Saturday, February 15, 2014

Don’t Blame the Jury... 3rd Refrain: The Michael Dunn Case

A mistrial was declared in the murder trial of Michael Dunn, who was charged with 1st degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis… the so-called “loud music case.” And a fair share of Curmie’s leftie friends—which is to say a goodly percentage of the sum total—are frothing at the mouth about it.

True, the jury didn’t exonerate Dunn or even acquit him: they just couldn’t agree on one count of a five-count prosecution. The other charges, carrying something in the vicinity of 75 years of imprisonment (three of the charges carry minimum 20-year sentences which must run consecutively) for a 47-year-old defendant, all resulted in convictions. So Dunn will die in prison; since my friends are the kind of “progressives” who don’t believe in the death penalty, there’s no other option for them, anyway. And there’s going to be a re-trial on the remaining charge. But the Screeching Lefties (good band name, no?) demand the right to be Outraged because… Justice… and Race… and… and… and, you know, Stuff.

So now it’s time for Curmie, that model of moderation and decorum, to talk them down from the rhetorical cliffs from which they hurl their indignation. We start with my ongoing declaration that in the absence of hard evidence of actual corruption, I will never disparage a jury for a finding of Not Guilty. I said that about the Casey Anthony case; I repeated it in reference to the George Zimmerman verdict. Juries actually see and hear the evidence itself, not some reporter’s version of it, and they see the body language and hear the tone of voice of the witnesses. They are in a better position than I, or you, Gentle Reader, or than the yammering pundit class, to determine and weigh the actual facts of the case.

Secondly, there is the foundational principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence: reasonable doubt. Suggesting that guilt must be determined “beyond reasonable doubt” is a high standard, but an appropriate one. Before we toss someone, anyone, into prison for the rest of his life, it would seem to be a good idea to be pretty damned certain of both his guilt and his mental state at the time of the events in question. “I’m pretty sure he did, and I kinda think he meant to” may be reason to ostracize a defendant, to refuse to patronize his business, to make sure he never baby-sits for your kids. It is insufficient to convict him of a felony.

Thirdly, the single charge which did not result in a conviction is 1st degree murder. According to Florida statute, that requires that the crime be “perpetrated from a premeditated design to effect the death of the person killed or any human being.” In other words, to get a conviction, the prosecution much prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused a). is the actual perpetrator, b). planned the attack, and c). intended to kill someone (the victim, or conceivably someone else)—that is, not to punish, to silence, to intimidate, to render unthreatening, or to injure. No, to convict someone of 1st degree murder, you have to prove the gunman (in this case) actively, cold-bloodedly, and specifically sought the death of a fellow human being.

“I’m no lawyer, but…” is something of a refrain on this blog. Please insert it liberally into the arguments here. But it sure does seem to me that getting a conviction on 1st degree murder was always a stretch. Dunn got pissed off at Davis’s loud music, and he responded in what could be called a highly inappropriate manner.

But was his act premeditated? And was death his goal? If your answer to either of these questions is anything less than “yes, beyond reasonable doubt,” Gentle Reader, you’d be obligated to vote to acquit. And I confess that based on what I know of the case, I personally couldn’t muster more than a “maybe” and a “probably.”

On the other hand, would I regard Dunn’s actions as an “act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual”? Why yes; yes, I would (based on my understanding of the case at present). And that, Gentle Reader, is why Michael Dunn should have been prosecuted for murder in the 2nd degree. If I understand the situation correctly—insert Curmie isn’t a lawyer caveat here—there were in fact lesser included charges: 2nd degree murder, manslaughter, etc., but there was a single crime, so convicting Dunn of, say, manslaughter, would prevent any future prosecution on the more serious charge because of double jeopardy. So it may be that the self-defense and “stand your ground” claims were in fact rejected by the jury, that they simply couldn’t agree which of the charges would be most appropriate as regards the death of Jordan Davis, and didn’t want to reduce the charge to something they could all agree on, given the fact that one or more of them believed him guilty of the most serious offense.

