Dangerous Confusion on Truth and Justice (Update)

It’s always amazing how a bad set of facts, a poorly reasoned decision and well-intended but slightly off-kilter vision of justice produces confused and misguided rhetoric.  Such has been the case with the Osborne decision, and it’s happened again. At Grits for Breakfast, Scott picks up on the commentary of Michael Landauer of the Dallas News :


I’m torn. … I have a hard time thinking it’s OK to limit any evidence from being submitted that might prove guilt or innocence. Why would we do that? It drives me nuts that the appeals process is treated by some as a chess match instead of a search for truth. Once the jury speaks, that search ends and it’s all about tactical, constitutional arguments, it seems.

Still, I would hate to see people who are so clearly guilty use this as a ploy to sorta roll the dice. We saw on Dallas DNA, the show about exonerations in our county, that some people really do that. They waste the courts’ time just for kicks.

Non-lawyers really love to believe that a trial is a search for truth.  Judges often feed into this mess by using phrases like this when it suits their convenience.  It sounds so legitimate.  It makes the system sound dignified and purposeful.  It appeals to our American sensibilities.  Justice.  Truth.  Hooray!

I’m begging you, please stop.  You’re living in a fantasy, and not a particularly pretty one.  The reduction of life to such simplistic concepts as truth and justice is not merely absurd, but dangerously so.  Just stop.

I assume that what’s meant by Landauer’s statement is that DNA, and specifically DNA, is proof of sufficient certainty to exonerate an innocent person, and hence should be subject to a very different set of rules than applies to every other form of proof.*  Taking it a step further, the rules of procedure that apply otherwise should not be used to preclude a defendant from obtaining a DNA test that could serve to exonerate.  Except that he doesn’t want this to apply when the person is actually guilty, since it’s wastes the courts’ time “for kicks.” 

Of course, that’s not at all what he said.  He urges that all evidence come in to “prove guilt or innocence.”  Does he have the slightest clue what that means?  I doubt it.  What about propensity evidence?  What about inflammatory evidence?  What about illegally seized evidence?  Did you consider any of this before you decided to write this grandiose yet childish rhetoric?

It’s hard enough trying to make sense of the criminal justice system, a lousy system but what we’re left to use, to the public without newspaper editors spreading ideas like this.  Because Landauer is an editor for the Dallas News, people expect him to have a clue what he’s talking about.  He doesn’t.  He’s likely well-intended, and might well agree that his rhetoric is foolish if someone sat him down and explained, slowly, why his thought processes are naive and child-like.  But this didn’t happen before he posted his opinion, and we are left with another example of dangerous rhetoric, feeding ignorantly simplistic notions to the public.

The other day, I watched the Today Show while trying to put a decent knot in my tie.  The segment was about some criminal justice issue of no particular consequence, and Danny Abrams (Floyd’s kid) was on as the legal analyst.  Now I like Danny.  I really do.  But he’s never actually practiced law, no less criminal law.  And he is totally, fundamentally clueless.  But you would never know it by watching him on the tube.  He comes off with great expertise, pontificating at length in response to silly questions.  Lately, Danny has become more strident in his views, which (I note in passing) have become increasingly supportive of law enforcement. 

I recall that Dan informed the audience about the law that applied to the issue du jour.  He was wrong.  Had it completely backward, and I started laughing.  My tie knot was just horrible by the time I was done and I had to retie it from scratch.  Danny was very, very serious as he rendered his opinion.  He’s a very serious kid.  He’s just wrong at the same time he’s being very serious.

It’s hard enough to have an intelligent discussion on troubling issue amongst people who have a sufficient background and comprehension skills.  Why must people in the media who don’t have a clue continue to move their lips or their pens or their fingers as they dance across a keyboard?  If you don’t know, just stop.  It’s okay.  You don’t have to express an opinion about everything.  Remember, you have the ascribed credibility of the mainstream media.  People think you know something, and rely on your words, no matter how wrong they are.  This is why it’s dangerous.

