Rise of the Innocence Podcast

A short while ago, I chaired a panel to celebrate Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s new book Crimesploitation, which examines the lowbrow and middlebrow shows that shed glamorous and lurid light on crime: Cops, To Catch a Predator, etc. As I wrote in my review of the book, this read coincided with the week in which Adnan Syed, whose case was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial, was set free by a Baltimore court after serving 23 years of incarceration. Here is a timeline of Syed’s case, which clearly indicates that the push to exonerate him came from the investigation in the podcast. Following in Serial’s footsteps was Undisclosed, a more pro-defense oriented podcast, which highlighted more discoveries.

In the book, Kaplan and LaChance examine a TV show that came out more or less when Serial emerged on the scene: Making a Murderer, which followed the murder case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s hard to argue against anything that creates a push for justice, and the authors don’t do that, but they do voice a critique against these wrongful conviction media products: by singling out specific cases of injustice, Kaplan and LaChance argue, they “fail[] to achieve the goal of critiquing the substance and structure of the criminal justice system and the bigger picture of hegemonic power relations in the United States that supports it” (94). In other words, “the protection of factually innocent people from the devastation of incarceration. . . becomes the most pressing criminal justice policy imperative, leaving untouched the question of why such a devastating punishment is so easily and readily meted out.” 

Kaplan and LaChance’s critique is well taken. The concern is that the focus on innocence will gloss over the fact that guilty people, as well as the innocent ones, don’t deserve neglect, sadism, cruelty, incompetence, and other cruel and, sadly, not unusual aspects of incarceration. I saw some of this play out in the conversation about vaccines, when jail vaccine advocates referred to the presumption of innocence to make a bid for vaccines that everyone, guilty and innocent alike, should have received immediately simply by virtue of being human and in a congregate setting with little control over their surroundings (and said so here.) But wrongful convictions are their own genre of awfulness, and while we need to support everyone who is incarcerated, I don’t think that infighting between innocence projects and prison advocacy projects helps the overall goal of making the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I am more optimistic than Kaplan and LaChance about these shows. For every person who might watch them and think, “wow, this is a unique instance of miscarriage of justice” there must be several who walk away from it thinking “if this atrocity happened in a case that was highlighted by a podcast, imagine how many more people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit who haven’t been featured in podcasts yet.” I said as much in my commentary on the podcast and on the radio.

Happily, the high-profile success of the vanguard shows of this genre led to a whole slew of podcasts seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted. Just recently, the podcast Proof led to the exoneration of two men in Georgia. At the same time, a seemingly contradictory trend is visible: podcasts that reopen cold cases and present theories of the case can help revive interest in unsolved murders and sometimes put terrifyingly violent people behind bars, as well as highlight atrocious behavior that might or might not be criminally defined in an effort to get justice for the victims. I say “seemingly” because, in both cases, the underlying assumption seems to be: podcasters can grease and speed up the wheels of justice faster and better than, say, Innocence Project lawyers.

Why is that? Consider what might be the first example of this genre: Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, the documentaries about the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the convictions of Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. The documentaries evoked enormous interest in the cases, and with the weight of celebrities and advocates, within a few years, everyone who knew something about these cases became convinced that the three were wrongly convicted. This newly fueled interest led to some movement in the case, ending in a new trial for Echols and, eventually, in an Alford plea for all defendants that set them free. Shortly after the plea, understanding the power of media, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis produced a documentary of their own in 2012, which featured better forensics and more novel analyses of the evidence.

What happened with the West Memphis Three case is instructive. The media can bring to the public voices form the scene. Unbound by technicalities and rules of evidence and of legal ethics, they can reinterview witnesses, examine forensic evidence with improved technologies, and have candid conversations with legal actors (some of whom might be retired at that point.) They can tell a story in emotionally artful ways that can persuade the public that an injustice has been done. I’m beginning to think that the Innocence Project might want to invest a considerable part of its budget in podcasting.

One argument against the use of podcasts in this way might be that they draw arbitrary, sporadic attention to certain cases at the expense of others. That is surely a problem. But isn’t sporadic, arbitrary attention that corrects injustice better than no attention at all?

The other challenge might be that the proliferation of these podcasts, with every fresh journalist or journalism aspirant hoping to be the one to stand on the courtroom stairs and celebrate, their impact will become marginally smaller, to the point that we will stop paying attention. I don’t think we’re at that inflection point yet. Moreover, the exoneration technologies (primarily the improvement and lower costs of DNA testing) are exposing more and more of these cases (there are also stark racial patterns) and I think we still need all the podcasts we can get.

In Memoriam: Leslie Sebba

It’s been more than a week since we lost Leslie Sebba, my beloved mentor and teacher at Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology, and only now have I found the time to write. I spent the entire week at the Law and Society Association’s Annual Meeting in Lisbon, amidst a heatwave, and throughout the week my heart was heavy with the palpable absence of Leslie, who attended the meeting almost every year as a member of our Punishment and Society CRN. And at the same time, there was the uncanny feeling that Leslie was there, because the conversation revolved around ideas that he helped develop and interrogate throughout his professional life. We paid tribute to Leslie at some of the panels, though I was restless with grief because I was unable to attend the funeral and the Shiv’a and tell his family a bit about how inspiring, kind, and special he was.

My first encounter with Leslie’s work was as a law student at HUJI, where I took his course “rights of prisoners and residents of closed institutions.” HUJI’s law curriculum, at the time, was very German, in the sense that there wasn’t a lot of critical theory and empiricism; we sat in big hallways, 150 or even 300 of us, and were essentially lectured at by some of the era’s civil rights luminaries (Ruthie Gavison, Mota Kremnitzer, David Kretzmer.) Occasionally, they asked us a question; sometimes I managed to shine, which made me feel an inch taller, but I wouldn’t go as far as to actually ask a question myself, or (heaven forbid) bring myself to attend office hours. And here was something completely different: an elective course taught by a gentle, absentminded soul, a kind smile perpetually on his lips, a preemptive forgiveness for student laziness or poor behavior, and a gentle door always open for those interested in learning more. The whole thing was bathed in a quiet, gentlemanlike, and at the same time fervent care for the human rights of the most vulnerable people in society, and in big part planted the seed for my later decision to change affiliations and move over to the criminology side of the building. No longer a law student at a formalist, traditional institution, but rather a grad student at a small, rigorous empirical department, I proceeded to take more classes with Leslie throughout my master’s, and his penology course, in particular, was an exquisite tour de force. Leslie was one of the most knowledgeable and well-read people I ever met. It is thanks to him that my education included not just the American classics (though they were certainly there – the entire Johnston, Savitz, and Wolfgang prison canon) but also a lot of European and Pacific materials. I still credit my unorthodox approach to the American abolitionism movement to the fact that, thanks to Leslie, I’m well read on Scandinavian abolitionism from the 1970s. And it is greatly thanks to him that my own students learn a lot about New Zealand’s approach to restorative circles; he had us read primary research about that system when it was hot off the press.

