Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Racism Only Happens in the South. Really.

I made my take on the Jena 6 clear a couple of days ago. Since then, some new takes on the issue have been called to my attention that make it all the more disturbing - because it seems increasingly likely that the charges brought against the six may be simply egregious. I hate it when Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are right (erm ... rather, randomly find themselves on the right side of the fence), but it's starting to look like they just might be in the case. We'll have to wait it out and see.

That said, I stand by the basic thrust of my argument. Whether or not the 6 teens charged are guilty (which remains indeterminate pending a proper trial), certainly it is inexcusable for the public to defend a gang beating on the grounds that it was a response to offensive symbols displayed months before. Whatever you think about hate crimes legislation (I myself despise it as a damaging legal absurdity), it is telling that no hate crimes charges were sought in this case. Whatever the truth of the case turns out to be, the sycophantic pandering to politically correct takes on race in America is über-annoying. And most pertinent to the point I want to make here: there is real anti-Southern bias in what the lib-left would call "this narrative."

Arguing a bit with commentator Midwesterner on a thread on Samizdata, I was exposed to Radley Balko's report on the Maye case. Balko (and Midwesterner as well) seems to think that the fact that he covered this case makes him an expert on what happened in Jena - never mind that he's never been to Jena (he was "an hour south" of it for an unspecified amount of time), let alone interviewed anyone there. He feels qualified to cry racism in public all the same. (The real culprit here is actually Glenn Reynolds, who asked Balko to comment.) See, Balko has been to Mississippi, where he covered a case in which the death penalty was overzealously applied to someone who happened to be black and was, in all likelihood, innocent of the crime he was charged with. Because he was black, and because this was the South, Balko and lots of the fifth column seem content to chalk the miscarriage of justice up to racism. And because Mississippi and Louisiana are both in the South, and Balko's stopped at a gas station in Louisiana, we're expected to believe his proclamation that "Just for background, this is another part of the country where race, sadly, is still a pretty prominent part of everyday life."

So I had a closer look at his coverage of the Maye case, and I can't say I'm pleased with what I read.

For background - the Maye case involves a man charged with murder for shooting a cop during a drug raid on his home. The list of inconsistencies in the case is staggering - and a layman's opinion is he's innocent. Here's da fax:

  1. Maye shot only one of the police officers.

  2. He wasn't mentioned by name in the warrant, which appears to have been issued for the wrong apartment anyway.

  3. Maye had no prior.

  4. There is no information about the anonymous informant who tipped the police off about Maye's alleged drugdealing (which it appears he wasn't guilty of after all).

  5. The people in the other apartment of the duplex, which was also raided, making them the only thing like witnesses to the incident, have disappeared.

  6. The forensic pathologist called to testify in the trial is shady - and a post-trial review would seem to indicate that his account of the crimescene data was flawed.

All-in-all, not the pattern of an open-and-shot cop-killah case. It seems unlikely that the prosecution could've gotten away with a death penalty convction on this. With good counsel, Maye might have even gotten off.

Certainly it will be a tragedy if this man was simply defending himself, happened to shoot a police officer (he claims the police merely banged the door in and didn't announce their presence), and has to hang for it. So I don't take issue with Balko's assembly of facts. Indeed, I'm glad he helped bring national attention to it - and especially pleased that he seems to have saved Maye from the death penalty.

Where I take issue is his playing of the race card. Maye happens to be black; the cop he shot happens to be white. Oh yeah, and this is in Mississippi. Therefore, goes Balko's logic, the prosecution of the case was racist.

It's just that ... I don't see any need for race as an explanatory factor here. Balko's article also tells us, for example, that the cop killed was the "well-liked, widely respected son of the town’s police chief." This is in a raid done by an ad-hoc police team (not the normal SWAT team) with a dodgy warrant (doesn't mention the inhabitants of one of the apartments by name) on scant evidence (no one knows the informant who named Maye, and Maye had no prior) - and to top it off, Maye claims they didn't even announce their presence as they broke into his house without warning. If Maye's version of events is correct, then it's pretty clear, without any reference to race, why the cops would want him put away. In a town of 1,000, the celebrity police chief's son gets gunned down in a bungled raid? Of course the honest thing for the cops to do would be to admit their mistake and take responsibility - but I don't think it's too shocking to imagine that they instead opted for a coverup to save their asses. The assailant doesn't have to be black, and the raiding cops don't have to be white, for that version of events to seem plausible.

