Friday, September 23, 2011

The Postmortem Evaluation of Troy Anthony Davis: Cherry-Picking

In this introspective postmortem, I hope to assess the recent writing on this blog related to the Troy Davis case. I intend to assess both my writing and yours, as reflected in the comments.

I begin by complementing you, the readers, for the quality of your comments. Compared to the comments I see on other sites, your comments are quite impressive. You come across as well-informed and logically consistent. You rely on reasoned argument rather than venom. I am seriously impressed.

For comparison, I'll provide a small sample of comments from another site.
May this scum rest in hell!

I would not call the justice system the scum if by some chance this guy is in fact innocent.  These people who are now recanting are the ones who testified and played a significant role in sending him to death row. If he is innocent they would be the scum in my eyes.

New evidence!!  Now where have I heard that shyte before? Oh yeah, it was in our case wasn't it?   Not really any new evidence at all.  Just people willing to perjure themselves to get another scumbag off death row with an innocence claim.

Move to the head of the line POS scum.

I got my popcorn.  This might be good.

Welcome to Hell rubbish Davis.
One can really learn a lot from such erudition.
I don't claim that no one has ever commented in such childish fashion on this blog, but the exceptions are pretty rare. Not long ago, I noticed this comment on The Impending Execution of Martin Robles.
We all know you Americans aren't courageous enough to face the world without your guns and bombs.

Your own "God" says killing is wrong. It is always wrong. True strength and true power lie in forgiveness and compassion.

But you're all so scared that you'd rather twist around your own God's words that be brave and true.

- A contemptuous New Zealander
To which I replied:
To the contemptuous New Zealander,

In case you haven't noticed, this site focuses on wrongful conviction issues in The United States of America. I'm liberal in allowing comments even remotely related to the case or issue addressed in the post. I want to encourage discussion.

No one, however, should mistake my criticism of our justice system for disdain of country. I am unabashed in my love for this country, for reasons far too lengthy and powerful to enumerate here.

Your comment about Americans lacking courage is demonstrably absurd. Perhaps you simply are ignorant of history and current events. Perhaps you simply are incapable of preventing your bias from being expressed in such unflattering fashion.

In either case, I ask that in any future comments to this blog you attempt to limit your point to the case or issue at hand. I ask also that you attempt to rely on reasoned argument rather than embarrassing blather.

In return, I promise not to change my high regard for New Zealand and its people based on your poor representation thereof.
Compare now the comments above with one from Jeff Cox. After complimenting me (which is not a completely ineffective technique), he disagrees with me. He then leaves open the possibility of further discussion. He has an opinion, but he seems willing to listen to others.
First, I want to thank Skeptical Juror for posting all this analysis of the Troy Davis case. I'm going to bookmark this site and enjoy the other analyses offered here. Good work.

That said, I disagree with your conclusions on the Davis case as expressed in your posts. I know that you've tried to simplify the case and I appreciate that, but I think you've still made it too complicated, specifically with reference to the shirt-switching. Maybe I'm missing something, but this is how I see it:

1. Davis and Coles were present at the shooting, by their own admission.
2. One was wearing a white shirt, the other a yellow shirt.
3. The eyewitnesses agree (though this case is another exhibit as to the inherent unreliability of eyewitness testimony) that the shooter was wearing a white shirt.
4. Coles produced the (or at least A) yellow shirt.

5. Davis must have been wearing the white shirt.

Now, the dubious shirt exchange becomes probative if it was actually Davis who was wearing the yellow shirt and he gave it to Coles. But your posts do not indicate that such a scenario was alleged, only that Coles was lying about the shirt exchange, though the exact nature of that lie was is not addressed.

So, the logic of the conviction is as I explained above. Where am I going wrong?
Good on you, Jeff.

On the other hand, I'm not as impressed with Malcolm Trent's comment. He also disagrees with me, but that's not significant. He relies on sarcasm, but then so do I on more than rare occasion. His comment, though, relies too heavily on trivializing the arguments of the other side. He also sets up weak straw men which he then bravely swats aside. His summary of the opposing point of view is simply wrong. Finally, it seems as if his mind is made up, and further discussion would be unlikely to change it.
Consider also that there were many more witnesses that you chose to cherry-pick through and you'll find that your narrative is quite shallow, though I appreciate your sounding board.
Let me see if I can sum up the Troy Davis defense succinctly...