Leslie’s own work, which he assigned with a light, humble hand (he could’ve easily had us read everything he wrote, which was just so, so good) touched on many of these subjects that came to interest me. For one thing, he was a true pioneer of victimology. While his HUJI colleague Menachem Amir published an extremely controversial book examining the concept of “victim precipitation” in sexual assault (and was skewered by feminists), Leslie’s interest in victims was far more humane. In his groundbreaking book Third Parties he tries to piece together the various theoretical legal and criminological strands underpinning the victims’ rights revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it all seems super lucid and obvious, but when it had just come out in 1996 it was a novel and well balanced effort to critically assess how much of the “victim bills of rights” that were cropping up like mushrooms after the rain was empty rhetoric and how much it would actually improve the lot of victims, especially of violent crime. His pioneering contributions to victimology were also in, basically, making room for the field as its own criminological school; he was the founding editor of the International Review of Victimology and taught a fascinating and popular course on the subject.

Third Parties was emblematic of Leslie’s approach, which straddled the worlds of law and criminology. Leslie possessed the rare and useful mix of someone who could analyze doctrine with unrivaled clarity and sharpness and, at the same time, entertain curiosity about how it plays out in the field and open-mindedly examine critiques. His vast international interests meant that he was preoccupied with international and comparative questions quite a bit; he looked at the worrisome trend of importing American punitivism such as Third Strikes laws and the notion of solitary confinement as an international human rights crime. He also had a crystal clear and lucid approach to Israeli penology, tracing the arc of punitivism back to the amnesties of the 1950s and constantly making the tie between domestic crime control and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Leslie, who had a keen nose for bright and innovative minds like his own, introduced us to the writings of Malcolm Feeley, Jonathan Simon, and David Garland. It was thanks to his gentle encouragement and prodding that I mustered the cojones to attend a concentrated class, in English, from a visiting Malcolm Feeley, leading to intellectual connections that would chart the rest of my professional life. Leslie saw something in me, even as I was a night school grad student in a special master’s program for cops and prison guards (the only hours I could make while working full time as a military public defender), and it is no exaggeration to say that, if I’ve achieved a modicum of success, it is truly thanks to him. While still at the Institute, I was his research assistant as well as his teaching assistant; I was green behind the ears and truly knew nothing, and he gave me responsibilities and kudos far beyond what someone at my age and experience level merited.

Leslie also exposed me to the idea that first-rate theoretical games are fun, but they are completely meaningless if they don’t improve the lives of real people on the ground. The first project with which I helped him was a collaboration with Israel’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, which had just been founded at the time. We were looking for ways to enshrine the right to meaningful labor in Israeli law. Leslie’s other work, on children’s rights, was also done in partnerships, and he was a valued and respected participant and member in initiatives of human rights organizations ACRI and Adallah.

What is truly magical about Leslie the person is that all these incredible world-improving accomplishments lived within a humble, gentle, self-effacing soul. Leslie was never driven by his ego; he supported and trumpeted his students and collaborators, worked well in groups, helped organize panels, and was happy to sit in the audience when a junior collaborator presented his work. His gentle, fatherly mannerisms belied a keen mind always devoted to improving justice. And he took great pleasure in his work – while lecturing, he always seemed to be having an interesting, enriching conversation within his own mind (it was not rare for him to pose a question and, in the same breath, answer it in two contradictory ways with a bemused face.) A great light has dimmed and the world of law, criminology, and criminal justice is impoverished for his departure. What is remembered, lives.

My Chesa Recall Punditry: The View from Bayview-Hunter’s Point

Last night provided me a unique vantage point on the Boudin recall effort: I was an inspector at a polling station in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, which is a neighborhood with a long history of neglect and criminalization. It is also unique in its demographics: 33.7% African American in a city that is just under 6% African American as a whole. There were approximately 650 registered voters in our precinct. 18 voted by mail and 17 voted in person, for a grand total of 35 voters. That’s 5% of the electorate. Things were somewhat better, but not by much, elsewhere in the city. By stark contrast to the 2020 Presidential election, pre-election mail-in voting in this local election–the third in 2022!–was very low. Our Federal Election Deputy (FED), who came to visit us throughout the day, reported that the polls were quiet and dormant throughout the whole day, pretty much everywhere.

Why does this matter? Take a look at a map published in today’s Chron of the neighborhoods that voted against Boudin:

At first glance, the story appears to be that neighborhoods associated with Asian-American populations tended to support the recall more fervently. This is unsurprising, and only talked about in hushed tones even though I think it is a big part of the story. In the last few weeks I saw concerted, fervent activism in support of the recall from very similar crowds to the ones who drove the SFUSD recall from a few months ago: it’s not all about out-of-town Republican millionaires conning unsuspecting masses into false consciousness. These are pretty much the same parents who resented the performative woketalk from the Board about school renaming and lottery admissions to Lowell. I suspect that some residual energy poured over from the previous recall (which I think was 100% justified) to this one (which I think was not.) The superficial narrative might be that a permissive and forgiving attitude toward prosecuting some people (read: presumably, young African American men) incentivizes crime and victimization (read: toward, presumably, Asian American victims) in the same way that lowering standards and talking about reparations and abolitionism (read: a narrative that supports, presumably, a monolithic African American interest) harms the pursuit of hard work and excellence in education (read: the purview, presumably, of Asian American students and parents.)

This story, which suggests the fomenting of racial animus between these two groups, building on the racial conflict undertones of the previous recall, is not completely preposterous. Most of the people who came to vote in person yesterday at our precinct were African American, and from their conversations, I gathered they all came motivated to vote against the recall. But this assumes that we can understand and generalize trends from a pretty minuscule percentage of San Franciscans. It’s not that the people who live in my beautiful city don’t care about criminal justice administration. NextDoor and other social media outlets are full of people chewing each other’s heads off about whether this or that wave of smash-and-grab, retail theft, or other incident is Chesa’s fault. But how many people care enough about this to put work into reading a hefty booklet and considering their positions on a three-page ballot, in which Prop H was the very last voting issue on the back side of the third page, for the third time in a row in the same year?

Over the years, I’ve returned again and again to Vanessa Barker’s excellent book The Politics of Imprisonment. Barker conducts a three-way comparison of penal politics in three states: California, Washington, and New York, finding that California’s political culture more easily lends itself to punitive experiments because of its polarization and populism. I write about this culture in Yesterday’s Monsters, when I show how politicized and emotion-driven the issue of parole is. In this kind of political environment, where money and strong interests can push something into the ballot as well as foment a well-oiled promotion machine (complete with all the tricks and deceptions we’ve come to expect from the initiative process), it is not difficult to swing the pendulum back and forth, from big reforms to big cancellations, from experiments in jurisdictional shifts to draconian policies masquerading as victim’s rights policies, and everything in between.

Ultimately, I think that what we saw here was just an exercise in manipulating this big machine and effectuating huge change through a relatively small number of voters. Direct democracy can be, and is, too direct when it imposes this burden thrice a year on already exhausted, grieving, anguished, and ticked off people with an empathy deficit from three years of awfulness that followed four years of a different kind of awfulness. In sum, whether or not the small minority who bothered to show up at the polls has false or true consciousness matters much less, sadly, than the forces exploiting the initiative process far beyond the Bay Area.