Prosecutors got three convictions on attempted murder in the 2nd degree for the shootings of the other people in the car, but they got greedy. Unless there’s something about this case that I don’t understand—and that is entirely possible, I hasten to note—I’d be one of those jurors who are now being accused of everything from racism to imbecility by people who really do know better, but who choose not to prove it.

Curmie does believe in personal responsibility, so the folks who are hurling insults at the jurors do so at risk to their own credibility. But, just as a 2nd degree murder charge rests on the idea that the defendant did something inherently risky but didn’t seem to care, so is an over-reaching prosecution fraught with peril… and the perpetrators are responsible for the mess they create.

And so we’re back at not blaming the jury. From what I can tell, they did their job admirably, up to and including rendering a split decision on the merits of the lead count of the indictment.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Gang Sign That Wasn't: 2014’s First Curmie Contender

The shockingly violent, terrifying, depraved, pose that started it all.

Gentle Reader, if you are not scandalized by the threatening nature of the photo above, I am sorry to inform you that you have no future in public school administration, at least in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin.

True, the two young men on the left didn’t actually have to serve the suspension initially imposed on them for making “gang signs,” but the mere fact that such a punishment was contemplated, let alone meted out, should cause a shudder. The level of utter stupidity evidenced by the school administration and apparently the police as well surpasses credulity.

Here’s the story: the three brothers in the photograph—Jordan, Juwaun, and Jamal Jackson—were had transferred to Sheboygan Falls from Sheboygan South this year, so the local paper decided to run a feature story on them. It wasn’t terribly informative, but it was a perfectly reasonably puff piece, noting for example that “Jordan is currently starting for the varsity unit and averaging 7.1 points per game. He has a way of finding his way to the hoop and has a nice 3-point shot.” Remember that last phrase, Gentle Reader: “nice 3-point shot.”

The paper’s editor took a couple of photos: what local television reporter Lacey Crisp describes as “one serious pic, and a goofy pic. The goofy picture ran.” That would be the “goofy pic,” above. There was not the slightest ripple when the story ran, quite possibly because it would be difficult for any rational being to imagine anything more innocuous.

But—depending on the version of the story—either “parents complained” or “’an outside police agency’ … later identified as a police liaison officer, presumably from another school—contacted Sheboygan Falls’ liaison officer” with allegations that Jordan and Juwuan were making “gang signs.”

After an investigation which presumably involved examining the smoldering entrails of a sacrificial wombat—because it sure as hell didn’t involve evidence, logic, or even a superficial knowledge of basketball—the powers-that-be determined that the completely innocent gestures the boys were making were “confirmed” as gang signs by a gaggle of badge-wearing cretins who would have to take a step up in class to have the policing skills of Barney Fife.

Here’s Maclean Bennett in the Sheboygan Press:
Steve Riffel, the Sheboygan Falls police chief and director of public safety, said his department confirmed Jordan’s gesture is in fact used by an “organized gang.” He said The Bloods gang uses a similar gesture. Juwaun’s gesture, he said, didn’t appear to be a gang sign.

Riffel noted his department didn’t believe Jordan used the sign intentionally as a gang symbol. He said Jordan told police who interviewed him that his gesture was one that professional basketball players use after making a 3-point shot.
There are a couple of things to note here. I’m no lawyer, but it strikes me that even if they were gang signs, such a gesture qualifies as protected speech (the fact that schools have been allowed to get away with this crap for years doesn’t make it constitutional).

John Boehner: Stealth Gang-Banger
There’s more, of course. Again, even if Jordan’s gesture is a gang sign, it is also a far more widely recognized signal of a three-point shot. It’s the sign the referees use in a game; it’s been adopted by professional, college, and (one presumes) high school players as well. That’s House Speaker John Boehner at left, making the same gesture. Curmie has no respect for Mr. Boehner as either politician or man, but I sincerely doubt that he is a member of a notorious LA-based gang.