They say that everyone is entitled to an opinion.  I disagree. You have to know what you’re talking about before you’re entitled to an opinion.  Otherwise, you’re just making noise.  The criminal justice system is dangerous enough.  I’m begging you, stop adding your confusion to the cacophony.  Please.

* I’ve chosen not to go anywhere near the wealth of significant issues surrounding DNA evidence, it’s viability as preclusive rather than inclusive evidence, the problems with collection, contamination, maintenance, etc., all of which would require a very different discussion than the one intended by this post. 

Update:  Mark Bennett has posted a quote from Ann Althouse’s Blog that serves to further the point of this one:


One of the most annoying things about lawyers is the way they casually conflate “law” with “justice.” To clarify: justice is a concept in philosophy; also to some extent in psychology, sociology, economics, etc. Law is what a bunch of mostly long-dead politicians thought would get them reelected. There’s no connection between the two. None. The relation between law and those other fields is much like the relation between astrology and astronomy…except that astrologers don’t have guns.
Ignore the cynicism and gratuitous gun allusion, and cut to the chase.  Laws are the rules imposed on us.  Justice is a value judgment each of us makes, and each of us makes differently.  The two are unrelated.  Even if we argued that we would want there to be a direct correlation between the two, each of us would have a different expectation of what that correlation should be. 

We want fair rules that serve their intended purpose well.  We hope that those rules comport with our sense of justice.  But since each of us has a different understanding of what constitutes justice, the law cannot, by definition, equate with justice.  We need to stop telling people that it can and should.  It just isn’t true.

3 comments on “Dangerous Confusion on Truth and Justice (Update)

  1. John R.

    I’m really trying to understand this perspective.

    If your point is that truth and justice are too abstract and devoid of specific, factual content to be meaningful or helpful in general day to day decision making, then I think I can agree up to a point. There is too much to do in the trenches to spend a lot of mental effort worrying about those larger categories and how close to or far from achieving them we might be.

    But there are, in my opinion, a few conflicts where it really is truth v. lies, justice v. injustice, maybe even good v. evil. They don’t come along all that often. Maybe you never even see one. And you’re lucky if you don’t.

    But if you do see one, and it happens to have arrived on your desk, I don’t see how you can avoid it by denying that it’s there. It seems to me it would be just as wrong-headed and dogmatic to deny that those important values are implicated when they clearly are as it would be to obsess about them all the time in every context no matter how minor, which I would have to agree is a dangerous and damaging state of mind.

    Does that sound a little less confused?

  2. SHG

    I think you may be overthinking this.  The post is about the use of “truth and justice” as the measure of all criminal justice issues.  There are specific issues which offend our sense of truth and/or justice, but “truth and justice” is not the goal of the system.  If it was, most of the rules that we support and adhere to would be out the window.

    For example, we applaud suppression of illegally seized evidence, which inures to the benefit of the guilty.  That doesn’t comport well with “truth and justice.”  There is no consensus about what constitutes justice, and no one knows what truth is.  These are nice sounding, relatively meaningless, often counterproductice concepts that have little to do with the system we seek.  “Truth and justice” are a child’s vision of the system, and by continuing to use such language to discuss problems, we feed misunderstanding.  We need to elevate the discussion, educate people about real issue and meaingful concepts and avoid reliance on such silly phrases.

  3. g dawkins

    I agree that our legal system has been reduced to a “board game” with reliance on the quality of gamesmanship by players who vary in their abilities. The “truth” that hangs in the balance is determined by those abilities. Although a cynical view, a practical view of reality. Truth and justice are used in the same sentence to imply a relationship between the two. One would naively hope that truth would produce justice, but justice is most often arrived at through other dynamics other than the pursuit of the truth. It is very difficult to “square” these facts with the protections given us under our U.S. Constitution. There are rights and freedoms that need to be protected in order that our freedom and our individual sovereignty, under that freedom, can flourish. This is where and why our struggle for “justice” must be present in our proceedings and why it be tempered with the pursuit of “truth” as best we can.

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