Would it have made a difference if the entire Bayview-Hunter’s Point electorate showed up en masse and voted against this recall? Of course it would. But after everything we’ve all been through–the impoverished folks in the neglected parts of town disproportionately suffering–we just didn’t have it in us to make yesterday a proud, sparkling moment for people-powered government, and even though it’s not our fault, we will all have to live with the consequences. Increased incarceration and the return of cash bail will not deter violent crime (but people’s attention will wander, and those who supported the recall will stop paying attention). Crime might go up (despite the recall, the supporters will say, or because of the recall, the opponents will say) or it might go down (because of the recall, supporters will say, or despite it, opponents will say) and we will continue to delude ourselves that dumbing down complicated policy decisions, deceiving people with oversimplified campaigns, and seasoning everything with some piquant interracial conflict, is how democracy should work.

The truth is that crime rates are like the weather. They rise and fall for a variety of reasons, only a few of which we can measure, and most of which have nothing to do with who is in charge. They have very little to do with big punishment trends (though, in localized situations, they do depend on effective police work in solving crime, which is a damn difficult thing to do when the community doesn’t trust the police enough to help.) It takes a real sea change in policy to effectuate changes in criminality patterns. But our megalomanic assumption that we can control crime rates through tinkering with policies will persist, and we will keep tinkering, until no one has any energy left to vote.

I offered a few more thoughts on KCRW here.

June 2022 Election: Blog Endorsements

Back when hadaraviram.com was California Correctional Crisis, I used to offer election endorsements for your consideration, focusing on the criminal justice propositions. This election has offered a grim opportunity to contemplate the probable victory of two seasoned and experienced politicians, whose management of the COVID-19 crisis in prisons has reflected an astounding moral eclipse.

A while ago, I posted an endorsement against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall. We were all experiencing collective distress over his reluctance to do anything useful to save lives behind bars from COVID. My reasoning was this: the rest of the ballot was a list of egomaniacal clowns with no political experience, many of whom could not even spell their statements. And, as I said there:

I’m not an idiot, and I do understand the concept of the lesser evil. If you are so warped in single-issue agitation that you can’t see the qualitative differences between Newsom–an experienced and capable politician–and the rest of the lot, you need better glasses.

I wrote that post in August. in November, we found out that Newsom, the champion of science-forward, vaccine-forward policies in schools and everywhere else, thinks that unvaccinated guards are a-ok, and goes as far as to support them in their (devastatingly) successful appeal against a vaccine mandate. It was one of the ugliest examples of justice delayed becoming justice denied, can easily be attributed to the fact that the prison guards contributed $1.75 million to his anti-recall campaign, and has disillusioned me. I’ve come a long way from cheering for the then-Mayor of San Francisco who spoke at my 2005 PhD ceremony, and I’m feeling so full of bitterness and bile over the unnecessary loss of life that, this time around, I offer no endorsement for the gubernatorial position. Vote for whoever you want; Newsom will likely win.

The other person to resent is Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is the darling of all the progressive voting guides. Bonta and his employees are the architects of the prison system’s defense against the COVID lawsuits, both regarding San Quentin and more generally in federal court. Their bad-faith in court appearances and representations, ugly games, and shocking lack of regard for human life has soured me on Bonta to the point that I make no endorsement, even though on paper he is the better candidate of the lot and will likely win. I explain my position in detail here. The short version is this: Bonta thinks that he works for us only when he legislates or creates policy, and that when his office litigates, he is the Tom Hagen of the prison guards. That’s an unacceptable perspective for a public servant.

I try not to be a one-issue voter, but having experienced the COVID-19 prison catastrophe up close it is very difficult to justify voting for Newsom and Bonta. Follow your conscience/calculus.

By contrast to these two, one public official shines as a person of profound understanding and conscientious behavior, and that is Phil Ting. I endorsed Phil’s assembly campaign in 2018 and am happy and proud to endorse him again; his conduct during the COVID-19 crisis was nothing short of exemplary. As Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Ting presided over a hearing in which, finally, Kathleen Allison was being asked hard questions about her policies and the way CDCR was handling itself. He has also been very sensitive to issues of parole and one of the only politicians with enough guts and public responsibility to realize that long-term aging prisoners are the best release prospects from both a medical and a public safety standpoint. Vote for him again.

There are two criminal justice issues on the ballot. One of them is the ridiculous Prop D, likely thrown into the ballot to add a prong to the Chesa Boudin recall effort by creating the (false!) impression that the D.A.’s office is not responsive to victims’ needs. There is a long tradition in CA of deceiving the voters to believe that there is a need for a victims’ bill of rights and services, when one has existed since 1982 (I explain all this in Chapter 3 of Yesterday’s Monsters.) Just like Marsy’s Law and other deceptive initiative tricks, this is money allocated to no good cause, creating duplicative services that already exist. The Chron is far too gentle on this. Don’t be swindled – vote NO on D.

Finally, speaking of swindling, you already know my position on the Boudin recall effort. There’s a well-oiled, well-funded machine here trying to roll back important reforms, and exploiting people’s exasperation at the misery and turmoil in town, which are NOT Boudin’s fault by a longshot. Don’t be deceived! Vote NO on H.

Urban Alchemy in the News

SF-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy, which I discussed here and here, is in the news this week. First, there was BBC coverage, and this morning a lengthy investigative story in the Chron. Mallory Moench and Kevin Fagan’s story is interesting and informative, and offers lots of useful perspectives, but does adopt an unnecessarily skeptical emphasis and tone, which rankled me because I work in the Tenderloin and see the transformation it has undergone through Urban Alchemy’s intervention.

In the early pandemic months, the open drug market around my workplace was so brazen and violent that my students feared going out of their dorm rooms at the Hastings towers. Mayor Breed and SFPD tried to resolve the problem by doing police sweeps of the area, which only resulted in new people coming in to deal and shoot every day. At some point I was contacted by a civil rights org, which shall remain anonymous out of compassion, with a well meant, but absurd, invitation to support their lawsuit against gang injunctions with an amicus brief refuting the existence of the drug market. Refuting? I thought. Are you kidding me? Do you have eyes? Do you live or work here? It was a prime example of what I’ve come to recoil from: the refusal, by some quarters of the Bay Area’s delusional left, to concede that crime is real and has real victims and real implications (that’s why I have no patience for armchair abolitionism, by the way.)

Then, our Dean signed a contract with Urban Alchemy, which has them support the area adjacent to the school. This proved to be a complete game changer. The first morning I showed up to work with the UA practitioners surrounding the perimeter of the school I was amazed; the change in energy, the peacefulness, the friendliness, the sense of personal safety, were palpable. I started chatting with some of the practitioners around my workplace, who came from backgrounds of serious incarceration, and found that their personal experiences provided them with just the right interpersonal skills to intervene in complicated situations in the Tenderloin. Finally, someone is doing the right thing, I thought. There are so many occupations in which a background of criminal invovement and incarceration is a priceless resource – and this includes lawyering. Recently, I interviewed people with criminal records who applied to the California bar and wrote:

In the few occasions in which bar membership with criminal records are discussed, it is not in the context of diversity, but rather in the context of a public concern about “crooks” in the legal profession. Accordingly, the bar orients its policies, including the recent requirement that current members undergo periodic fingerprinting, toward the exposure and weeding out of “crooks.” Criminal experiences are seen as a liability and a warning sign about the members’ character.