The article then goes on to detail a list of boneheaded mistakes on the part of Maye's defense attorney. Maye chose to hire a private lawyer he could barely afford rather than go with a public defender. That lawyer happens to be black. Balko wants us to believe that, despite the public defender's sterling qualifications (for which he is unable to provide any evidenceaside from the man's own assurance, though such would certainly be publicly available), Maye was scared to be represented by a white person: "Blacks in the state often don’t trust public defenders, particularly white ones." But honestly, this is a death penalty case, so we hardly need race to explain Maye's decision to get private counsel! This is one of those things like surgery to cure a life-threatening ailment: no matter how poor you are, if your life is on the line and you can somehow scrape together the cash to buy yourself more professional care, you do.

This private counsel then goes on to bollocks up Maye's case in major ways. Some of these I agree are egregious mistakes. For example, despite having won an injunction on using the history of Maye's gun (it was stolen), she then brought up the matter herself, thus opening that line of questioning for the prosecution as well. She didn't interview the police officers early enough. She barely met with Maye himself. And then she didn't provide jury instructions, telling the judge she "didn't think the case would get this far."

All of this fits in a paragraph in Balko's account. He spends rather more time on her decision to move for a change of venue - which happened to be to a county with more white people.

Soon after taking Maye’s case, she filed a change of venue motion to move the case from Jefferson Davis County to Lamar County. Jefferson Davis County is 57 percent black; Lamar County is 85 percent white. Lamar is also richer (its median income is $37,628, while Jefferson Davis’ is $21,834), and more conservative (it voted 4 to 1 for Bush in 2004, while Jefferson Davis favored Kerry by a slight margin).

Balko concludes that "In an area where race and class figure so prominently in public and private life, Cooper’s mistake was devastating." But it isn't at all clear that it was. Balko himself admits that there were two blacks on the jury that convicted Maye - which is more or less the right percentage for the county where the trial ended up taking place. Mississippi had a unanimous jury requirement for criminal cases from statehood up to at least 2000. The only evidence I can see that it might have been ammended is HB688, which would have required a majority of 10. But I can find no evidence that that bill passed - so as far as I know, all 12 jurors were required to agree that Maye was guilty. That makes the 2 blacks on the jury "enough." Even so, it's rather presumptuous of Balko to say that the facts clearly speak against a death sentence, and then assume that all 10 white jurors would be willing to ignore it. There's something in the white genepool that makes them unanimously mean, then?

More to the point, what Balko mentioned earlier in the article but is failing to mention now is that while Jefferson Davis County is 57% black, the town of Prentiss, which would have been the venue for the trial, is close to 80% white. And this is a town of 1000 people in which the slain cop was the son of the police chief and "well-liked." It isn't difficult at all to see why Maye's attorney might want a change of venue. But let's assume Balko is right that the change of venue was ill-advised. I still don't see how getting a jury with two blacks on it can possibly be so bad as "devastating." In order to buy Balko's conclusions here, we basically have to go along with his assumption that jurors in Mississippi never, ever and under no circumstances vote for justice over race, and that in any case even with the bollocks-up defense, it was race and race alone that compelled these jurors to vote the way they did. Please!

Further on, Balko lets slip some other facts that speak against his (apparent) Race as Overriding Factor theory.

Worse, prosecutors are much less inclined to take circumstances into account when it comes to pressing charges against civilians who make similar mistakes. When civilians who are innocent or who have no history of violence defend their homes during a mistaken raid, they have about a one in two chance of facing criminal charges if a policeman is killed or injured.


It’s a remarkable double standard. The reason these raids are often conducted late at night or very early in the morning is to catch suspects while they’re sleeping and least capable of processing what’s going on around them...While narcotics officers have (or at least are supposed to have) extensive training in how to act during a raid, suspects don’t, and officers have the advantage of surprise. Yet prosecutors readily forgive mistaken police shootings of innocent civilians and unarmed drug suspects while expecting the people on the receiving end of late-night raids to show exemplary composure, judgment, and control in determining whether the attackers in their homes are cops or criminals.

