Friday, September 21, 2012

My demeanor suggests that I'm incredulous.

I've been knocked off-course a bit by things going on in the background. They're annoying and most unwelcome but also demanding of my full attention, so they leave me little time for the sort of exhaustive research/analysis that some of my "previewed" topics (e.g. Byron Katie) would demand. With luck I'll have the annoyances out of the way soon.

In the meantime, I could not let the morning pass without commenting on this story. This is, of course, a terrible tragedy, a crime uniquely deserving of the word horrific, which we tend to throw around way too much nowadays. And yet we should keep in mind that the function of any decent blogand I like to think this one in particularis to question the conventional wisdom. I have often done that in talking about crime, and I must do so again here. I am drawn to the observation attributed to the jury foreman:
Jury foreman Dan Lashat said jurors believed Vaughn's odd and inappropriate demeanor strongly suggested he killed his family.
The defendant's demeanor suggested he killed his family? I've blogged about this at length, so I'll simply link to sample thoughts here and here, for anyone who's interested. (There was also my lengthy piece for Shermer's Skeptic.) But in the end, as much as we want people like Christopher Vaughn brought to justice, that sort of prejudiced/prejudicial thinking has no place in a court of law, and in my opinion, any verdict determined to have been based in meaningful part on such perceptions should be swiftly overturned.


Unknown said...

I like the way you put that, Steve. At first glance, someone might think you're trying to defend the person who committed this unthinkable crime, but as you say, "any verdict determined to have been based in meaningful part on such perceptions should be swiftly overturned." Well said, especially the "in meaningful part" part. :)

a/good/lysstener said...

We've discussed this before Steve, and I this is one of those areas where I really disagree with you. We expect "normal" people to act in normal ways, and in any case people like this need to be taken off the street before they do more damage. I agree with the other critics of yours who say you need to focus your empathy more on the victims. Even though I see your point in theory I think you're way off base in practice.

Unknown said...

Seems my comments are now appearing as "Unknown" when I sign in using Google. This is Jenny.

I am curious about the strong disagreement expressed by a/good/lysstener. While I can understand the importance of empathy toward victims, it's also true that people can very easily become victimized by the legal system itself through the kind of prejudice Steve is pointing out. If enough evidence exists to convict someone and the person's demeanor appears odd and inappropriate, that's one thing. Steve is saying, however, that if the demeanor itself is considered as part of the evidence of the crime, that is inappropriate.

I think about how easy it is to misread someone. For example, look at the case of Randall Dale Adams, who (I just now discovered) died last year. Here is a short video describing the case as portrayed through the documentary film, The Thin Blue Line.

Adams appeared to be so cold-blooded that he showed no remorse whatsoever for the alleged crime he committed; but the reason he was not remorseful was that he didn't commit the crime in the first place. Appearances can be deceiving and yet his "appearance" helped convict him of a crime he didn't commit.

I think Steve is pointing to an important point about how easily we can be fooled by how a situation looks, and how quick people can be to "prejudge" that situation based on mere thoughts about it rather than on concrete evidence.

Steve Salerno said...

Unknown Jenny (wink): I am often darkly amused by people who want to throw away the Constitution, due process and other legal protections so that we can simply lynch people who are "obviously guilty." For every OJ Simpson who assembles a dream defense that enables him to beat the rap, there are probably 100 poor souls in some nameless ghetto who get railroaded by police and end up on death row or at least doing 30 years. Jails in the likes of Texas and Florida are full of such unfortunates.

Steve Salerno said...

Speaking of The Thin Blue Line, I am just now reading its director's new revisionist book on the notorious Jeff MacDonald case, which was the basis of the book and TV series, Fatal Vision. Not sure he's got me convinced, but it's interesting stuff.

whistle said...

I'm always glad to see you post about this topic, Steve.

American Violet is another great movie that looks at what happens when innocent people are railroaded into admitting to crimes they didn't commit.

I am a bit baffled by this idea that Steve (and those of us who agree with him) is not having empathy for the victims by espousing this view. How is it helpful to the victims if the wrong person gets convicted of a crime? If we have no evidence and only speculation based on how a defendant acted in court or on the 911 call or whatever, we don't really know if we put away the right person. And if we didn't, we've not only locked away an innocent person, there is still a criminal walking free. This is exactly what happened with the West Memphis Three. Three innocent people spent half their lives in jail and now it is unlikely that we will ever know who murdered those poor little boys.

RevRon's Rants said...

kilyr 8Alyssa, you might consider the possibility that your definition of "normal" might not be applicable in all cases. Having attended college in a small East Texas town during the late '60s, wearing long hair and generally looking like a "hippie," I personally experienced what it is like to be "guilty by appearance," despite being innocent of wrongdoing. I observed too many genuinely good people who were persecuted - and even prosecuted - because they didn't look like "East Texas' version of normal. And when I returned from the Navy in 1973, I witnessed outright hate, directed at people like myself who had served because we had the appearance typically assigned to "baby killers."

While you are perfectly within your rights to pass judgment on others based upon their appearance, I am grateful that our legal system has constraints against doing so, and would like to think that those constraints are routinely observed (which they are not, unfortunately). It's unlikely that we'll ever completely eliminate personal prejudice and biases, but we must remain vigilant if we are to ensure that those prejudices aren't ingrained ion our legal system.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev, notwithstanding the fact that your comment appears to begin with the verif word, I couldn't agree more.

Steve Salerno said...

And I'm still puzzled about how someone could "agree with me in theory" and yet think I'm "way off base in practice..." Huh?

Jenny said...

I would like to hear more from Alyssa and suspect she has significant points to share. Theory and practice are, after all, two different worlds. So many angles to any situation, really.

RevRon, "East Texas normal" just tickles my funny bones, being an abnormal native Texan. (Think "Abby Normal" from Young Frankenstein.)

Steve, the book you are reading sounds interesting. I found an article (actually it looks like a transcript) containing this sentence: "The fact that this man has taken up MacDonald's cause is significant." I am glad he has gained that kind of respect.

Henriette said...

Your post reminds me of the Lindy Chamberlain case (dingo ate my baby)in Australia. She was basically convicted because she didn't act like a woman who had lost a child. I mean how can one judge how another is suppose to respond to any given situation?

Steve Salerno said...

Excellent point, Henriette. Even in the case of Casey Anthony--who I think was probably guilty as sin--it's clear that public disapproval of her lifestyle played a large role in the general outrage as well as the prosecution's shaping of the case against her.