery’s trial, a computer disk that could well have proved exculpatory was very sketchily described at the end of a long list of items submitted to the defense just before the deadline.)  Unless the defense attorney is a high-priced racehorse, he probably doesn’t handle clients involved in complex cases on a regular basis.  The State has a team whose members are well versed in every contingency—and they probably “click” like a team, knowing how to apply finesse here and there during the presentation without quite straying over legal foul lines.

Add to this the jury’s preconditioning.  For some reason, our courtroom dramas on TV have shifted heavily to the prosecution’s side.  The Defenders, Perry Mason, and Abraham Lincoln Jones have yielded the floor to Law and Order and a huge kennel of elite CSI evidence-hounds. Strange, isn’t it, that the era of Eisenhower and gray flannel suits actually seems to have registered more sympathy for the poor guy in the docks than for the Machine That Keeps Our Streets Safe…. Henry Fonda single-handedly argued a hostile jury into acquitting in Twelve Angry Men. Now we have former prosecutor Kelly Siegler lending her expertise on a serial basis all over the nation to transform cold cases into indictments.

I can’t easily account for whatever societal shift is expressed in this morphing of our popular culture.  But the crux of my argument has already been made: that juries today are too often in over their heads.  Would I, with three degrees, be able to understand an intricate matter of tax evasion or copyright violation?  I very much doubt it.  If a homeowner whose house burned in a brushfire decided to sue the U.S. government for not combating climate change, would you be able to evaluate the merits of the case on both sides… or on either side?

My very tentative suggestion is that we create a “jurist profession”.  Make “jurism” a major in college.  Give the major different specializations—tax, civil, criminal, etc.—and require that graduates not only be re-certified yearly through an objective test, but that they lose their certification if detected in demonstrable incompetence, bias, or abuse.  Pay them well.  The investment would more than justify itself in the number of cases not fouled up and cycled through retrial by our system right now.

Wouldn’t you rather be making your case to twelve people like this if the neighbor who tussled with you about the property line turned up dead in his rose bushes, and then the State decided that putting a tidy frame around you was the best way to close the file quickly?  Do we even really have “peers” living around us any more, in any profound sense?  Personally, I’d rather have my freedom depend on twelve people who know the law than twelve random high-school graduates with driver’s licenses and voter ID’s.