August 10, 2007

Great Big Thanks

May I say that since I have been away there have been a multitude of fine guest posters on here who have maintained the site brilliantly. Ashok Karra writes fascinatingly here as he does at his own blog. Matt Sinclair was wonderful as well. James Higham furnished us with musings about Dr Crippin and the state of modern Russia. James Hamilton was as usual a stalwart full of good sense. Vino did what Vino always does brilliantly- give glimpses into the politics of other countries. I'm back now and will post for about a week at which point I'm off to Norway for a week so may ask some others to do some guest posting and though any of these fine gentlemen are welcome to post as well again should they wish to. But I have been stunned by both the quality and quantity of postings- I have a lot to live up to- thanks all round are due- and any of these gentlemen should they be in south London and in need of refreshment need only ask and Gracchi will be present to buy them a drink!

Erroll Morris and Jury Trial

On a night in Texas in 1976, a police officer Robert Wood was shot dead whilst on patrol. Wood had approached a car which was failing to show its lights on foot whilst his patrol companion covered him, as soon as he came up to the window of the car, the man in the driver's seat loosed a series of bullets on him, first hitting him in the arm and then in the chest and killing him. The car drove off into the night, as Woods' patrol partner desperately fired shots afterwards and then went to his assistance- Woods himself died from his wounds. Much later after the event, the film maker and documentary maker Erroll Morris made a film about what happened next and in particular about the trial after the event. Many of the details of what happened next will be outlined below- but a more in depth account is available here.

At that trial, a man Randall Adams (pictured above) was convicted of the murder of Wood- and Morris made a disturbing film pointing to several anomalies in the evidence. In order to understand Morris's film its neccessary to pause for a moment and go back to the situation presented to the jury at the trial. The situation on the night that Wood was murdered was that his partner could not see for whatever reason the murderer. All that was known was that the murderer drove a blue vehicle. However after a young 16 year old named David Harris was called in by police about a robbery of a car, Harris's testimony implicated Adams in the murder. Harris stated that Adams had killed the police officer and drove off. Then the police found some eyewitnesses months after the event who said that they could recall seeing a man like Adams in the car- the prosecution provided these witnesses to the court without letting the defence cross examine them.

Step back and recall the situation. Two men were in that car- one of them shot that police officer with a gun. The issue is which one- the jury were faced with the problem that the men disagreed. Adams said that he had been nowhere near the scene of the crime, Harris suggested that he had been there and had pulled the trigger. There were some eye witnesses who corroborated Harris's evidence and for some reason unobvious to the jury the defence was unable to properly cross examine those eyewitnesses, who had seen across a rainy, windswept and dark night the distinct face of Randall Adams about to pull or pulling the trigger. You might well think that to send a man to his death on the basis of some glimpses through the rain (even if those eyewitnesses were unimpeachable which for several reasons contained in the summary linked to above) would be a bit rich but that is the way the system works.

Ultimately as a juror you are governed by your situation. You are in a court- you face a group of people who are arguing about the evidence of a situation. One group of lawyers is arguing that a man- in this case Randall Adams- is guilty another is arguing that he is innocent. Part of that argument is that it is assumed that the prosecution lawyers are presenting a case that ultimately is enough to convict- if you don't beleive their witnesses fine, but they are lawyers they should know the standerd of proof neccessary to convict. That assumption means that in many ways a juror's understanding of the law- which remember as they come from outside the law is not great- is always determined by the atmosphere of the trial, by the fact that the juror naturally relies on the lawyers and then is faced with the issue of who to trust most. In addition he or she relies upon the judges' summing up- if the judge tells him that the evidence of a man looking through a dark and windy, wet window is enough to convict on then the bias in the juror's mind is going to be to convict.

The problem is that as Morris's film reveals the evidence in the Randall Adams case collapses as soon as you look at it. David Harris was a violent teenager and became a violent man, eventually suffering the death penalty for another murder. Indeed later he confessed to this one. The eyewitnesses were unreliable- some had reported that a Mexican or black man had committed the murder before settling on Adams when told by the police it was a white man. Indeed those same witnesses owed a debt to the police because they wanted their daughter to be exonnerated of the crime of perjury. Furthermore all the materials for the crime were owned by Harris and Harris had been coached as a witness by the prosecuting DA.

For a juror the jury assisted in a perversion of the course of justice- they took a decision based on very little data- which needed little spinning to make it come out that Adams was the murderer not Harris. The problem is that in this murder the wrong information was easy to come by because there was so little information- two men in an anonymous blue car shot another man. Many crimes are like that- one or two witnesses might be the only people who saw the crime and if so indistinctly- interests might conflict and the jury has no idea what went on outside the jury room. Allowing judges to be more certain in their direction about what reasonable doubt might help- but one wonders how without a conviction there couldn't have been a reasonable doubt in the Adams case- all it rested on was someone seeing someone else's face as they drove fast past on the other side of a road on a windy, rainswept night- how can you not doubt.

