345. Incapacitative effect

The February 27 New Republic has a review of a book about neoconservatives that includes a passing reference to "the madmen at AEI", meaning the American Enterprise Institute.  On the same page, just one column over, is a long, meandering review by someone described as "a psychiatrist [and] a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute." 

Pace the prior article, this author is not technically a madman, to judge from her photograph on the AEI website.  Just a mad-doctor.

Anyway, the issue also has a review of a new Yale Press book by Yale Professor James Q. Whitman called The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial, which appears to be one of those academic books in which the author points out an interesting overlooked aspect of the past and then insists that it provides the key for understanding everything, everything, do you understand, everything!  You know, the usual scholarly thing.

The book is reviewed by the Joyce Carol Oates of the legal academy, the graphomaniac Judge Richard Posner, whom Nassim Nicholas Taleb terms "one of those people who should spend more time reading and less time writing".   The TNR review confirms Talebs judgment (which he immediately softens with some nice and well-deserved compliments – Posner is an extremely interesting and intellectually curious person, even though he is a judge).  The reviews first sentence is adapted from the first sentence of the publishers advertising copy, while the reviews second sentence reads:

To punish an innocent person is more costly than to acquit a guilty one, since convicting an innocent person imposes heavy costs of punishment on him and on the criminal justice system (the cost of administering the sentence) while the main consequence of acquitting a guilty person is merely to reduce, probably slightly (unless such acquittals become very common), the deterrent and incapacitative effect of the criminal law.

As it happens, I was induced to read the entire review because I was trapped on an airplane.  I couldnt help wondering, just a tiny little bit, if it were really true that the costs of acquitting a guilty person are quite as low as Posner assumes.  For instance, upon landing at Logan I walked by Boston Herald newsstands featuring this story:

The serial sex fiend busted for allegedly stalking a woman in a Braintree bookstore bathroom left a trail of escalating depravity encompassing nearly a dozen incidents over seven years, including a violent attempted rape.

Judge Richard T. Moses knew twisted sex freak David Flavell’s history of arrests from New Hampshire to Fairhaven when he set free the Level 3 offender in 2006, ruling he posed no danger to the public, according to court filings obtained by the Herald.

Well, its a tabloid.  But the heated-up, mad-editor style doesnt mean its wrong.  A follow-up article said the suspect was separately charged "with making obscene or harassing phone calls for dialing the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to report he had just indecently assaulted a 6- or 7-year-old girl, a Boston police report said."  A Sunday article listed other Massachusetts sex offenders who have been re-arrested for sex crimes after being found not to qualify for sexual predator status.  

Well, okay, thats Boston.  How about in Judge Posners hometown of Chicago?  Three hours in OHare on the way home gave me time to read the Daily Herald, the paper for the northwestern suburbs, where the above-the-fold headline was "The hurt doesnt go away: Parents remember daughter who lost life in a single moment of violence."  The story was about Matthew Cunningham, whose months-long murder trial is set to finally end in the next few days:

Every day Bill Albu reads about people dying — in drive-by shootings, in car accidents, on college campuses.

He thinks of the victims families and how their lives will never be the same. Sorrow will follow them to the grocery store, to family weddings, everywhere.

He knows.

His daughter, former Arlington Heights resident Katie Albu Spain, 28, was spending a quiet night at home with her son when she heard a smoke alarm go off somewhere in her building.

She opened her front door and ran into Matthew Cunningham, who had just killed his roommate, Robert Barker. Cunningham then stabbed Albu more than 30 times. She died in the hallway of her Phoenix apartment building in Arizona.

Bill Albu, the father, said about other parents of murdered children: "There are people who walk around with unbelievable sorrow in their lives and youd never know it, Bill said.  These are the most compassionate people."  He described the awful moment at parties when new acquaintances ask about his kids.

On page 4 was a story with this lede: "A 16-year-old boy accused of stabbing an Elgin High School teacher appeared Friday in Kane County circuit court on sex assault charges, offenses prosecutors allege took place about five months before the school attack."