Mr. Coles shot the officer, then quickly fabricated a story with his sister which did not include an alibi, but rather instead sinisterly focused on a wardrobe change that they had no forewarning would be so substantial. They then masterminded a plan to hand Davis' shirt to the police in an effort to provide their own version of events and then frame up Davis in a fake series of events. The police, now in a tizzy and with knee-jerk reaction then rounded up a series of innocent ignorant bystanders and brow-beat them into falsifying testimony, continued to lean on these witnesses for two years until the trial occurred at which time all of the witnesses still feared for their freedom and dutifully offered fake testimony to a majority black jury who ruled then found Davis guilty because their were 7 black jurors that were very biased against the black man. Then, after 22 years, numerous judges who are intimately familiar with the case including the Supreme Court of the United States all had such a raging hard-on for Troy Davis that they all became complicit in the erroneous execution of an innocent man.

Would you care to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? I'll cut you a sweet deal on it.
Despite my criticism, I nonetheless consider Malcolm's comment to be quite valuable. His accusation that I cherry-picked the data initially caused an adverse reaction on my part. I considered posting an essay explaining how I hadn't cherry picked the witnesses. As I thought about it more, I realized he was right, and I offer the following mea culpa.

In my Troy Anthony Davis database, I have the names (or anonymous identifiers) of 38 people. There's no way I could discuss them all without making the series more of a morass than it was. I had to decide who I was going to discuss, and who I was going to exclude. So far so good.

When I decided to simplify the case by limiting discussion, at least initially, to those unbiased witnesses who gave statements and identified shooters only before Sylvester Coles went to the police, I narrowed my problem of telling the story, and I still think it was a good approach. So far, so good.

However, even within that much smaller subset of witness, I cherry-picked. I did not include, at that point, the testimony of Darrell Collins. He complicated my story because I could not fit him neatly into my premise. I feared losing you, the reader, as I tried to explain how his testimony really did fit the simplified story I hoped to tell.

My problem was that Darrell Collins stated initially that Davis was wearing the white shirt, and he never explicitly recanted that specific point. Judge Moore picked up on that and dismissed his affidavit because of it.

I discussed Darrell Collins in a later post, when I had an opportunity to counter his statements and testimony with his recantation. I figure his recantation story will clear everything up. Even though he was the third man, I excluded him in my initial discussion. I now believe I was wrong to do so.

Malcolm's comment also made me think about cherry-picking on a larger scale. Malcolm cherry-picked his facts immediately after accusing me of cherry-picking my facts. We all do it. It starts because we can't discuss the entire universe of facts and ideas. We have to pare things down to a specific case, or to a specific aspect of the case, or to specific witnesses, or to specific statements of those witnesses. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with limiting the discussion to a properly selected sub-set of facts. The challenge, however, is to select the facts fairly. When we pick the facts to fit our premise, we engage in cherry-picking.

Malcolm's accusation in fact has substantial relevance to the Troy Davis case. I'm pretty confident, that the Savannah PD engaged in some serious cherry-picking. Once Sylvester Coles showed up and told them "I can give you the name of the cop-killer", the cherry-picking kicked into overdrive. Their resulting behavior is also referred to as target fixation or tunnel vision.

In a recent YouTube question and answer session with The Innocence Project, the staff attorney was asked what she perceived to be the primary cause of wrongful convictions. I anticipated she would say incorrect eye-witness testimony, since bad eye-witness testimony is a factor in more than 70% of the DNA proven wrongful convictions. I was wrong. She said the biggest problem was tunnel vision. Once police decide they have their man, they over-inflate any evidence that points in his direction and dismiss any evidence that points away from him.

For what it's worth, what has been referred to here as cherry picking, target fixation, and tunnel vision has a lofting sounding name. It's called confirmation bias. For those trying to get at the truth, rather than just win the argument, beware the confirmation bias.

In the next post in this postmortem series, which will be probably in two days, I want to discuss what we have written about the infamous shirt swap.

Good night.