A HISTORY AND CULTURE OF VIOLENCE

We are a product of violence…and we love it.

In spite of the best efforts of my history and civics instructors, I eventually found out that they lied and distorted many things about the history and government of my country of birth. They didn’t do this out of malice. They were doing no more than unconsciously engaging in the propaganda and indoctrination that they were subjected to in their own educations. It’s what the political classes do in every country. The victors not only get the spoils; they get to write or rewrite history, the revisionist history that glorifies the winners and ignores or justifies all the less than glorious truths behind their “victories”.

I’ve been around for more than 66 years and I’ve been paying attention for most of that time. I credit my political awakening to the Jesuits who ran my high school and the first university I attended. Though I am no longer a Catholic or a Christian, I greatly appreciate Jesuit involvement in my intellectual development, such as it is. They taught me two things that inform my way of thinking to this day. They taught me how to think, as opposed to what to think; and they taught me to question authority. These are dangerous traits, but are, in fact, essential to citizenship in a democracy. How can we learn and advance as a nation if we don’t know the truth about our past and the current machinations of those in power? How can we aspire to match the potential espoused in our high and mighty principles if we aren’t willing to look at our failures at living by those principles?

Our history starts with an invasion and the forceful taking of land belonging to indigenous peoples. By violent revolution, we broke away from an onerous overseas government. We continued our violent subjugation of the indigenous people, an effort that continues, in a somewhat less overt way, to this day. We fought wars to establish our northern and southern borders. We fought an internal war over the economic and human rights issue of slavery. We’ve had labor wars. We’ve had outbreaks of violence directed against voluntary and involuntary immigrants (Africans, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Irish etc). We’ve experienced political assassinations and attempts at assassination. We’ve fought numerous foreign wars, some seemingly justified, some not. Violent crime, domestic violence, sexual violence, gang violence, road rage, highway carnage fueled by alcohol and drugs, the Drug War, the list goes on.

Modern culture is rife with violence and we wallow in it willingly. Movies, TV, music, games, sports, all glory in violence. Billions are spent producing and consuming violence. We honor and pay handsomely the actors, singers and athletes who feed our blood lust.

The debate continues over the effect of media depictions of violence on human behavior, especially that of our children. Now we are debating whether violent and hateful political speech can influence or cause violent behavior. We love to debate. We hate to actually engage collectively in defining problems that can be solved, finding real solutions and doing the hard work to attain them.

We are like alcoholics; and like alcoholics, we must admit to our addiction to violence before we can begin the journey to a cure. As a citizen, I have a stake in this situation. As a Seattle private investigator, working mostly in criminal defense, the stake I have has become more clear and tangible.

 

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Eyewitnesses can’t be trusted?

Here is an innocent man who spent 30 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Seattle Times article. Because of cases like this, this Seattle criminal defense investigator is against the death penalty. Because of cases like this, this investigator is strongly motivated in my criminal defense and personal injury cases to get the best information from witnesses that I can and to expose unreliable witnesses when I find them.

Eyewitness identification is unreliable. We’ve known that for a very long time. An eyewitness can be honest, but wrong. An eyewitness can be confused by a variety of factors. An eyewitness can lie for a variety of reasons. An eyewitness can be manipulated by careless or unscrupulous law enforcement officers. In the absence of substantial collaborating evidence, why do we continue to accept eyewitness testimony as sufficient to convict anybody of anything?

Why would you want to help defend the guilty, Part 2

Because justice requires it

Justice doesn’t find the accused guilty or innocent until the trial is over, and maybe not even then. Has anyone ever been accused of a crime he or she did not commit? Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere, with no contact with the outside world, you know the answer to that question.

Even before the advent of DNA testing, it was not unusual to hear about a person tried and convicted of a crime who was later released after new evidence was presented or original evidence was refuted.

I’ve often wondered how many innocent people have been executed or have been left to serve out their terms in prison because they didn’t have the resources or the good luck to prove their innocence.

Why are innocent people sometimes convicted?

Because of the fallibility of juries of usually well-meaning citizens

Because of bigoted, bad-intentioned juries

Because of the errors, intended or unintended, of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges

Because no system of justice is perfect

Because… Because… Because…

While our system of justice isn’t perfect, it is arguably the best in the world, if…

…if all players in the process are competent and do their best to fulfill their roles.

I firmly believe that if I do my job as the defense investigator and the police, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge and the jury do theirs to the best of their abilities and with the best intentions, then justice has the best chance to be served.

For me the presumption of innocence is the critical underlying principle setting the tone for the process.

Anybody can accuse you of a crime, but for you to be held accountable for the alleged crime your guilt must proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a public court of law. It is my duty to play my role as the defense investigator competently and to the best of my ability because justice requires it.

Why would you want to help defend the guilty?

“Why would you want to help defend the guilty?”

“Do you want to help set a criminal free?”

I get asked that question all the time when I tell people I’m a criminal defense investigator. “What if the person you are helping to defend is really guilty? What if the defense attorney you work for on the case gets him acquitted and he walks free? How can you justify your part in his defense?”

I’ve been asked these and similar questions by some family and friends and by a few people whom I’ve just met. It usually happens just after they find out what I do for a living. These questions usually come from good and well-meaning people.

But the question shows that the person asking is woefully ignorant of our system of justice and its underlying principles. In my experience, it’s unusual to find a person who does understand, who isn’t in the business or wasn’t involved in a criminal or civil lawsuit.

I’m a private investigator, not a lawyer.

My job is to find and document information, gathered from a variety of sources, which my attorney/clients need to properly defend accused persons from criminal charges. I am not judge, jury or prosecutor. It is not my role to judge the accused, even if the accused has a criminal record.

I’ve developed an answer that seems to work for me and for my questioners.

Consider an answer in two parts

I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to this sort of question has two elements: 1) an examination of the language we use and 2) a review of the basic legal principles involved. I’ll give the first part of my answer in this blog and the second part in the next blog, in about a week.

Is language part of the problem?

Why is it called criminal defense rather than defense of the accused? If a person accused in our court system is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, why do we use a term that labels the person “criminal” before the trial is conducted and concluded?

I’m a criminal defense investigator. I work for criminal defense lawyers. We work to defend accused persons, only some of whom are truly guilty, truly criminals. The trial is where the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined.

Why is it guilty versus not-guilty instead of proven versus not-proven? In criminal cases the jury must find the accused guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to convict. Doesn’t the use of “guilty” imply certainty? This term is subjective and less than absolutely certain.

A jury in a criminal case examines and evaluates the evidence and the arguments of opposing attorneys and then deliberates to come to a conclusion about guilt or innocence based on a judge’s instructions about the applicable law.

If a jury doesn’t deadlock, they come back to the courtroom after concluding their deliberations with a verdict of guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt) or not guilty (meaning that they have at least a reasonable doubt). Where is the certainty in this usage? Shouldn’t it be “proven” beyond a reasonable doubt or “not proven” beyond a reasonable doubt?

Words are powerful. They sometimes convey meaning beyond, or at odds with, the intent of the users and consequently program those who hear the words to misunderstand and prejudge.

Maybe people would have a better understanding if we were more precise in the language we use to discuss our criminal justice system and the people charged in that system with crimes.

Maybe my first jury experience would have been different had the language used been different and more precise.