Friday, January 25, 2008

And Justice for All ?

I have just finished reading John Grisham's book The Innocent Man. This true story raises troubling questions about the justice system in the United States. A similar story in Canada raises the same kind of questions about whether the current system actually serves to search for the truth in certain criminal cases.

In his book Grisham tells the story of the murder and rape of a young woman in a small town. He describes the police investigation and how that investigation came to focus on one man, Ron Williamson. Grisham also describes how Williamson's life had devolved from a promising and popular young athlete to someone who everyone in town knew as a "troublemaker." Williamson's decline seems to have been connected to his mental health issues. The police focused on Williamson as a suspect in the murder mainly because he was known as a troublemaker. They disregarded information that might point to another person as a more likely suspect and they used jailhouse informants to build a circumstantial case against Williamson. Not surprisingly Williamson soon found himself on death row where his mental health deteriorated even further. Grisham next describes the long process of appeals and hearings finally leading to Williamson's exoneration. The book does not do a lot of "preaching" about the lessons to be drawn from the story but the story is disturbing in many ways. Quite recently the media have reported on another case in the USA where a young man who the investigators found "weird" in some way was exonerated nine years after being found guilty of the murder of a woman near his home.

Such disturbing stories do not just happen in the USA. On October 3, 1984 (about two years after the murder of Debbie Carter in the previous paragraph) a young girl was kidnapped and murdered in Queensville, Ontario. Almost immediately the attention of the police focused on Guy Paul Morin, a neighbor. Again, police disregarded evidence that pointed to Morin's innocence and built a circumstantial case relying heavily on the evidence of jailhouse informants and the opinion of detectives that Morin's responses during an initial interview were indicative of an awareness of guilt. Finally, DNA testing not available at the time of the initial investigation, proved that Morin was not the monster that police and prosecutors had proclaimed him to be. Exoneration followed and Morin received a cash settlement and an apology for all his troubles. Interestingly Morin also had mental health issues. A police detective chillingly observed at one point that Morin fit "the profile" of the killer better than any other possible suspect.

What the two stories have in common is that the suspect in each case was "different" in some way (in both cases mental health issues were involved). Detectives in each case made a judgement early on that this was the guilty party and built their cases to fit that preconceived idea by disregarding facts that did not point to the guilt of the accused and emphasizing unreliable facts (the jailhouse testimony) that serve their purpose. What this seems to point to is that the prosecution at some point stopped looking for the truth (which is where justice comes from, I think) and instead substituted a search for convictions and victory. I know that the theory is probably that truth comes from the conflict in the courtroom between prosecution and defense; but it seems to me that a police detective or a prosecutor has to have some concern for truth. The measure of their success should not be simply in their rate of convictions.

Another point that is troubling here is the near infallibility accorded to forensic "experts" in these trials. We have television shows like CSI that describe in near mythological terms the ability of forensic experts to solve a complex case. Similarly the show Criminal Minds describes the fantastic ability of behavioral scientists to create criminal profiles to solve other complex cases. However, in both the Williamson case and the Morin case the "expert" evidence supplied was weak and was made to look more important than it actually was. The expert evidence, which should have aided the search for truth instead helped to obtain false convictions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Environmentalism as religion

An Australian newspaper reports on a suggested "environmentally friendly" policy regarding births and the reaction of Cardinal Pell to this suggestion:

CATHOLIC Archbishop of Sydney George Pell has criticised the Australian Medical Association for publishing a letter in its journal advocating a tax on children.
Speaking in Seoul, Cardinal Pell criticised a recent letter in the Medical Journal of Australia in which obstetrician and associate professor of medicine Barry NJ Walters called for the baby bonus to be replaced with a $5000 "baby levy" for every family having more than two children, followed by an annual carbon tax of up to $800 a child.
"I am not sure what is more extraordinary, that an obstetrician could hold such a view or that a leading medical journal could publish such a view, but either way, this is a striking illustration of where a minority neo-pagan, anti-human mentality, wants to take us," Cardinal Pell said.
Dr Walters, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, wrote that "showering financial booty on new mothers" rewarded "greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour" and that Australia deserved no more population concessions than India or China. Each child born should be offset by planting 4ha of trees, he said.
But Cardinal Pell, in Seoul to accept a $120,000 prize for his anti-abortion work, said extreme environmental proposals should cause alarm.