My interviewees’ interpretations were diametrically opposed to those of the bar. All of them, without exception, mentioned their experiences in the criminal justice system as catalysts for their decision to become lawyers, and most specifically to help disenfranchised population. Public interest lawyers who spoke to me cited their own criminal experience as an important empathy booster with their clients. Even some of the ethics attorneys cited their personal experiences with substance abuse as a bridge between them and clients with similar histories. By contrast, commercial lawyers, especially in big firms, remained circumspect about their history. Two lawyers spoke to me in the early morning hours, when they were alone in the office, and others spoke from home, citing concern about letting their colleagues know about their history. My conclusion from this was that the interviewees’ background was a rich resource that provided them with a unique and important insider perspective on the system, which remained unvalued and tagged as uniformly negative baggage.

To Moench and Fagan’s credit, their piece does represent this view; one of their interviewees explicitly says that looking at justice involvement as an asset, rather than a barrier, is revolutionary. But overall, their reporting exceedingly amplifies the voices of the naysayers above those of the many people who live and work in the Tenderloin who are quietly grateful for Urban Alchemy’s presence in the streets. You’ll be hard pressed to find detail in their story of the many good deeds that the practitioners perform daily, ranging from lives saved with Naloxone (several times a week, I’m told) to skillfully providing my female students a sense of personal safety when walking the Tenderloin in the evening. Several students described how a practitioner subtly positioned himself between them and someone who was getting too close, and how the threatening situation evaporated before it could evolve in unsavory directions. Moench and Fagan give this a passing nod, but their piece fails to properly capture the magic.

This brings me to another observation: There hasn’t yet been a project evaluation for Urban Alchemy’s Tenderloin intervention. Executing such a study would be a daunting task for several methodological reasons. First, there’s no comparative baseline for the intervention. The situation before their intervention was so abnormal that it would be hard to use it as a control, even if data were available. If the comparison is geographic, it would suffer from the usual problems with situational crime prevention: focusing an intervention in a particular geographical zone means that criminal activity is displaced onto adjacent zones, so the two comparators are not independent of each other. If the study is structured as an in-depth phenomenological project (which is what I would do if I were to do this–and a colleague and I are thinking about this), there’s the Star Trek problem of the Prime Directive: researchers or students hanging out in the Tenderloin to conduct observations would, themselves, change the dynamics in the area that they study. A big part of Urban Alchemy’s success lies in the fact that they do things differently than SFPD. They do not rely on surveillance cameras; in fact, they eschew them, and having any sort of documentation would be detrimental to their working model. And people standing in the corner for hours and taking notes would chill everyone’s behavior. Fieldwork here has to be conducted with care.

I have one more observation to offer: I now work in a service profession that requires crowd management and interpersonal intervention (as a city pool lifeguard) and also have multiple years of experience managing crowds in rowdy, inebriated, unusual situations (as a Dykes on Bikes registration volunteer at Pride and at Folsom Street Fair, for example.) The vast majority of people you encounter at these settings are lovely and a delight to be with. But the one or two percent who are decidedly not lovely can really test anyone’s self control. I’m talking about the driver who insists on driving the car into the area you’re trying to cordone off, the slow dude who insists on swimming in the lane with faster people and not letting them pass, or the people repeatedly told (politely) to move to the sidewalk so that they are not run over by trucks who don’t go where they’re told. My experiences are nothing compared to what the Urban Alchemy practitioners encounter every day on the Tenderloin streets. I really wish our reporting on this were sympathetic to the enormous challenges of interpersonal interactions in this very rough patch of our city and more appreciative of how much conflict and anxiety are spared when people who know what they’re doing take the lead.

At SFPD, All the Double Coils Go in the Same Box

Last week I received a call from a journalist following up an astonishing story: the San Francisco police apparently used DNA evidence collected from a sexual assault survivor years ago to identify and arrest her in connection with a recent, unrelated property crime. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was horrified and proceeded to dismiss the charges, but the case continues to make headlines. It turns out that local DNA databases are less heavily regulated than the federal ones, and it is regular practice for the police to upload rape kit DNA to the database–both the perpetrator’s and the victim’s.

My initial reaction to this story was astonishment; it is extremely jarring to consider that someone consents to an invasive and extremely unpleasant forensic examination following one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through, persevering with it so that the police can catch the person who did this to them, only to find themselves on the receiving end of a criminal prosecution for an unrelated incident. I was also quite astonished at the juxtaposition between the shameful backlog in testing rape kits for the sake of arresting the perpetrators and this overzealous haste to do something with the victim’s DNA. There’s no question in my mind that this is appallingly unethical, but is it also a constitutional violation?

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures; the first question in every Fourth Amendment analysis is always whether the police activity in question is, indeed, a search. Since Katz v. United States (1967), courts use a subjective and an objective test to answer this question: (1) Has police behavior infringed on the person’s expectation of privacy? and, (2) is this expectation of privacy something that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable?

Until recently, the concept of privacy was practically nonexistent in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence whenever a person disclosed or exposed something to a third party: anything you discard, expose, or share, is fair game, and the risk that the third party will share it with the police is on you. This is true for things you say to a friend (whether or not the friend testifies against you later), the numbers you ring from your home phone, information you share with the bank, the garbage you leave on the curb and, as we recently learned, DNA you share with ancestry websites (which can be used for familial identification, too.) While the collection of forensics for a rape kit is done by a nurse, not by police personnel, under the pre-2018 Third Party Doctrine this should technically not matter; moreover, Sameena Mulla‘s excellent book The Violence of Care shows how much this agonizing process feels forensic rather than medical (and is done by nurses who fully identify with the forensic mission of the rape kit collection.)

But in 2018, the Supreme Court decided Carpenter v. United States, in which Justice Gorsuch expressed discontent with the breadth of the Third Party Doctrine. The Court limited their decision to the exhaustive collection of cell-site location information (CSLI), and explicitly declined to overturn the entire doctrine, but it certainly signals less enthusiasm for the doctrine. The same considerations–extensive collection, intimate information, access to holistic information about the person–are present in the context of DNA use for different purposes than the ones it was collected for, as Annabelle Wilmott explains here. While I don’t think that, at present, the Fourth Amendment forbids what SFPD has done here, I don’t think it will take long for the Justices to curb the Third Party Doctrine in the context of DNA collection–a few additional high-profile scandals like this one, particularly in unsavory, unconscionable contexts such as this one, and there will be massive public distaste for this (consider that the US population is particularly concerned about privacy.)

I do want to push on a few aspects of this narrative, though. When friends told me how appalled they were that charges were filed, I asked them, “would you be as appalled if you found out that the victim’s DNA linked them to a heinous crime, such as a homicide or a sexual assault?” This is not merely a parlor game. We know that many people who commit heinous crimes were themselves victims of serious physical and sexual violence in the past. For some of my colleagues, this possibility would dampen the outrage. The other thing I wondered about was, given that SFPD claims this is standard practice, whether they have a significant yield of crimes solved as a consequence of this practice (and possible other practices of tossing into the crime database DNA collected for other purposes.)

