Vengeance in the courtroom

Stanley Fish is a law professor who writes a column for the New York Times.  In his latest offering, Fish describes the revenge-vengeance film genre.  According to Fish, Iam Neeson’s lines from “Taken” summarize the plotline we have come to expect from this sort of film:

“If you’re looking for ransom, I don’t have any money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.” 

According to Dr. Fish, “The formula’s popularity stems from the permission it gives viewers to experience the rush violence provides without feeling guilty about it. The plot gives the hero the same permission when a wife or daughter or brother or girlfriend . . . is abducted, injured or killed.”

The revenge-vengeance only works, of course, if the carnage depicted on-screen is a response to some despicable act perpetrated by a genuinely nasty villain or, better yet, group of villains.  “Once the atrocity has occurred,” Fish says, “the hero acquires an unquestioned justification for whatever he or she then does; and as the hero’s proxy, the audience enjoys the same justification for vicariously participating in murder, mayhem and mutilation. In fact, the audience is really the main character in many of these films. You can almost see the director calculating the point at which identification with the hero or heroine will be so great that the desire to see vengeance done will overwhelm any moral qualms viewers might otherwise have.”

Professor Fish isn’t taking issue with the revenge-vengeance genre; he isn’t into value judgments.  He just makes his observations, gives us his top-ten revenge-vengeance films, and shuts up.  But I was surprised that a law professor would pass over the obvious connection between the emotional manipulation so obvious in this genre and common prosecutorial practice.  If a terrible crime has been committed, a clever prosecutor can have a jury screaming for vengeance simply by laying out the grizzly facts and declaring that somebody (the defendant, for instance) must pay.  That done, it isn’t really necessary to tie the man in the dock to the crime in a convincing way.  The jury is primed to convict.

Many of the wrongful convictions that have unravelled in Dallas County have followed the revenge-vengeance script.

Vengeance brings resolution.  Nothing is more satisfying than seeing the bad guy pay for his misdeeds with a bullet between the eyes or a plunge into shark-infested water (every movie devises a different end for the villain, but it is always gruesome).   Truth is vindicated.  Justice is served.

Not so if the jury decides the evidence isn’t quite sufficient to warrant a conviction.  Jurors go home thinking the guy the authorities fingered probably did the deed; but they had no choice but to cut him loose.  Not a good feeling;  nothing is resolved, justice not served.  An obvious wrong has not been put to right.  Few successful movies end this way, and small wonder–who would pay good money for a colossal disappointment?

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that juries are inclined to convict no matter how weak the evidence.  This is especially true when jurors are white, the defendant is a person of color and the alleged crime is especially heinous.

Take the Curtis Flowers case, for instance.  Flowers has been tried five times, accused of committing an exceptionally gruesome crime: four innocent souls (three white, one black) snuffed out by a bullet to the brain.  Blood cries out for vengeance.  Jurors either conclude that Curtis did the deed or they are left with an unsettling question mark.  Not surprisingly, white jurors have universally voted to convict while only black jurors tend to side with Flowers.  Prevailing wisdom has it that black jurors are simply protecting one of their own. 

Prevailing wisdom is wrong.

The Flowers case is a textbook case of wrongful conviction unfolding in real-time; a revenge-vengeance story in the making.

The only way to counteract a powerful revenge-vengeance narrative is to re-frame the Flowers story from a civil rights perspective.  That is what Friends of Justice intends to do.

5 thoughts on “Vengeance in the courtroom

  1. Great article. Good luck in all your endeavors.
    Happy new year to you, your family and all your readers.

  2. A lady ran into Benjamin Franklin one summer day. He was chronically ill by this point and some what short with the woman. She asked him “What have you given us, sir”. His somewhat terse rejoinder was ” a republic, if you can keep it. I admit that I have had thoughts of late that it not even worth trying to keep it. I have been house hunting in the Dominican Republic and Belize.

    I have decided that up to election day 2012 it is worth fighting for. What happens that day will decide what I do. I will have passport in hand and the mover on speed dial.
    It is no secret that this nation is in the worse economic shape it has ever been in. During the Great Depression we did not owe as much money as we do now, even in 1930 dollars adjusted for inflation. We can try to assign blame. Woodrow Wilson 1914. Ross Barnett in 1962. Orval Fabus, Lester Maddox. Nikita Khrushchev
    Huey Newton, Nicky Barnes, H. Rap Brown. Bull Connors, George Corley Wallace. Dr. Martin Luther King. Gandhi. President John F. Kennedy.Mother Teresa. Robert Kennedy. I know them all and they are all dead. We are the living. It is our responsibility to save our country at this point. A republic, if we can keep it.

    The only two times that there has been as much acrimony, so much blatant hatred, bitterness, and danger were during the Civil War and The 1960’s. I believe that 2010 fits in as the third. It is in the air. You can smell it. It sticks to your skin. It is ugly, and it is extremely dangerous. I am speaking about just the part of the world between Boston and Boise. Minnesota and Mississippi. Portland and Philadelphia. From sea to not so shining sea. Progressives. Conservatives. Wall Street vs. Main Street. We have to get our part together. If we don’t, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are going to be social clubs in comparison. We lost two CIA agents the other day that can not be replaced. In their minds were locked secrets that were not in a time capsule. We lost a collective 85 years of intelligence expertise in 1.8 seconds.

    To be honest, the foreign policy of the nation over the last sixty years is responsible for a 23 young old rich kid trying to kill 300 people at 35,000 feet in the air.
    Patty Hearst in black face? What would make a kid ( I am over fifty) with more privilege than Paris Hilton and company combined? That cannot be left to be a rhetorical question. I am going to make an extra effort to try to heal and help my nation without violence and vitriol. It will be like going off smack cold turkey, but I will try. Please join me. Or is it me joining you? We can’t afford to loose. That is simply not an option. I know how to manage violence. However, I don’t know the formula to use violence to make peace. C2O? If I fail at the try, it will be monumental.

    Rather than kill, I will move.
    This is the cross road. I am going to go against my instinct for survival for a while. Not vilify but try to understand. Try to forgive instead of device a means of revenge with extreme prejudice.

    I know some of you to be Christians. Dr. Bean is a well known theologian. Mrs. Madewell and Mrs. Masters are Christian women. Charlie Jones is a practical man guided by something other than the Milky Way. Mr. Bolton is a Christian and a fighter. A modern day King David, with Clint as his Aaron. I am going to go against everything that I think. I owe God that much. Thank you for reading these words.

  3. About the statement, “Prevailing wisdom has it that black jurors are simply protecting one of their own. ” Even you can see that is the case. Why do you think that the black people are lying their heads off to get on the jury? Just like Bibbs, he lied and said he didn’t understand Judge Loper’s questions, even though each question was repeated and the judge asked if each person understood each question. Judge Loper is trying to make this a fair trial, but because he wants it absolutely fair, he’s being bashed, trashed, and criticized. And, come on, you can’t have a fair and impartial black juror from Winona. Almost all of them knew Flowers in some way, and the ones that don’t know him lie for him, if for no other reason, for fear that the other black people will get them for sending him where he belongs.

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