A Colloquial Kind Of Murder

There is no shortage of murders. It’s not that we’re having an epidemic, but there are plenty of good examples of black men (or boys, as in Tamir Rice’s case) murdered by cops. Why not Walter Scott? Or Eric Garner? There’s always Philando Castile. Or if you’re a Second City fan, there’s Laquan McDonald. A Walmart shopper? There’s John Crawford. You get the point, right? RIGHT?!?

Yet, the murder of choice for two Democratic presidential candidates was MIchael Brown.

Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement. We must fight for stronger accountability and racial equity in our justice system.”

— Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), in a tweet, Aug. 9

“5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.”

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in a tweet, Aug. 9

It’s beyond discussion that the officer who killed Michael Brown wasn’t convicted for murdering him, but that’s a separate issue from whether he was murdered.

Both appear to be echoing a narrative that emerged shortly after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, 18. The legal definition of murder varies according to jurisdiction, but generally it means killing someone with malice aforethought.

Since this happened in Missouri, it would have been more useful to use the applicable definition, particularly given the “malice aforethought” language is archaic and not “generally” the definition. So what’s “murder” in Mizzou?

Under Missouri law, first degree murder is defined as “knowingly caus(ing) the death of another person after deliberation upon the matter.” Second-degree murder is defined as “knowingly caus(ing) the death of another person or, with the purpose of causing serious physical injury to another person, causes the death of another person.”

This comes with a caveat for law enforcement officers under 563.046(3).

In effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody, a law enforcement officer is justified in using deadly force … when the officer reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest or prevent an escape from custody and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested … is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument.

Glenn Kessler at WaPo parses the witness statements, which don’t tell a story of murder. To compound the situation, Warren was a Harvard prawf, which suggests she should have some working knowledge of the meaning of “murder” (although given what’s come from Tribe and Dersh of late, the quality of instruction at HLS may not be remotely what one would expect). Harris was a particularly carceral Attorney General of California, and a few years earlier would almost certainly have been sucking down brewskis with Darren Wilson rather than on the streets with protesters.

Notably, other Democratic candidates chose not to fall into the murder trap.

In fact, two other Democratic senators with law degrees now running for president — Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand — more accurately referred to it as a killing.

It certainly was a “killing,” as Michael Brown was undeniably dead afterward, but “killing” lacks the punch of “murder.” Yet, Politifact, while acknowledging that there was “broad consensus” that “murder” was the wrong word to use. refused to put up its cute Truth-O-Meter and call it a lie.

“I don’t know if the legalistic distinction intensifies the anger, but it does feel like an attempt to shift the debate from a discussion about the killing of black and brown people by police,” said Jean Brown, who teaches communications at Texas Christian University and specializes in media representations of African Americans. “This is unfortunate, because rather than discussing the need for de-escalation tactics and relations between police and communities of color, this has become a conversation about legal terms. Quite frankly, it’s a distraction that doesn’t help the discussion.”

Because the significance of Harris’ and Warrens’ [sic] use of the word is open to some dispute, we won’t be rating their tweets on the Truth-O-Meter.

Is the use of the word “murder” by two people running for the Democratic nomination for president, possessing the particular competencies necessary to distinguish murder from not murder, open to dispute because there are other issues that are important and tangentially related? Is this merely a “legalistic distinction?” Is there a definition of the word “murder” that isn’t “legalistic?” Does the definition matter if one dismisses it as some mere “legalism”?

For a few years now, I’ve noted “legalistic” words that have become untethered from their definition. Some have been given vague and broad meaning, so much so that they mean whatever Humpty Dumpty says they mean. “Rape” is the most prominent here, as it’s become understood by many, particularly on campus, to mean whatever the “victim” feels is rape.

Is “murder” now whatever Harris, Warren and whomever they’re pandering to feels it is? Putting aside whether facts matter, or even exist, is it a mere “distraction” that they chose to use a word with which both should be quite familiar in order to appeal to their constituencies, to “virtue signal” their support for black lives?