Another policy consideration–that this perverse use of DNA will dissuade victims from submitting to forensic examinations–does not sound serious to me. The exam itself is already daunting and unpleasant enough in itself that any effect this additional story might have on people’s considerations whether or not to submit to it seems to me marginal (this is not a good thing, but it seems nevertheless to make sense.) I also think that this policy argument has the potential to suggest that collecting rape kits is an unqualified good, when Mulla’s excellent book shows that the overzealous enthusiasm about forensics leads to collecting them when they are completely immaterial to the investigation, such as in the many cases in which the rapist is known to the victim and sex itself is not in dispute (but consent is.)

This Chron story suggests that SF Supervisors are contemplating legislation that would prohibit this particular mishap from happening again, and I worry that, in the haste to react to an unpleasant high-profile incident, the opportunity for a more thorough investigation and regulation of the entire local DNA database business will be missed.

Meaningful Ways to Support Animal Liberation through Criminal Law

Happy Return of the Light to all my readers! I hope the lengthening days and multifaith holidays of light are giving you some hope, even in the face of some difficult challenges we face (I’ll talk about some of the newest developments regarding COVID in prisons in my next post.)

I’m using this post as a way to organize my ideas for a new chapter in an anthology about animals as victims of crime. One of the most common advocacy paths in animal rights has been an effort to enhance the statutory structure of cruelty to animal laws: creating more offenses, raising sentences, and pursuing prosecutions. As Justin Marceau explains in Beyond Cages, this agenda–which hopes to change the lives of nonhuman animals for the better–tends to target, most of the time, a demographic that is already suffering in serious ways: impoverished people trying to take care of their pets (as I explained elsewhere, the landmark decision State v. Newcomb, in which the Oregon Supreme Court found that removing a dog from the household and testing his blood is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, involved precisely that scenario.)

My views on the punitive animus behind so-called progressive movements are well known; in the last few years, I have been alarmed by the amount of mobbing, vindictiveness, and shrill calls for Draconian punishment in the guise of seeking social justice, and this regrettable phenomenon shows no sign of abating, even as more and more people are vocal about how fed up they are with it and how, again and again, it targets the wrong people. More prosecutions deployed against the low-hanging fruit of poor people, as opposed to against the vile factory farm industry, are not the way to go. But there are several ways in which we can support animal liberation through criminal law tools.

The first thing we should consider is what “victim status” actually means–legally, culturally, and symbolically–when said victims don’t actually “use their voice.” Rather, a variety of spokespersons try to assume the role of speaking for the animals. This reminds me, to some extent, the ways in which the parties in a homicide trial try to bring forth the decedent’s perspective, which is of course tragically missing from the trial–but at least there they can rely on the decedent’s history, what they might have said or done when alive. This is not something we can do for animals, though we can and should be enlightened about the extent to which animals can and do suffer, physically and psychologically. Nonetheless, I don’t think that it’s useful to think of the problem of serious crimes against animals through the common formulation of criminal law’s importance for victims–getting “justice for A” by “punishing B.” What would “justice” mean to a nonhuman victim? In one of the most recent conversations about crime survivors and criminal justice, the high-profile trial of Brock Turner, much of the conversation revolved around Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement. What would be the equivalent of such a statement on behalf of an animal? And, more importantly, what would it mean to a nonhuman animal if there were ways to present their perspectives in court?

As you can tell, I have serious doubts about using the “justice for A by punishing B” framework even for human animals, but it seems pretty clear for me that, for nonhumans, symbolic victories of this nature are meaningless. It seems to me that the goal of pro-nonhuman-animal criminal law reform should be making actual, practical headway in animal liberation as well as in animal protectionism. Because of this, I propose the following avenues for reform:

If seeking status for animals in criminal law, we should emphasize ways in which this status actually promotes welfare for animals–such as recognizing harm to animals as “harm to someone” to provide animal rights activists and open rescuers the necessity defense. I think that the common law definition of necessity already supports this interpretation and urge courts to clarify it.

We need to develop better ways to help folks who participate in animal exploitation and abuse as part of a cultural tradition that is important to them (I’m thinking of Katie Young’s ethnography of Hawaiian cockfighters, but Passover lamb slaughter rituals and the U.S. traditional consumption of turkey during Thanksgiving would also count) interrogate their own assumptions about the personhood/sentience of the animals. These questions can be very difficult to explore and we need to find ways to make inroads in these sorts of situations. This also matters when looking at criminal defendants clearly suffering from mental illness, such as animal hoarders, who often believe they are caring for the animals they abuse. Insights that go against the grain of cultural traditions and mental health landscape are very difficult to develop in the context of an adversarial trial, where one is already antagonized by the very fact of being a criminal defendant.

In the area of companion animals, one way to prevent prosecutions before they even happen is to provide people who live in poverty dignified ways to care for their animals, which would be good for the humans as well as the nonhumans. Expanding on the work of Paw Fund and Pets of the Homeless is crucial, as is the financial assistance program of the San Francisco SPCA.

It is surprising how little attention is given in conversations about animals in criminal law to the exploitation of animals in law enforcement. We talk about the racial symbolism of using horses to quell protests for humans (see here also) but not nearly enough about the appalling aspect of involving these horses in human conflicts in this brutal manner (so much of human warfare has relied on animals–you’d think this would be a topic of conversation already.) Contrary to what activists may think, one conversation here does not have to come at the expense of another. This conversation has to go beyond labor rights for police animals (a great example of animal personhood that actually has practical importance!) to questioning their use in the first place.

In Beyond Cages, Marceau proposes shifting the prosecutorial focus from impoverished individuals to corporations; I understand where he’s coming from and empathize with his perspective, though I think that this proposal suffers from the same problems as many anti-carceral proposals: they don’t go far enough–merely expanding the population of “defendants we care about” and leaving the last bastions of carcerality (corporations, rich people, white supremacists, cops) in place. Instead, I think it is wiser to let go of the criminal framework even for corporations, choosing instead to pursue civil liability strategies involving monetary damages, which can potentially incentivize changes in industry standards. The threat of civil action can go hand in hand with the kind of business incentives that Leah Garcés discusses in her book Grilled and Bruce Friedrich promotes at the Good Food Institute.

Does any of you have other ideas for ways in which criminal law can promote animal liberation without the punitive/carceral focus?

Newsom’s Captive Supporters: COVID-19, Sirhan Parole, the Recall, and the Illusion of a Blue State

Tomorrow, the Californians who have not yet voted by mail will participate in yet another recall election. I’ve already spilled enough pixels explaining why I voted no, and why you should do the same. But I do want to say something about the deep ambivalence that prison activists and advocates probably feel around this election. People can and should contain multitudes of contradictions and complicated opinions.

