Law and ordure

Quite a few years ago I found myself talking at a party to a young Dutch woman who worked for the UN.

Since both of us had lived in the USA for many years, the conversation veered towards that country, specifically its legal system.

“America’sh legal shyshtem is rayshisht,” said the young lady in fluent but accented English. “Mosht people in prisonsh aren’t white.”

“Well,” I said meekly, and I should have known better, “racism is certainly one possible explanation.”

“What other ekshplanation can there be?” demanded the UN employee in a tone that was rather the opposite of meek.

In for a penny in for a pound, I thought. “It may be that they commit more crimes,” I said, which made the young lady glower and move away from me diagonally across the room. We never spoke again at the party and haven’t since, even though her brother is a friend of mine.

I’m reminded of that incident every time there is a highly publicised case of a black person either executed or imprisoned in America. For most commentators, both there and here, proceed from the Dutch girl’s assumptions.

An article in today’s Times is a case in point. Its title is Texas Accused of Racism as Black Woman Dies, and implicitly the author feels the accusation isn’t unfounded.

All he says about the crime punished in such a racist way is that “McCarthy, who was black, was convicted in 2002 of stabbing to death a 71-year-old white neighbour five years earlier.”

That’s the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. For in this instance, as in so many others, the devil is in the detail.

Since we aren’t in a courtroom here, Miss McCarthy’s criminal record is admissible, and it does suggest she led a rather uninhibited life. Specifically, she was addicted to crack, which could be an expensive habit. McCarthy’s attempts to finance it resulted in a string of convictions for forgery, theft and prostitution.

On July 21, 1997, McCarthy asked a neighbour, a retired academic Dorothy Booth, if she could borrow some sugar.

Once inside the house McCarthy stabbed Booth five times with a butcher knife, beat her with a candelabrum and cut off her finger to steal her diamond wedding ring.

She then stole Booth’s purse and her Mercedes, and pawned the diamond ring in order to buy some crack.

It took the police all of one day to solve the crime. Evidence showed that McCarthy used Booth’s credit cards at a liquor store. A search of her house produced Booth’s driving license and the murder weapon, still glistening with Booth’s blood.

During the trial the prosecution also presented evidence linking McCarthy to the murders of two other old women, but she wasn’t charged with those crimes. There was no need: the prosecution already had enough for a guilty verdict.

McCarthy was sentenced to death in 1998, successfully appealed, was retried and re-sentenced in 2002. Since then she languished on death row until two days ago, when she was finally executed.

However one feels about the death penalty, and opinions are divided even among those on the side of the angels, Texas law has allowed it since 1976. In this case the evidence was incontrovertible and the sentence just.

So how does The Times comment on it? The author didn’t have enough column inches to give the details of the crime, but he managed to quote every one of McCarthy’s 31 last words about going home to Jesus.

He then offered some interesting but utterly irrelevant statistical information: “Thirty-nine per cent of the inmates on Texas death row are black, though only 12 per cent of the state’s population is black. In the past five years nearly 75 per cent of all death sentences in Texas were imposed on black and Hispanic people.”

I can almost hear the Dutch accent in that paragraph. Is the author implying that any deviation from proportionate representation among convicted criminals betokens racial hatred? Has he considered and rejected the possibility so indignantly discounted by the Dutch girl that the reason for this misbalance is that “black and Hispanic people” commit more crimes?

Then followed another irrelevant titbit, this time on the composition of the jury that had only one black member.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that jurors are supposed to judge the case on the evidence presented. The nature of the evidence, such as Booth’s DNA on McCarthy’s knife, doesn’t change depending on the race of the defendant, the victim or indeed the juror.

Is the author suggesting that an all-black jury would have disregarded the evidence? Or that the white jurors accepted it even though it was unsafe?

If that was the case, then by all means it should be made. Yet the author doesn’t say there was anything fishy about the evidence. He merely seems to regret that the defence didn’t manage to turn the trial into an interracial battlefield.

In fact there have been quite a few trials, on either side of the Atlantic, where this happened. Alas, the kind of education potential jurors receive these days makes many of them ill-qualified even to understand the concept of guilt and innocence, never mind distinguishing one from the other.

This brings into question the continuing validity of the jury system, and this point would not be superfluous in a piece like that.

Instead the author cites, without explicit comment but with implicit approval, a long list of statements coming from the defence and also from several fulltime (and paid) opponents of the death penalty.

That’s it, in a nutshell – yet another sample of factually accurate but in fact deceptive reporting. It’s such journalism that joins forces with education to undermine trial by jury. The system has served us so well for so long that I for one would be sad to see it go.


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