Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Experts and Testimony

Lord, but the Real World has a way of hijacking — or, perhaps less dramatically, riffing on — this space. A recent post was a fairly “insider’s” view of the professionalism issues facing the search-and-rescue dog-handling community, and as such I was a bit concerned about whether it would be of interest to all of DACSIH’s readers.

Huh. The state of Texas, it turned out, had other plans. But I get ahead of myself.

So there I was, at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, New Jersey, built literally on the corpse of the farm stand where I used to get cider and cinnamon doughnuts as a boy. But we won’t dwell on the evils of suburban sprawl, because it was a happy occasion: my 30th reunion, Pascack Hills High School Class of 1979.

Heather had pulled a muscle in her back from the fucking smoker’s cough she’d brought back from her Billings adventure, and of course this really wasn’t her thing anyway, so she spent much of the evening on a couch outside the meeting room. That turned out to be perfect for me, because the experience, while enjoyable, was also a bit intense: I’d spend half an hour reminiscing with people, walk out, hang with Heather for a while, and go back in once I’d de-intensified for a little while.

Much of what we did was tell stories about getting into trouble when we were at school together. I had a particularly interesting talk with Greg Bunce, who’d been first-chair trombone when I was second-chair trumpet. As band geeks, we’d spent an incredible time together; virtually every moment we weren’t in class, we were in the band room, playing or shooting the bull.

On the date of note, however, we weren’t doing any of that — I think that we may have already graduated, in fact. But in any case, Greg tells me a story I knew well:

“I remember that time that I rear-ended you — you were driving that old Mustang of yours, weren’t you? I tell my kids about that even now.”

Which came as a surprise to me, because I had good reason to remember it differently. I’m fairly certain of my facts, because I have far more details and because I vividly remember being dragged into the insurance agent’s office for the talk about teen drivers letting their attentions wander. Which was all bullshit, of course, because although none of the adults knew it, the accident had been a direct effect of egregiously and willfully dangerous horseplay.

I’d been driving, and not my 1967 candy-apple red squareback Mustang — I think it may already have died by then — but my mother’s late-60s Pontiac Le Mans, which she’d bought second-hand from her sister. The other car was Doug “Beaner” Weinstein’s, a little Mazda roadster that he pampered as his baby.

Heh. The Le Mans and I had different plans.

I don’t remember what we were coming back from, but we were on our way home on a fairly lonely stretch of road that included a causeway across a local reservoir. I was in front, my car full of wiseasses — including Greg, of course. Doug was driving behind us, and I think his car was empty because he was going a different way back.

I stopped at a light; behind me, the gentlest bump.

I look in the rearview; Doug’s grinning at me like he just ate a turd sandwich. Asshole.

At a stop sign, the same thing; I stop, he bumps me. Now he’s laughing.

At this point we hit a short four-lane stretch, and I slow down. Doug makes the amazing mistake of passing me.

Perhaps you can see where this is going; but you probably haven’t got the full picture yet.

At the next intersection, Doug encounters a red light. Who could have known the levies would fail, but as it so happens when I pull in behind him I give him a bit of a bump. But I don’t stop there: having made contact, I gently ease my foot onto the gas.

A Glory Days, unapologetic American V8 purrs to life, the raw power even at low revs starting to push the little Mazda forward, into the intersection.

Kids, I can’t stress this enough — don’t try this at home.

Doug tries his foot brake. Tries the hand break. Tries putting it into reverse — as if; the little rotary engine whines in impotent truculence, but that little car is still headed into the intersection, red light or no. Big daddy says forward, and at this point Detroit is still capable of bitch-slapping Hiroshima [1].

In my defense, I do have a carful of little shitheads howling with laughter and egging me on. Which, of course, made it all right …

Allow me to break frame for a moment, and tell you what neither I nor Doug nor our demonstrably unsympathetic fellows knew. In fact, the Le Mans’ bumper had almost no overlap with the much-lower Mazda’s. At this moment what was pushing Doug forward was about an inch of intersection between his bumper and my Mom’s.

Or rather, the torpedo nose in the front center of the Le Mans’ bumper.

The impact, when it happened, was almost gentle. Just the slightest shock, and from the feel I wouldn’t have even known it — Doug certainly didn’t, because when the light changed he just drove off.

Those of us behind him, however, had the awful evidence before us: a huge dent in his trunk, shaped exactly like the Le Mans’ torpedo nose (which didn’t, of course, have so much as a scratch).

For a moment, we all sat there in utter, awful silence. Then I hit the gas, tried to come alongside Doug and motion him to pull over. He just drove faster — thought I was trying to drag.

Eventually we managed to motion him over. He got out of his car, that big old grin still on his face until he rounded the rear and saw. The smile, and all the color, drained from his face.

That’s when we all huddled and got our story straight. We were smart kids, developed a short but believable scenario that would minimize the shit-storm I’d be in when my old man found out. I was going to have to take the fall; that was so obvious it didn’t need to be stated — but true friends are ones who help you construct an alibi that will soften the blow.

The punch line, though, is a phone conversation I had with our first-chair trumpet, Seth Rivkin, soon afterward — Seth hadn’t made it to the reunion, so I told him about Greg telling me the slightly revised story.

“Wasn’t I driving that day?” Seth asked.

I’ll be damned. Well, there’s your reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Which brings me to that earlier post — about how bogus scent-dog evidence seems to have helped convict a couple of innocent people in Texas — and today’s post — about how, in a grim finding no one could consider any kind of victory, anti-capital-punishment activists may have finally gotten what they were warning us was coming: evidence that a man was executed for a crime he did not commit.

Texas, again [2].