Over the weekend, Bob Egelko of the Chronicle wrote this interesting and insighftul piece about Sirhan Sirhan, now 77 years old after five decades in prison for the murder of Robert Kennedy. Sirhan was recommended for parole by the board,, which means that his case is now on Newsom’s desk. And as Egelko explains (with a little assist from Stanford’s Bob Weisberg and from yours truly), the political calculus is heavily rigged against Sirhan:

“Anybody that has ever walked into my office, you have to walk by photographs of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral procession, those famous train photos,” the governor said, according to a transcript provided by his office. “The first photograph, the only photograph you will see in my office is a photo of my father and Bobby Kennedy just days before Bobby Kennedy was murdered.”

Newsom’s leading opponents in the recall are well to his right politically and would seem equally unlikely to approve Sirhan’s parole. And any decision to release Kennedy’s murderer would surely become a flash point in the 2022 governor’s election.

“I’d be shocked if Newsom didn’t reverse” the parole board’s decision, said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford criminal law professor. Although the governor would have to explain why he believed Sirhan still posed a threat of violence, Weisberg said, he would most likely be “responding to a public view that this guy’s crime was so heinous that he shouldn’t be paroled.”

Egelko is right on the money, as was Jonathan Simon in Governing Through Crime: it is an asset to left-wing politicians to position themselves as tough-on-crime where their supporters have no leverage. This is especially true in California which, as Vanessa Barker explains, is a populist, polarized state. The only two discounts on that front have been recession-era fiscal concerns and riding a popular racial justice wave in progressive cities. And keep in mind that Sirhan is not alone: the entire “Class of ’72′”–the folks whose sentences were commuted after People v. Anderson, including the Manson family members–has been reviled for decades. After the return of the death penalty, the weakening of the parole system, and the politicization of the whole process, the prospects of release for anyone who could peel centrists off the left base became dim. Egelko explains why:

The law allowing the governor to veto parole decisions was passed after courts rejected Gov. George Deukmejian’s attempt in 1983 to block the parole of William Archie Fain, who had served 16 years in prison for murder and rape in Stanislaus County. The Legislature put Proposition 89, a state constitutional amendment, on the ballot in 1988 and it was approved by 55% of the voters.

Even before the ballot measure, convicted murderers were seldom paroled, even after decades in prison. The board has historically approved their release in less than 10% of the cases, and in some years less than 5%, leaving the others to continue serving life sentences.

Gov. Pete Wilson overruled the board about 30% of the time. His successor, Gov. Gray Davis — who declared, soon after his election, that “if you take someone else’s life, forget it” — vetoed all but six grants of parole, just above 1% of the total approved by the board. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected about 70% of the board’s parole decisions.

The trends shifted under Gov. Jerry Brown, who overturned the board only about 20% of the time, and so far under Newsom as well.

And warnings of the dangers of paroling convicted murderers do not appear to be supported by the evidence: Between 1995 and 2010, 48.7% of all former prisoners in California went on to commit new crimes after their release, but among the 860 prisoners convicted of murder who were paroled, only five — 0.58% — had been jailed or imprisoned again, according to a report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

“You age out of violent crime,” said Hadar Aviram, a law professor at UC Hastings in San Francisco.

But while Newsom has overseen the court-ordered reduction of the prison population, now at lowest its level since 2006, and has proposed closing two state prisons by 2023, Aviram — author of the recent book “Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole” — said Newsom’s response to the proposed parole of a Charles Manson follower was a likely indicator of his future decision on Sirhan.

The parole board has repeatedly recommended release of Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted of taking part in two of the Manson family’s Los Angeles-area murders in 1969, when she was 19. While Van Houten has a clean prison record and has earned college degrees behind bars, Newsom said in November that her “explanation of what allowed her to be vulnerable to Mr. Manson’s influence remains unsatisfying” — his second veto of her parole, after two similar decisions by Brown.

“The gubernatorial veto was introduced in 1988 anticipating precisely this scenario,” Aviram said. It was a “power shift,” she said, from “professionals,” such as psychologists and prison counselors who advise the parole board, “toward the limelight of sensationalized, politicized coverage” and changed outcomes.

The upshot of all this: I feel quite bitter. In the last few weeks I’ve seen the people who have ample cause for resenting Newsom–the people whose family and friends are behind bars, facing risk of illness and death because this administration wallowed and waffled on releases while at the same time vigorously defending medical atrocities, indifference and ineptitude in court–unequivocably and firmly doing the right thing, voting “no” on the recall and encouraging everyone they know to do the same. I resent that they are being put in this position. I resent that we are all being put in this position. I resent that a politician whom I deeply admire for what he has done for same-sex marriage and death penalty abolition takes the easy and expedient way–again and again!–whenever someone behind bars is concerned. I resent that incarcerated people and their families are always the sacrificial lambs in these left-versus-right California tumbles, because the right-wing candidates are perceived as much worse. I resent that the incentive structure is always stacked against releasing old and sick people from prison–even though there is compassion and redemption to be gained and nothing to be lost from a public safety perspective. I resent that the people doing the hardest activist work stand to gain absolutely nothing–no sympathy, no consideration, no concessions, no compassion, no fairness–from doing the right thing for everyone else.

In sum, if you feel resolute and at the same time awkward about your “no” vote, you’re not alone. You’re part of a captive support contingent for blue politicians in California–some members of which are literally captive. It is possible to accept that anyone on the replacement list–particularly Larry Elder–would be disastrous as governor, and to respect and admire Newsom as a capable and experienced politician, while at the same time deeply resent the fact that, once again, urgent human rights issues–true life-and-death matters–have been swept under the rug.

How to fix this? Abolish the gubernatorial veto. Diversify parole boards. Change parole from a wacky card game with no rules, which the house always wins, to an instrument of true hope and transformation. But none of this will happen before tomorrow. So, we will dutifully vote “no”, because we are not single-issue dolts, and continue to await the change that never comes.

It’s Okay Not to Know

My circle of Israeli friends is rattled by the exposure of sexual misbehavior by acclaimed actor Erez Drigues, who has now taken some responsibility in a much-discussed interview. Meanwhile, my circle of U.S. friends is reacting to the new documentary about Woody Allen. The ensuing conversation is conflating two separate questions, the moral and the factual one, namely: what my values are and who I believe.

I get why the two questions get conflated. In the New Salem, every news story becomes a morality tale. We incessantly opine on the behavior of strangers, as exposed in cellphone videos or tweets, and then we incessantly opine on the opinions of others. The marketplace of ideas has become the marketplace of moral arbitrage (I’ve recently discovered AITA on Reddit and can attest to the attraction, temptation even, of moral opining as a public exercise.) Moreover, because of the publicity of this opinion fest, it also serves an important performative role: who I support when I have the talking stick becomes a proxy of who I am, leading to destructive mobs and pileups, as John McWhorter explains in his new series about The Elect. This, in itself, is exhausting–the combination of constant condemnation of others and constant vigilance of being condemned is not a good way to live–but it becomes especially pernicious when we deal with things we don’t know for certain.