The suggestion by the professor that families with children should be subjected to a carbon tax is an example of a policy that is ultimately anti-life even though environmentalists claim to be the defenders of life. The reality is that in most parts of the industrialized world the birth rate has already declined to the point where local populations will shrink rapidly in the coming years. When we think of the future of the next generation we do want to ensure that the physical environment can sustain a satisfactory quality of life (so I'm not saying that I'm against protecting the environment). At the same time, we also want to see a future where citizens of the next generation (if the current generation is willing to give birth to them) has all of the dignity proper to the children of God and are not seen as simple "carbon footprints." Connected with the above suggestion of a "baby levy" for new children I have also recently read a suggestion that people should be able to get "carbon credits" for having themselves neutered. This is another example (I think) of the short sighted thinking and misplaced priorities that enforce the call that Cardinal Pell makes for a healthy scepticism toward the current trends in environmentalism.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pregnant Teens

One of the interesting things in the past few weeks has been the media reaction to the announced pregnancy of 16 year old teen star Jamie Lyn Spears (sister of Britney). Major media outlets breathlessly reported the story and experts gave sombre advise about how to talk to your own teens about the news. First, its important to note that teen pregnancy, although rates have been decreasing for some time, is not a rare event. One stat that I found suggests that in the year 2002 more than 250,000 teens between 15 and 17 years of age became pregnant in the USA.

People drew all kinds of lessons from this news story. Some suggested that the poor girl somehow was the victim of a lack of access to birth control (not a likely possibility given the status of the family). Some stories suggested that the pregnant girl could also have been a victim of a mother who was exploiting the girl's earning potential without regard to the wishes of the girl in question. This is a plausible explanation. It seems that some child stars become the primary wage earners of their family with a parent earning money from the child by acting in the role of manager. This probably puts a lot of pressure on the child and could result in the situation where the child could seem to be exploited to maintain the economic status of the family. So, as with any particular case its impossible to know what lessons to draw from this story. I don't think that Jamie Lyn is some kind of a victim (of lack of access or of other circumstances). It seems possible that she could have chosen pregnancy as a way to deal with pressures inside of her family. Her mother deserves some of the responsibility although its obviously not possible for a parent to completely control the actions of a teen child. The father of the unborn child obviously deserves some of the responsibility as well.

I support the teaching of the Church that sex belongs in the context of a loving relationship normally found only in the context of marriage. This means that abstinence should be the main theme in classes taught to teenagers in Catholic schools. At the same time if there were teens in my own family I would also add a talk about the need to be responsible regarding choices about sexual activity. I know that this sounds like a contradiction of Catholic morality but it seems to me that considering the implications of unplanned pregnancy a more pragmatic approach would be appropriate.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Culture Wars?

I have just finished reading a book by Bernard Goldberg titled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (it was in the bargain bin at the bookstore). The book is basically an attack on those people (mostly liberals in this case) who do not share the political viewpoints of the author. I have read a similar book by Rush Limbaugh and another from a liberal viewpoint by Al Franken. The purpose of each of these books is to ridicule and attack people who are political opponents. To a certain extent such a way of thinking is understandable. I recall a story told of the long time rivalry between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor (When Lady Astor said that if she was married to Churchill she would put poison in his tea Churchill's retort was that if he were married to Astor he would drink the poison). However, because of the intensity of these attacks I think that these books point to a malaise in American politics (and to a lesser extent in Canadian politics) that seems to be carrying over to "politics" within the Catholic Church in the USA.

The reason that denigrating attacks on political opponents is damaging to the political process is simply because such attacks make any kind of political compromise less and less likely. The people who were attacked in such a way are not likely to want to cooperate in any way with the attackers and nobody is likely to want to be seen as "soft" on the political opposition. This is damaging to the political process because the basic mechanism of democracy is compromise. In a "pure" democracy citizens would discuss a question of what ought to be done until some kind of a consensus was reached. Citizens might not get exactly what they wanted but would still get something that they could agree on. If this consensus was not possible, only then would the majority rule theory be applied. This suggests that the ability to seek consensus - to compromise - is key to the democratic process. Now, I am not an expert on American politics but it seems to me that what we are seeing is increasing polarization between "liberals" and "conservatives." It seems to me that this polarization is making it increasingly unlikely that the American government will be able to deal with the important issues facing the nation in the future.

When I read religious blogs by Catholic "liberals" or "conservatives" I think that I see a similar polarization. Here the damage is not to a process but rather to the very idea of what it means to be a Church. Jesus prayed "that they may be one," and Paul over and over again urged unity in the Church. Anything therefore that damages the unity of the Church would seem to be a bad thing. The Church is like a family in the way that just as you do not choose who is in your family so you do not choose who is sitting next to you in Church. At the same time in both the family and the Church our faith requires us to accept everyone (maybe especially those we might not agree with).

However, it is true that there are some times when compromise is not possible. The issue of abortion for example, polarized as it is between the issue of respect for life and women's rights, does not seem to readily allow for compromise. Here is where there are no easy answers. Jesus did not send people away. Think for example of the story of the rich young man. The young man clearly wants to follow Jesus and Jesus gives him the invitation with one challenge - to sell what he has and give it to the poor. The young man went away because he was rich and unable to respond to the challenge. The point is that Jesus did not directly send the man away - and neither should we do so with people who dissent from the church. The Church (and those in the Church) does not need to act as a "gatekeeper" to the sacraments. What the Church needs to do is to faithfully proclaim the challenge of living a life that is faithful to the call of Jesus.