“Luke, you are going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view“.
– Obi Wan Kenobi
The Origins of My Bias
I grew up obsessed with history. Owing to my father’s Irish heritage, and to my Italian mother’s slight annoyance, I was immersed in Irish history and culture, the “terrible beauty” of it all, particularly for Catholics, who suffered terribly for centuries due to anti-Catholic discriminatory policies of the British government.
I carried this understanding of injustice to the study of European immigrant populations from the Civil War era until World War I, as they arrived in the US in the hope of a better life, often opposed by a nativist establishment who didn’t want them here.
My interest then crossed over into the realm of the African-American experience: slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and ultimately the struggle for civil rights.
So, as my intellectual foundation, I have a historically guided built-in bias that is sympathetic to the struggles of the poor and politically weak, especially when they are caught up in the justice system.
Unsurprisingly then, I found myself emotionally invested in the story that was being told by the makers of the documentary film, “Making a Murderer” about William Avery: a poor, unsophisticated country boy being framed by law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office for a murder he didn’t commit.
At the same time, I had to step back from my emotions and remember that this was a documentary film that may not have been giving the full story. Not that the film was untruthful, just that there may have been more to the story then was being presented.
I must admit that I was also concerned that there would be another “Dead Man Walking” surprise, where the viewer gets convinced of the innocence of a death row inmate, only to have him eventually confess to murder and rape.
Subjective and Objective Truths
Obi Wan Kenobi spoke “a truth” when he told Luke that Anakin Skywalker had been killed by Darth Vader.
It just wasn’t necessarily “the truth”.
Of course, Vader didn’t kill Anakin, Anakin became Darth Vader. Obi Wan was speaking a spiritual truth, not necessarily a physical truth. He was speaking metaphorically
Sensing Luke’s incredulity on this point, Obi Won explains himself with the quote that I started the blog post with, “that the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view”.
In any human justice system, we don’t always know who committed a crime. Often, the facts surrounding a case are more subjective than is let on.
The perpetrator knows who committed the crime, but he may or may not be sitting in the courtroom. The story must be pieced together from fragmentary evidence; evidence often discovered much later and removed from context.
Some truths are objective, absolute, and eternal, the earth revolves around the sun, 2+2 = 4. These truths exist independently of human consciousness and thought. We could all die tomorrow and those two things would still be true.
However, our personal truths are what we can sense and have direct experience with. They are subjective in nature. This is how two jurors can witness the same thing, the same trial for example, and come away with very different experiences of it.
The defendant they are observing, the lawyers and witnesses they are hearing, the mood of the people in the gallery–all that they are sensing during the trial–interacts with a human mind filled with a lifetime of beliefs, memories, and opinions.
Out of this interaction between the senses and the mind comes our personal truth.
As a result, the “truths” that are revealed to a juror during the course of the trial may differ.
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt
Due to the severity of the consequences, life in prison or the death penalty, one would hope that a murder trial would be about finding the objective truth, the truth that exists independently of any human bias.
But all humans live in a realm of subjectivity.
What society tasks to the justice system, and what is demanded of jurors, is to evaluate evidence and determine guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Yet you’ll find this phrase to be a perfect model of subjectivity itself.
After all, who determines what doubt is reasonable, or if the person doing the doubting is reasonable?
In addition, if you research the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” you’ll find that there are multiple interpretations and different theories as to where the phrase originated. Was it to protect the defendant, or to assuage the conscience of Medieval Christian jurors who were terrified of the prospect of going to hell for making an incorrect judgment?
It all seems quite contradictory and unpromising!
Perhaps the true justice system, not the one that we wish we had, is more like how John Quincy Adams describes things in Amistad.
…..”Well, when I was an attorney, a long time ago, young man, I realized, after much trial and error, that in the courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins.”
Me, the Juror
Just about five years ago I sat on a jury for a murder trial. The killing took place in Newark, early evening, near a crowded intersection on a hot summer day. Plenty of people were outside and witnessed the shooting, including family members of the dead teenager.
The suspect in the case was a close friend of the deceased, with whom he had gotten into an argument earlier in the day. The suspect later returned and shot his friend.
Besides the pointless loss of life, the troubling aspect of the whole experience was me.
My bias was creating a major crisis of conscience.
First, the Newark Police department, from my recollection, had mishandled evidence (it may have been lost) and they used incorrect procedures when showing pictures in the lineup.
Second, the defense attorney was quite skillful at planting seeds of doubt in my mind. He had a strategy of challenging the witness’s testimony, who tended to be a family member, and then let them talk and talk.
The problem was that the more they talked, the more they’d contradict themselves. The defense attorney would then challenge them on their contradictions.
Every time this happened I’d stare downward at my legs and think to myself “shut up, please shut up”. It was painful to hear these family members of the deceased be put on the defensive as to what they saw, or what they think they saw (eyewitness testimony is hardly “eyewitness” due to the nature of the human brain itself)
What I found was that the murder trial of someone who was obviously guilty, was, in my mind at least, turning into a grand conspiracy by the city of Newark, NJ to get a conviction.
Be Aware of Your Biases
At least I was aware of my bias and the impact it was having on my thought processes as I sat in the jury box.
Most people walk around completely unaware of their biases, not because of a fundamental character flaw, but simply because their biases have never been brought to their attention. Their biases are, in a sense, a part of them and not something to be noticed. Just as we wouldn’t notice our own facial features without a mirror.
If my bias had tended the other way, a belief in the benevolence of powerful institutions and deference to the fairness of the justice system, I would have seen the defendant as guilty, with no reservation or concern over the Newark Police Department’s handling of the evidence.
But that is not my bias.
My natural sympathies are with the little guy.
Thus, a documentary like “Making a Murderer” has an opportunity to confirm my biases, if I let it.
Ultimately what must be recognized about the judicial system, and life itself, is that it is neither all good nor all bad. It’s a system comprised of humans who are usually doing their best to find an objective truth while living in a subjective world. A difficult proposition in my mind.
Due to my admittedly bleak outlook for objective truth finding, I suppose the only real lesson I can draw is this: follow the laws.
You do not want your fate resting in the hands of subjective judges and juries.
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PSS. In case you were wondering, the defendant in my trial pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and I was spared having to make a decision in the case.