In Yesterday’s Monsters I wrote about the immense hubris that accompanies the major decision of the parole board in every case, i.e., whether the parole hopeful has exhibited sufficient “insight” about their bad behavior. A big part of this nebulous determination is vested in the question whether the person’s remorse for their past crimes is sincere, and the commissioners, who are very certain of their ability to detect sincerity, are also deeply professionally invested in being regarded as having the skills to tell the truthful from the liars:

During my work on this manuscript, I attended a social gathering in which I met a CDCR employee and a formerly incarcerated journalist. Conversation turned to the question of sincerity, and when I described my findings, the CDCR employee said: “If you were actually in the room, you’d be able to see body language and other nonverbal cues. That’s what the commissioners go on when they assess sincerity.” The journalist chuckled softly and replied, “you know, we saw a lot of people coming up before the board, and we knew what they were about in prison—who was real and who was just putting on a show. And often we would shake our heads when someone we knew was faking it got his date.”

In addition to reading the hearing transcripts, I watched some video footage of the hearings. If there was a telling nonverbal dimension to the inmates’ demeanor, I did not discern it. The footage left me unable to determine whether the remorse they expressed—often tearful and quiet—was genuine. Given the commissioners’ backgrounds, it is hard to imagine what psychological tools or expertise they possess that would enable them to detect the sincerity of the inmates. This is especially worrisome given the universal tendency to overestimate our lie-detection abilities. In a recent experiment, police officers and ordinary citizens were presented with videotaped confessions—some true, some false. The officers expressed more confidence in their ability to detect false confessions. The study found that police officers did worse than the ordinary citizens in distinguishing between true and false confessions.

In other words: There is robust empirical evidence to support the fact that we are very bad at detecting sincerity–and those who are most sure of their lie-detection skills make the most mistakes. Even lie-detection professionals like Paul Ekman, who stand by their ability to detect lying via facial micro expressions, agree that untrained professionals fail miserably at detecting lies.

Most of the time we do not have incontrovertible proof about incidents we did not ourselves witness (and sometimes, not even about incidents we did witness)–so we fill in the gaps with our values and world views, as work by the Cultural Cognition Project confirms. This is especially true in cases of sexual misbehavior, in which the factual question of the probability of truth-telling has become inexorably linked to whether one is pro-women or anti-women. Much of the discussion in the Drigues and Allen situations, as in many others, revolves around the likelihood of false complaints. Statistics that have no solid empirical grounding are banded about. In her book Unwanted Advances, Laura Kipniss cites Edward Greer’s law review article, in which he tries to figure out where the statistics about the rarity of false complaints come from. Kipniss retells Greer’s journey:

The 2 percent false rape allegations has been a huge article of faith among campus activists (and Title IX officers, I suspect), so frequently quoted that no one bothers to ask where it came from—until a legal scholar named Edward Greer published a rather gripping statistical whodunit in 2000, about his attempts to track down the source of the stat. His first discovery was that though the 2 percent figure was endlessly cited, every single citation ultimately led back to Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Yet Brownmiller’s notes provide a rather obscure source for the figure: a speech to the New York Bar Association by an Appellate Division judge named Lawrence H. Cooke, delivered in 1974.

Greer contacts Brownmiller: where did this information about the (now-deceased) judge’s speech come from? Brownmiller cooperatively combs through her decades-old files—Greer credits her with being “a very meticulous and organized writer”—and sends him a copy of the judge’s photocopied speech. The speech quotes the “Commander of the New York City’s Rape Analysis Squad” as having determined that “only about 2 percent of all rape and related sex charges are determined to be false.” But what was the judge’s actual source? Greer wonders. Was there some sort of official report or press release? Greer contacts the then-judge’s former law clerk, who cooperatively contacts a few other clerks who worked on the judge’s talk twenty-plus years earlier. None recollects any report.

Greer speculates that the judge may have been quoting a newspaper report, and he sets about trying to locate it, combing through local and national papers. He eventually finds a New York Times Magazine article titled “Rape Squad,” published two weeks after the judge’s talk, about a New York City police squad involved in a rape statistic–gathering operation. This squad was exclusively composed of police, however—trained in judo, not social science, notes the Times reporter. Though Greer can’t find any press release on the squad, he does manage to establish that the Times reporter happened to be a friend and neighbor of Brownmiller’s—she’s mentioned in Brownmiller’s memoir (Greer really is an amazing researcher). Were Judge Cook, Brownmiller, and the Times reporter all drawing on the same unknown source? Brownmiller gets a little defensive when Greer presses her on it.

The answer may be “lost to antiquity,” Greer finally concludes dejectedly, though what he’s established with certainty is that the famous 2 percent statistic, what one feminist scholar calls a “consensus fact,” derives from a single police department unit over forty years ago, and there’s no other published source for it.

It looks like, at minimum, we can’t fetishize these statistics. And at the same time, any effort to resolve things at the value level–such as the “transformative justice” gymnastics that are now so popular in the sex-positive community–inexorably boils down to the credibility question, much as one would like to circumvent that question or paper over it with jargon.

So how do we decide who we believe? At least in the Kavanaugh/Blasey-Ford faceoff, I recurred to what I know of my own experience to fill in the blanks (and wrote about it here.) Because Blasey-Ford (who is a complete stranger to me) and I come from the same milieu–we dress similarly, live similarly, talk similarly, do similar things for a living–I assumed that her cost-benefit calculus would be similar to mine, and I can tell you that I would have absolutely nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from making public claims of sexual victimization. Because this is so obvious to me, I would never make such claims unless (1) they were 100% true and (2) a civic matter of crucial importance was at stake. I imputed my calculus to Blasey-Ford whom, again, I don’t know from Adam, but I maintain that my extrapolation was probably more accurate than Trump’s: When Trump claimed that Blasey-Ford had accused Kavanaugh out of fame-seeking, that told me that he understood nothing about Blasey-Ford and her milieu, and it also taught me volumes about Trump and his milieu (and why someone like him would falsely accuse everyone on the planet on the regular.)

I assume that the range of opinions about Drigues, Allen, and countless others are an extension of the same principle. People’s worldviews inform their perspectives on whether they can imagine themselves falsely complaining, and they impute their perspectives to complete strangers. People who are like us couldn’t possibly fabricate a complaint, right? Because we are good! But those other people, on the other side of the political/social/cultural divide, they are nothing like us, and so it’s easier to imagine them lie. Either way, we are engaging in a subjective imagination feat: we can never know for certain whether a stranger in some scenario we read about in the news has the same cost/benefit calculus as us.

Another issue that I’ve noticed is the fact that my support or rejection of someone’s version of the events says something about me generally, or more particularly, about how I plan to live my life onward. This can be especially complicated when the accusation of a celebrated artist brings up the discomfort of enjoying a person’s art while suspecting that they did something atrocious. Because we now have moral edicts about finding flaws in artistic creations in the aftermath of discovering bad things about their creator,s some might choose to disbelieve the accusations of the artist so that they can continue to enjoy the art (disclosure: I adore Woody Allen’s movies and Louis C.K.’s comedy.) This problem is especially palpable when the suspect’s creation is co-shared with people who are still revered, or even who are themselves his accusers, as in the case of Joss Whedon and Buffy. If we could give each other a break from the moral sanitation process–the cleansing of the public square from any artifact whose creator has been suspected of being offensive–people might be less married to their defense of the creator.