And on page 6 was the headline: "Sisters words bring killer to tears" over this story:

For weeks, Eric C. Hanson remained composed while facing a DuPage County jury that will decide if he lives or dies for killing his family.

He never broke down despite horrific details of the quadruple homicide, a grueling five hours on the witness stand, or when he heard the word "guilty" for the first time.

But the Naperville mans stoical expression changed Friday when his older sister, Jennifer Williams, described the sad irony of his crimes.

"Eric murdered the only people in his life that loved him unconditionally — my mother, father and sister," she said, "the most wonderful people that I was so fortunate to have called my family." …

Hanson, like most of the worst killers, had a troubled childhood.  The jury heard this about his past:

As he aged, Hanson was convicted of home invasion, retail theft and, in 1999, aggravated battery. Three girlfriends described how he lied, stole and, on a few occasions, became violent.

Most disturbing, though, was a 911 call involving his sister, Kate, on Feb. 10, 1993, when she told police he held a knife against her throat when they lived in Burnsville, Minn. Eric was 16. 

"(He) got very mad at me and grabbed the top of my hair and threw me down on the hardwood floor," said officer Eric Gieseke, reading Kates statement. "His face turned color because he was so angry. He said, I might as well kill you because as soon as my probation officer finds out, Ill be sent away anyway. He said, I can cover it up. No one will know. "

Kate got away. Twelve years later, she did not.

On Sept. 29, 2005, police discovered the bludgeoned bodies of Katherine "Kate" Hanson-Tsao, 31, along with her husband, Jimmy, 34, in their upscale Aurora home.

Terrance Hanson, 57, and his wife, Mary, 55, also were found slain there. The elder couple was shot in their bed in Naperville, where son Eric also lived, then taken to Kates home five miles away.16.

Okay, but thats the suburbs.  How about Chicago itself?  The Sun-Times headline yesterday was: "Unforgiven".  This was the story:

On June 7, 1969, [Terence] Knox was a young cop nicknamed "Tinsel" because he wore braces. He was on patrol when he saw Pannell and thought maybe the youth was playing hooky from high school. Knox tried to question Pannell, but Pannell answered with bullets.

Knox was hit in the right arm.  At the time, Pannell, a Navy deserter, told investigators he was a member of the Black Panthers. Pannell never went to trial. Instead, he fled to Canada, where he assumed a different identity, married, had four children and became a respected member of his community. …

[Knox] spoke of the "excruciating pain" that sometimes causes him to stand up and leave the room during business meetings. Knox said he hides his wounded arm beneath long sleeves. He showed reporters the fingers of his right hand — puffy and purplish in color.

And Knox talked about the mental pain of seeing Pannell on Friday — the first time since 1973.

"I had a hard time sitting in court today, very hard because it brought back memories Ive tried to block out, and I dont want them back," Knox said.

The main consequence of acquitting the guilty, Posner writes in the review I happened to have just finished as I walked past these various news boxes, "is merely to reduce, probably slightly … [the] incapacitative effect of the criminal law."  He meant: is merely to leave the guilty criminal free to commit additional crimes. 

I dont know if Cunningham or Pannell had prior records, but its safe to say that the absence of any incapacitative effect on Flavell and the others featured by the Herald, the 16-year-old teacher-stabber and Hanson had costs that could be described in somewhat less-abstract terms than Posner chose to use.

But then, those costs arent borne by judges, are they?  Its possible Posner was being ironic (though irony, and humor in general, seem generally beyond his range), because the book he was reviewing argues that "the reasonable doubt formula was originally concerned with protecting the souls of the jurors against damnation."

Acquitting the guilty has low costs for judges.  In fact, if the judge takes care not to inform him- or herself about the remote consequences, it need not have any costs at all.  The key thing is to avoid reading papers like the two Heralds or the Sun-Times, which might suggest the disturbing possibility of life outside the courtroom.

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