There are plenty of examples of bad shoots, of the racist assumption that still permeates law enforcement that black men are more criminal-ish, prone to violence, threatening, that it’s unnecessary to call the killing of Michael Brown murder. And much as de-escalation is a critically important shift in how police deal with the public, there will still be times when a cop is threatened with death or serious physical injury, and is lawfully and properly (some might say “morally,” but I won’t) entitled to shoot and kill.

By conflating the two, is it a legalistic “distraction” or is it an accurate differentiation between a justified killing and murder? Or does “murder” get added to the list of words that no longer mean more than what people feel they mean?

19 thoughts on “A Colloquial Kind Of Murder

  1. Hunting Guy

    Inigo Montoya.

    “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

  2. Patrick Maupin

    It defied logic at the time to rally around Michael Brown. And now?

    It’s almost as if whatever the secret service puts in the water it vets for the candidates gives them early-onset dementia.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t know that it defied logic at the time; there was not insignificant reason to believe that Michael Brown was murdered, or at least that Wilson’s killing him was unjustified. It just didn’t turn out to have the evidentiary support later.

    2. Bryan Burroughs

      I think they hold on to Michael Brown because his death started the movement. Admitting that the hullabaloo over his death was overblown, and maybe even misplaced, would be extremely damaging to BLM. Which is dumb, because even if Brown isn’t a good example, there are numerous other cases which more than prove their point. Unfortunately, many of the most vocal in our society are just too dumb to recognize that. So… The lionizing of Brown lives on

  3. Skink

    Dear SHG:

    Golfer 1: “you killed that drive.”
    Golfer 2: “yeah, I really murdered it.”

    “Rape” was once something like kidnapping–you know, “rape and pillage”. It also has a definition related to birds or seeds or some other stuff.

    I may not have gone many other days, but I was there for the first day of crimlaw. When applied to people, both words have only legal meaning. There is no other definition for “murder” when it applies to a killing. When it comes to people a killing is a homicide, but it ain’t necessarily a murder. See? I really was there for the first day!

    So why do these lawyers conflate? Because they’re not lawyers. They were lawyers, but now they’re politicians. The twain can’t meet because politicians get to say anything to make people stupid. How else would these people get elected? Lawyers don’t have that luxury; we’re stuck with the real meaning of words. We’re also charged with making people less stupid, if they’ll listen.

    You can’t expect politicians that were once lawyers to continue to think and act like lawyers when they become politicians. That’s just unpossible. I hope this helps.

    Your Pal,

    1. SHG Post author

      In a weird way, your point about politicians not being anything but politicians is certainly true, but it fails to provide much comfort for the rest of the “legalistic” words used for legal characterizations without regard to definitions. Even if the golfer “grips it and rips it,” it unlikely many will mistake his drive for a crime unless he slices into the rough because he picked his head up.

            1. SHG Post author

              I prefer to think of it as slalom golf. Or as I tell my wife, what kind of idiot pays for a round of golf only to hit fewer shots? I want as many as I can for my money.

  4. Ben

    Why Michael Brown? Because it’s controversial.

    Any of the other examples are not controversial. Everyone agrees they are wrong even if they don’t know or can’t agree what to do about it. People, sigh, shrug and move on.

    But Michael Brown? One side shrieks “murder”! the other shrieks back that he got what he deserved! Nooooo you are wrong! etc. Words are murdered, clicks are generated, and attention is focussed on whoever says the most ridiculous, hyperbolic things.

  5. Lee

    I wonder what the libel laws are like in the states in which Warren and Harris made those slanderous statements?

  6. B. McLeod

    “Because candidates we like are not speaking the truth, we won’t be rating their words on the Truth-O-Meter.”

    Fixed it for them.

  7. Scarlet Pimpernel

    It is safer for the Dems to debate if it was murder or not, than to discuss why, since Trump got elected, the killing of black men by cops has basically disappeared from the public discourse to be replaced by outrage over the OK sign, misgendering and the american flag on tennis shoes.

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