The particulars you can find in the excellent New Yorker article. But here’s the recap. A man named Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for setting fire to his house and killing his children. Much of the case was made by expert testimony saying that the fire couldn’t have been accidental. Unfortunately, the case began to unravel almost immediately after the conviction:

• The “expert testimony” from the fire marshal that pretty much made the case that a man had burned his family to death turned out to be little more than folklore-based.
• Research available well before the man was executed showed that the “evidence” investigators found for arson can happen naturally in any house fire, robbing us of the “it was OK by the standards of the time” argument.
• The Texas board responsible for clemency judgments seems to have willfully ignored a brief from one of the nation’s foremost researchers on fire forensics that pretty much established the state’s case didn’t hold up, and that the fire appeared to have been accidentally caused by a space heater or faulty wiring.
• Many of the witnesses who testified in court about the man’s “unnatural calm” while his kids burned up had originally described him as frantically trying to get back into the house to save them — but remembered the day differently after they found out the authorities had accused the man of a monstrous crime. Again, so much for eyewitnesses, which I’m beginning to think are a vastly overrated mode of evidence.
• The other “damning” evidence came from a jailhouse stoolie who, years later, offered this reassuring addendum (from the New Yorker article):
“After I pressed him, he said, ‘It’s very possible I misunderstood what he said.’ Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder. ‘Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy,’ he said. ‘My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that.’ He paused, then said, ‘The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?’”

One might ask if I have an agenda, where I stand on the issue. Fair enough. I tend against the death penalty for two reasons: first, I don’t believe in perfection, and so I can’t get around the irrevocability if you find out your guy was innocent. Second, I don’t like giving the state any more right to take its citizens’ lives than absolutely necessary — a cop defending himself or a bystander, that’s fine; but nobody should have the right to kill citizens in cold blood, the government the least of all. Even when the son of a bitch deserves it.

I say “deserve,” because what I will not do is waste a tear over the pieces of crap who are guilty of murder. They probably do have it coming [3].

More to the point today, I have a bug up my ass about a few words, particularly when people apply them to themselves. A “perfectionist” is someone who makes huge mistakes because he’s so obsessed with trivial detail. A “paisano” is, as my Dad once told me, a fellow Italian-American who’s about to put his hand in your pocket. And an “expert” is someone who’s been around for long enough that he feels nobody should ever be allowed contradict him again.

We’ve got a lot of this kind of “expert” in the dog handling community. God forgive me if I ever start to call myself an expert.

There are real experts in this world, although you’d have a hell of a time getting many of them to admit to it. My mother for example: all her life she’s been humble about her own smarts; but on more than one occasion she was able to see through walls, as the saying goes.

The incident with the Le Mans and the Mazda was no exception. As I’d said, we were careful to build a story and stick to it; and to my knowledge, none of the adults ever pierced the construct.

Um. My mother, it seemed, had different plans.

In a quiet moment, when nobody else was around, she grabbed my arm, and said, “Now I want you to be honest with me. Just between us. You were screwing around, weren’t you?”

No flies on Mom.

For my part, when Mom’s instincts I ’fessed up. Takes a pretty low character to lie to his mother.

[1] That sounds awful, but in fact this is where Mazda was founded.
[2] I like Texas. I like Texans. Texas women, in particular, kick ass. But let’s face it, yinz have got a blind spot a mile wide when it comes to the death penalty.
[3] I still think Tolkien got this exactly right. If you read Gandalf’s take on the death penalty — or watch it in the movie, it was portrayed faithfully to the text — it doesn’t deny that some people deserve death, and doesn’t really say the death penalty is never warranted. What it does do is make us question why we want to see it applied — and whether it’s truly out of a sense of justice, or out of fear and malice.


Matt Mullenix said...

Great story!

Barb said...

As a Texan, I want to say...

"Bravo!!" My state's (and specifically our last two governors') sickening zeal to kill every person on Death Row as quickly as possible is... well, sickening. It smacks of vengeance and not a little cruelty.

But my biggest problem with the death penalty is the undeniable fact that we HAVE killed innocent people - and will occasionally continue to do so just because the system is far from perfect.

That makes us ALL murderers.

BPL said...

I used to be an Abolitionist, debating from that POV in elementary school. My own statistical research showed that capital punishment for murder is not a deterrent.

But I've changed my mind. It may not be a deterrent to people contemplating future crimes; but it sure stops crimes by people already convicted. I used to think it was just conservative propaganda that "liberal judges" or governors would release dangerous people. But they have, again and again and again. Arthur Shawcross had murdered two children (in two separate incidents, if I remember correctly). They let him out after X number of years. He promptly killed about 18 women. Ed Kemper III killed his grandmother because, he said, "I just wanted to see what it would feel like to kill Grandma." They let him out after a while, "rehabilitated." He killed about eight women and girls, as I remember. The cases go on and on. Ted Bundy committed a good fraction of his rape/murders, possibly the majority, after escaping from jail in Colorado. Here in Pittsburgh, Geno Spruill escaped and killed three people, playing a football game with one victim's head. It happens.

I would execute any multiple murderer, rapist, or child molester. I don't think people like that can be rehabilitated. If we had some good way of keeping such people locked up for life, I would be content with that, but we seem unwilling as a society to do that. So capital punishment is the next best thing.

Having said all that, OF COURSE you should make every effort possible to make sure the people executed are GUILTY. The recent Supreme Court decision that said, in effect, that you couldn't introduce evidence showing someone on Death Row was innocent if you did it too late struck me as... well, Satanic. No, it's not okay to execute innocent people. Ever. I don't understand the mentality that thinks it is, and I don't want to.