Now, I am in full sympathy with Balko's argument that the Drug War is overzealously fought - indeed, that the main problem with it is, as he aptly puts it, that it increasingly is being fought literally as a war. My point here is simply that these kinds of tactics and double standards on the part of the police are yet another plausible explanation for the (apparent) miscarriage of justice in Maye's case that does not need race as an explanatory factor.

Balko goes on to tell us that the town aldermen fired public defender Evans soon after he agreed to handle Maye's appeal. The public defender claims he has no official complaints against him in 10 years of service, but Balko doesn't seem to have checked. Nevertheless, it isn't hard to take the defender at his word that he was fired for defending Maye specifically without resorting to race in the explanation. In a town of 1,000, the aldermen are presumably friends with the police chief, and it was the chief's son who was killed.

I'm not saying it's impossible that race played a role. Certainly it is possible. Certainly smalltown Mississippi has exactly the reputation that Balko ascribes to this particular town and county. And reputations turn out to be deserved at least as often as they turn out not to be. Notwithstanding, if you're going to actually accuse someone of living up to his nefarious reputation, as it were, you have to have more than just the reputation itself to go on. For every other claim leading up to the general conclusion that Maye is a victim of an overzealous drugs prohibition policy, Balko cites at least some kind of evidence. But the claims of racism are always mere assertions. It is taken as a given, for example, that trial by a majority-white jury means conviction while trial by a majority-black jury does not. And we are expected to believe that the 10-2 racial split on the convicting jury (the closest thing to actual evidence that Balko cites) was the deciding factor in Maye's conviction (recall that the change of venue was described as "devastating"), as opposed to the other ways in which the defense attorney bungled the case. Never once does Balko quote someone in authority saying something racist, nor does he cite similar cases involving white defendants who were not prosecuted, nor does he even offer a plausible suggestion for how this case might have gone differently if the guy who shot the cop by mistake had been a poor white guy rather than a poor black guy. There are, indeed, no statistics here to back up general claims of racism by this police force. All we get are his "impressions."

The most striking impression I get is the pervasive, suffocating role race plays in everyday life. The fear and paranoia from black residents can be overwhelming.

There are, of course, reasons why people's impressions are not admissible as evidence in court (not the least of which being, indeed, that we don't want racist policemen coming to hasty conclusions!). I see no reason to trust Balko's impressions more than anyone else's. His impression of racism may well be genuine. Just as likely, however, is that Balko, as a yank, comes to small southern towns with preconceived notions as to what he's going to find. And so he finds it.

Some other gems:

When people in the area talk about why they don’t trust law enforcement, you hear the same cops named over and over again.

Gee, ya think? This is a town of 1000 people! How many cops can there really be?

The county’s homicide rate in 2002 was five times the national average.

Again - town of 1000 people. 13,000 in the whole county. There's an obvious sampling-size problem here. In such a small population, a single anomalous year will easly swallow up statistical error, yielding precisely these kinds of supposedly-shocking statistics. It's a well-known problem. To establish that Jefferson Davis County is a hotbed of homicide, we'll need more than a single year!

And then there's the whole "This is still Mississippi" section (actual section title), which is full of gratuitous quotes from people wholly unrelated to the case to the effect that Mississippi is seething with racism.

In short, this article reads like a smear campaign against Mississippi, and that's wholly unnecessary. If the point it to illustrate how drug war tactics get abused and ruin innocent lives, then this story makes the case in full colors. I'm not sure what all the crap about racism is doing in this article - but it's not appreciated. Racism is no longer a problem exclusive to the South - if indeed it ever was. Quite the contrary - desegregation in Detroit and Boston was a larger, more painful, and more violent issue than it ever was in Alabama, and took place much later as well.

If Balko honestly thinks race played a role in this case, then let him produce some evidence to that effect - even if it is merely suggestive. Otherwise, he is simply peddling stereotypes - the very thing he is presumably taking a stand against. Unimpressive, and unfortunate.


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