Which brings me to the grim conclusion: Friends, we’re going to have to accept the fact that, on countless occasions, we will hear conflicting versions of the same incidents and we’ll have no way to determine for certain which is the correct version (or, as I learned in my military public defender days, that two people can walk away from the same incident with disparately different experiences and be both telling the truth.) For those of us who have to determine credibility and plausibility (judges and jurors) living with this difficulty is a part of life, for a career or for a particular trial. Also, when someone we know is the accuser or the accused, we’ll be called upon to stake our faith in them (I can tell you that, when I worked as a defense attorney, it was very important to our clients that we believe them.) The rest of us might have to learn to accommodate the somatic discomfort of Not Knowing.

Where does the discomfort come from? In the legal system, reasonable doubt should resolve itself in favor the defendant (I say “should” but things are more complicated than that.) But in your own heart, you don’t live “in the legal system.” If you don’t know what happened, it doesn’t support either of the versions. You are just living in groundlessness and doubt. This creates a tension within you that you feel you must resolve–and yet you can’t, not completely. I suspect that much of the conviction on both sides comes from the fact that everyone just wants to get rid of the dissonance already, so they sound more resolute than they are. But a big part of aging, for me, has been learning that I know much less than I think I know. It turns out that, unless you are a factfinder or put in a situation that requires your personal allegiance, you are allowed to say “I don’t know,” take a breath, look within yourself at how it feels not to know, and learn to live with it. And that’s okay.

Series Review: Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

Netflix’s new docuseries about the hunt for Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, comes to our computer screens at an interesting cultural moment, in which national and state responses to heinous crimes are in flux. As the bicameral Democratic legislature of the Biden administration prepares to get rid of the federal death penalty, the Trump administration finishes its four-year tour of gratuitous cruelty with gratuitous executions happening at the eleventh hour with the blessing of SCOTUS and to the horror of the court’s progressive minority; several people have observed the irony of lethal injections happening at the federal level just as death row people here in CA get the first injection of the COVID vaccine. This throwback to bloodthirstier decades comes as a majority of Americans, for the first time since the sixties, now support life imprisonment over the death penalty. Half the states retain the death penalty and half (growing since the recession) have abolished it or placed moratoria upon its use; if Virginia moves forward with abolition, not only will it be the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, but also a majority of states will have abolished/sunset the death penalty. Here in California, more people have died on death row from COVID-19 under Gov. Newsom’s moratorium than we have executed since the return of the death penalty in 1978. Ramirez himself–the subject of the new docuseries–was the 85th person to die on California’s death row of natural causes in 2013. And just recently, Joseph DeAngelo, whose horrific crimes as the Golden State Killer are eerily similar to Ramirez’s, was sentenced to life imprisonment, raising the fair question–if not him, then who?

Against this backdrop, the choice to focus now on Ramirez and his heinous crimes is a curious one, and the series does not offer a lot in the sense of narrative or cinematic innovation to justify the subject. The story is told from the perspective of two intelligent and sympathetic LAPD detectives–then-newcomer Gil Carrillo and veteran Frank Salerno–and several retired crime scene technicians, who in four episodes follow through the trail of horrific murders. The still shots from the various murder scenes are enhanced through cinematography that somewhat brings them to life and accompanied by chilling music. Thankfully, at least the victims themselves–both those deceased and those who survived–are portrayed with restraint and respect, and on occasion (albeit not always, which struck me as somewhat distasteful) their relatives comment on their lives, evoking sympathy and humanity. These graceful interview scenes lift the series from a sequence of excessive gore, and I wish there were more of them.

As to Ramirez himself, the show does not delve much into his own mind beyond short, clichéd quotes about the “inherent evil in all human kind” and “Satan [as] a stabilizing presence” displayed between scenes. Having read and watched a lot of the Manson literary and cinematic canon, I think a deliberate choice was made here not to glorify Ramirez in a similar way. At some point, one of the detectives even said that they considered whether Ramirez was a Manson copycat, which strengthens my belief that this approach was carefully considered. The choice not to follow the legacy of Mansonist efforts to delve into the minds of heinous murderers a-la Dahmer, only recently continued with Aquarius and Mindhunter, means the focus of the show is mostly on the police investigation.

But even here, the show’s coverage of the LAPD’s eponymous “hunt” offers some contradictions. Carrillo and Salerno are sympathetic, interesting interviewees; Carrillo’s background is explored in depth, including his early prescient conclusion that seemingly unrelated crimes were perpetrated by the same person. He attributes this insight to a class he had taken, in which Robert Morneau referred to “a deviancy that says, ‘I like to see the frightened look on your face.'” Rather than digging into the motivation, this illuminated Carrillo’s crime scene analyses and explained why the murders were perpetrate in a particular way (i.e., why the killer had waited for the victims to see him, rather than kill them from behind or in their cars.) But at the same time, we get glimpses into what appears to be epic incompetence in interagency collaboration. A golden opportunity to zone in on the killer through a distinctive sneaker shoeprint was wasted, even though only one pair of black sneakers of that brand had been shipped to Los Angeles. Similarly, the opportunity to fingerprint a car that the suspect had touched in the course of a traffic stop was squandered. And amazingly, a clever trap at Ramirez’s dentist’s office did not function. Eventually, Ramirez was caught not by police officers, who allowed him to walk before them unnoticed after his appearance was already well known, but by alert members of the public. The focus on Carrillo and Salerno’s solid crime scene investigation draws attention from the sad conclusion that, had the LAPD had their act together and collaborated, Ramirez would have been caught earlier and lives would have been saved. Having studied the Manson murders in detail, it seems that little was learned since the fiascos of the Tate-LaBianca investigations, which were also characterized by department siloing and insularity (Bugliosi is full of braggadocio about his own heroic role in the case and very eager to throw blame onto the LAPD, but at least in that instance the objective facts seem to support his perspective.)

Even as the focus on audacity, deductive work, and targeted legwork draws attention away from omissions and organizational hurdles, Night Stalker is a reminder of what good policing should be. It is poignant to watch an investigation in the 1980s, with 1980s technology, as the FBI pieces together last week’s insurrection at the Capitol and attempts to track down the perpetrators, a job much easier than Carrillo and Salerno’s because of the plethora of social media evidence and the availability of facial recognition technology. It is also poignant to think about the most recent example of excellence in policing: Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman’s clever, creative, and courageous act of baiting and tricking the mob away from the unguarded door behind which the legislators hid, armed only with a nightstick and facing dozens of angry insurrectionists yelling racial epithets at him. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the problem is too little or two much policing; it’s the wrong kind of policing altogether, which relies on crude, humiliating, and ineffective methods like stop-and-frisk at the direct expense of the classic crime solving work features in the Night Stalker. Give me a police force full of Eugene Goodmans, Gil Carrillos, and Frank Salernos, and I’ll be a happy camper. If the show reminds us (and the FBI, and the LAPD) that good policing is valuable and scarce, then it has been a worthwhile endeavor.

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is available on Netflix.