But then how could you find anyone guilty of that crime at all. Amongst the most moving scenes of Morris's film is when the judge, the son of an FBI man, spoke about law enforcement officers and what they often suffer from those that they attempt to prosecute. If there was noone found guilty then what would that say about society's feelings about the man that died- a police officer with a perfect record. David Harris at the end of the film says that Adams was a scapegoat and there is a sense that he is right- someone had to be convicted and that someone was Adams.

What happened to Adams was a shocking miscarriage of justice. Partly the responsibility for that rests with police officers and prosecuting councel who were so committed to finding him guilty. But partly it also lies with the jury who were faced with a situation in which one man said one thing, another another and they adjudicated based on the fact that on a night difficult to see anything in, someone claimed that from the opposite side of the street they had seen Randall Adams commit the murder. The difficulty is that of course there are many crimes that have to be convicted on similarly flimsy evidence- that very few are beyond reasonable doubt- and that ultimately we have to weigh the importance of attaining a result against the innocent. Furthermore we have to recognise the very real psychological weakness of the jury to ascertain the appropriate standerd for what is a reasonable doubt.

This isn't an easy question. Randall Adams was innocent- but if you or I were in that jury room, with that information, would we have found him guilty or not!

Crossposted at Bits of News

August 09, 2007

The Internet as an Introduction to Abstract Art, via Photography

I originally intended to write about Pommygranate, who runs a great blog, but his blog speaks so well for itself that I think I'll leave that post for later. Still, if you haven't visited his blog, please do. I do consider this post to be yet another one in the ongoing series of posts bringing people's archived work for reconsideration.

There are two things people have become very good at on the Internet: chess and photography.

The former has happened because it is so easy to get on something like Yahoo Games and look up all the openings and theory at Wikipedia. One can get opponents any time, and one has all the basic resources one needs to teach oneself the game (although those resources are nowhere near optimal. Just easier to access than they were before the Internet).

The Internet and photography are perhaps a more a involved story. That one can take unlimited pictures with a digital camera and never have to pay for film is probably the key thing that has made so many photographers stronger. The ability to make tons of mistakes also offers unlimited room for growth. But the ability to also have one's own online gallery, to use Photoshop and get tutorials in similar software, to see other people's work and find what one would like to imitate or achieve - all of that has made a lot of people very, very good photographers.

One thing that happened to me as I started looking at photography online is that my tastes started changing. Shannon's work especially was the catalyst; her photos are of things that are all around us: messy piles on the floor, decayed buildings, lights at night. Her work shows most emphatically that studies in form aren't devoid of content; they can open up questions through being arranged in a narrative sequence or through formal considerations making us connect photographs. Others who work in a similar vein that made me rethink include Jennifer, Courtney, and Kelly Burgess.

The importance of each photographer taking pictures of "stuff" and everyday happenings and then aiming for some refinement in that vein can not be overstated. For me, being able to appreciate what it was they were seeing - asking myself "why is this, even though it is a pile of clothes on the floor, strangely pleasing to the eye" - has enabled me to understand on a deeper level why abstraction might fail or succeed. It looks like an order which is aesthetically pleasing is not necessarily the sort of order we would associate with well-organized bookshelves or clean parquet floors. There's something more subtle going on when these photos work - as if life for the most part does fall into an order which is aesthetic (shades of Kierkegaard here), and when it falls into disorder, perhaps, that has less to do with our passivity and more to do with having forced something unnatural, for better or worse.

August 05, 2007

Suffer and Survive - Gas Attacks, Miners' Canaries, Spacesuits and the Bends: The Extreme Life of Dr J. S. Haldane by Martin Goodman

This book is hitting the shops now but, courtesy of being the author's nephew, I've been reading an advanced copy over the last couple of weeks.

It is a very enjoyable read. Martin's writing is assured and unpretentious but very vivid when necessary. He has researched thoroughly enough that he has the detail to really bring the characters to life.

The era, late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, is a fascinating one and not written about enough. Suffer and Survive, like George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, gives us a glimpse of the world before the First World War. A world making the transition, in fits and starts, from that of the Industrial Revolution to one we might more easily recognise today.

Haldane's story is well worth telling. He was born to one of the oldest Scottish aristocratic families. The Haldanes already had quite a history of public service - the book's title is inspired by their motto "Suffer". J.S. Haldane extended that tradition. His exploration of how the human body interacts with its environment advanced science and also saved thousands upon thousands of lives.

Just taking his more famous creations Haldane was responsible for canaries in mines, gas masks and diving tables. However, he paid quite the price for incredible discoveries, subjecting his own body to poison gas and extreme conditions including alarmingly regular carbon monoxide poisoning in order to understand the effects of environmental conditions on the human body. Indeed, at times this book can get a little lost in descriptions of the physical peril faced by Haldane and his various research partners before being snapped back to its narrative.

Like many great popular science books this gives an idea of how incredible the scientific process itself has been. It provides a remarkable case-study of the lengths to which people have gone to increase the sum of human knowledge. Hopefully it might cause us all to be a little more appreciative of the legacy suffering survivors down the ages have left us.