Personal Bias

BiasedGrantland has an excellent long form piece up about the lingering racism of Valdosta, Georgia as it relates to the mysterious death of a young athlete there. The article is excellent and worth reading for multiple reasons. For our purposes, I was particularly struck by the following two paragraphs. 

It is easy, when you look at the facts surrounding KJ’s case, to believe it was an accident. All you have to do is look at the investigative file, and if you approach that report with the assumption that our institutions unfailingly serve the public interest — that law enforcement agencies exist to protect us, to bring justice, to exhaust every resource until they have exposed the truth — if you believe that, then the pieces fit together just the way the sheriff says they do. A boy walked into a gym — we know that. Maybe he’d left his shoes in a mat. Maybe he reached. Maybe he fell. And then he died. “Sometimes the truth,” Chief Deputy Joseph Crow said while explaining that his office would have no comment for this story, “is stranger than fiction.”

But it is also easy, when you look at the facts surrounding KJ’s case, to believe it was not an accident. All you have to do is spend a few hours examining the evidence alongside the Johnsons, and if you approach that evidence with the assumption that our institutions do not always serve the public interest — that sometimes they choose to protect themselves instead of their communities, that sometimes they find one kind of justice for one kind of person and another kind of justice for others, that sometimes they use the powers of the state to conceal the truth — if you believe that, then the pieces fit together to form an altogether different picture. A boy walked into a gym — again, that we know. But maybe he didn’t reach. Maybe he didn’t fall. Maybe something else happened, and that something else explains why he ended up in a mat narrower than his shoulders; why none of the students who entered the gym after him saw his feet or heard his cries; why his clothes went missing; why the EMT reported bruising; why the coroner was not immediately called to the scene; why the second autopsy declared that Kendrick died by blunt-force trauma, that there was no asphyxia, that there was no accident.

As a young attorney, I had to handle a number of small-time criminal pro bono matters as a public service when so required by the courts. As a consequence, I spent a fair amount of time sitting in courtrooms, watching cases while waiting my turn to appear. The offenses were all relatively minor and many defendants were unrepresented. I remember being astonished to see the police routinely offering testimony that was highly suspect but difficult to challenge.

The defendants always consented to a search. The pot was always in plain view. Defendants with injuries had always resisted. Stuff like that.

My bias moved 180 degrees. I became very cynical about the criminal justice system. I came to the conclusion that the police — even in the upper middle class New York City suburbs — had decided that the system was a hindrance to them doing their jobs and, as a result, had decided that they knew who the bad guys were and that they were going to say and do what was necessary to take care of those bad guys. That was pretty explosive news to a then naive, law-and-order, newly minted lawyer.  And that news colors my views to this day. I will be skeptical even of good cops trying their best to do things right (and I’m sure that there are many of them).

This bias thing is all-pervasive and all-encompassing. It’s everywhere. That poor kid from Georgia.  Sorting out what really happened to him is going to be extremely difficult…at best.

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