That gesture is all about making a 3. Jordan has “a nice 3-point shot,” remember? Maybe, in a picture in which he was presumably encouraged to clown around a little, he might throw in a little basketball-related swagger? Let’s face it: even an idiot like Steve Riffel recognizes that intentionality matters, and that Jordan didn’t intend to suggest anything gang-related. Juwaun’s gesture was deemed not to be gang-related, but the school decided to suspend him anyway, because punishing people for phantom crimes isn’t Kafkaesque or anything, right?

An actual gang sign.  This is precisely the same gesture as the one
used by Jordan Jackson.  Except for... you know... the differences.
Finally, there’s this: Jordan’s gesture wasn’t a gang sign, at least not according to a site which purports to be able to tell. It bears some resemblance to a symbol used by the Bloods, but it’s different. The 3-point sign used by Jordan Jackson and every other outside shooter at any level of basketball from the playground to the pros, consists of touching the tip of the index finger to the tip of the thumb while extending the other three fingers. The Bloods sign, shown at right, has the tip of the index finger touching the middle joint of the thumb. Similar? Sure, but not the same.  And close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades... oh, and for the TSA, but don't get me started on them.

It took me about 15 seconds on the Google Machine to find out that the allegations against Jordan Jackson were false not merely in terms of intent, but also in terms of content. But I’m reasonably adept on the Interwebs… it might have taken a less skilled researcher as much as two minutes.

So… the charge is that Jordan and Juwaun made gang signs. There is no evidence at all against Juwaun. As for Jordan—well, even the Inspector Clouseau wannabe making the charge admits that there was no intent to flash a gang sign: the youngster’s claim that he was just making a gesture he’s seen hundreds of times from his basketball heroes was believed. And it turns out that Jordan didn’t make a gang sign even by accident.

If you or I, Gentle Reader, were in the position of Sheboygan Falls School District Administrator Jean Born, what we’d do would be easily determined: tell the outside cops, parents, or whoever else to go get a life and, while they’re at it, to STFU. That’s because we haven’t achieved the special kind of stupid that comes with being a school administrator. What Born did, of course, was to issue the suspensions—subsequently overturning that decision not in light of new evidence (there was none), but simply because the utter inanity of the suspension brought unwanted national media attention, and she didn’t want the embarrassment. (Of course, by this time that particular equine had long since departed its lodgings.)

Born took offense at the suggestion that the decision was racially motivated. Was there in fact a racial element to the suspension, as the leftie press would have it? Frankly, I doubt it, although prejudice may well have catalyzed the initial complaints. And the Bloods are a predominantly African-American gang. But whereas all racism is stupid, not all stupidity is racist, and Riffle and Born seem more of the garden variety blockhead variety.

Born’s argument for suspending two students from the game against the team’s arch-rival was “student safety.” The district, she claimed, sought a “balanced approach” to the situation, trying to “make sure that everybody that comes here feels safe.” In Born’s world, that means it’s a good thing to pander to every paranoid delusion of every interfering asshat in a 50-mile radius. What it doesn’t mean is keeping students safe from being punished for things they didn’t do, when it is indeed screamingly obvious that they didn’t to do them. What it doesn’t mean is defending students against outsiders when those outsiders are clearly in the wrong, whether or not intentionally so. What it doesn’t mean is showing more maturity than one’s teen-aged charges—that, after all, seems far too high a hurdle to surmount.

“Of course it’s an overreaction,” Chris Ahmuty, the Wisconsin ACLU chapter’s executive director, told Sheboygan Press Media. He said a better solution would have been to have the coach simply discuss the matter with the players. Ahmuty is wrong. There is no “matter” to “discuss.” To dignify the absurd allegations levelled against the Jackson brothers with any kind of credence is professionally, intellectually, and ethically wrong. The “better solution” is to send all these yahoos a box of All-Bran. The “better solution” is to replace Riffel and Born with people with more mental capacity than a particularly dim-witted chipmunk. The “better solution” is to completely ignore anyone, anywhere, with the title “liaison officer.” The “better solution,” in short, is the absolute, categorical, and unwavering rejection of silly accusations.

Curmie is not holding his breath… lest he turn blue. That’s the color of the Crips, after all. Wouldn’t want any confusion.