Friday, January 7, 2011

The Juror Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton is one of those old famous writers we have all heard of but have never read. Though he is described as prolific and diverse, I couldn't name for you a single piece of his writing that you would recognize. The best I can do is tell you he was a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote Pygmalion which became My Fair Lady, and you have certainly heard of that.

Chesterton wrote an essay about his jury experience. He called it, cleverly enough, The Twelve Men. Humorous at first, it turns solemn by the end. I quote the end because I am presently in ill humor as I work on cases of wrongful conviction.
Now, it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop. Therefore, the instinct of Christian civilisation has most wisely declared that into their judgments there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets. Men shall come in who can see the court and the crowd, and coarse faces of the policemen and the professional criminals, the wasted faces of the wastrels, the unreal faces of the gesticulating counsel, and see it all as one sees a new picture or a ballet hitherto unvisited.

Our civilisation has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity. 
I believe I have proved Chesterton's suggestion that our untrained citizenry is better able than our highly educated judicial class to accurately assess the guilt or innocence of the accused among us. Unfortunately, I believe I have also proved that juries are but the better of a less-than-perfect, two-option lot.

In Partial Defense of Billy Alverson

Reader Kim Bump has left a comment on my post regarding Billy Alverson. Alverson was executed by the people of Oklahoma yesterday.

I notice that the first of Kim Bump's two comments has been replaced with "This post has been removed by the author." For clarification, I did not remove the comment. I have yet to remove any comment from any of my posts.

To insure that Kim Bump's voice is heard, I paste the entire surviving comment below.
It is a tragedy what Mr. Yost had to go through in his final moments on earth. Nobody should have to leave life that way. However, taking Billy's life does not accomplish much. Unfortunately, Mrs. Yost is too painfully aware that the death of Billy does not bring her the closure she most certainly wants and deserves.

Was Billy perfect? Of course not. But he was a living human being that was put to death by the government. If murder is so awful, the state needs to stop doing it as well. Lead by example!

Also, if you read the case file and the lead detective's testimony you will find that Billy never struck Mr. Yost. Should he have been trying to rob the place? NO. Should he have stopped the defendant who went and got the bat and actually hit and continued to hit Mr. Yost? YES.

To place the same amount of blame AND give a person the ultimate penalty of death, just doesn't sit well with me. Shouldn't they have actively taken a life?

BTW... I also went to school with Billy. And even though his role in this horrific crime was wrong, wrong, wrong, I still mourn for his family and his 4 children as well as Mr. Yost's family and children.

You can still care about a person and the people they left behind while acknowledging the heinousness of their actions.

The Brilliance of Reader Winnie

Reader Winnie has left a comment on The Disturbing Case of the Disturbing Cleve Foster. I repeat the comment in full.
Thank you for this analysis of a difficult case. It is so much easier to take an ironclad stance concerning innocence or guilt than to take a rational look at the evidence as far as it can be known. As an outsider I have sometimes been shocked at the virulent statements posted with regard to death penalty cases in the USA. This blog is indeed a welcome counter balance to emotional outbursts littered with vituperative remarks and spelling errors.
I've taken an immediate shine to Winnie. I like her writing for a number of reasons.
  1. Being human, I prefer compliments to disparagement. I'll accept either, but I prefer the compliments.
  2. She used the word 'vituperative.' 'Virulent' isn't bad either, but it doesn't hold a candle to 'vituperative.' Minne has a vocabulary with punch sans pretense.
  3. She suggested my writing is not littered with spelling errors. (I prefer to call mine typos.)
Mostly I like Minnie because she understands that it is far easier to be certain than it is to be well-informed. I therefore make this offer. I would be pleased to post, on this little-noticed blog, any essay you would like submit, assuming that essay is at least remotely related to wrongful convictions or critical thinking. Contact me, if you wish, via skepticaljuror at gmail dot com.

The world awaits.

Pickings from The Devil's Dictionary: The Letter B

Courtesy of Ambrose Bierce

BABY, n. A misshapen creature of no particular age, sex, or condition, chiefly remarkable for the violence of the sympathies and antipathies it excites in others, itself without sentiment or emotion.

BACK, n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.

BACKBITE, v.t. To speak of a man as you find him when he can't find you.

BAIT, n. A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty.

BAROMETER, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.

BATTLE, n. A method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.

BEAUTY, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.

BEFRIEND, v.t. To make an ingrate.

BEG, v. To ask for something with an earnestness proportioned to the belief that it will not be given.

BEGGAR, n. One who has relied on the assistance of his friends.

BENEFACTOR, n. One who makes heavy purchases of ingratitude, without, however, materially affecting the price, which is still within the means of all.

BIGAMY, n. A mistake in taste for which the wisdom of the future will adjudge a punishment called trigamy.

BIGOT, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters.

BLACKGUARD, n. A man whose qualities, prepared for display like a box of berries in a market—the fine ones on top—have been opened on the wrong side. An inverted gentleman.

BONDSMAN, n. A fool who, having property of his own, undertakes to become responsible for that entrusted to another to a third.

BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

BRAIN, n. An apparatus with which we think what we think. That which distinguishes the man who is content to be something from the man who wishes to do something.