FRIDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2021
...and the shape of a terrible year: Today, as a terrible year nears its end, we're willing to share an image. This image comes to mind many mornings as we first scan the day's journalism.
The image comes to us from childhood—from the days when it still snowed in Middlesex County, just outside Boston. There might be eight inches of powdery snow on the ground—and if you scrambled to get your boots on, you might be the very first person who got to make tracks through the snow.
Why was it fun to walk through new snow? We have no idea. But we're often struck by the new ideas, or lack of sane, which cover the ground in the morning.
Such journalistic offerings tend to be hard to sort out. Walking through snow was much simpler.
Yesterday, we were struck by two opinion columns in the New York Times. In this column, Michiko Kakutani offered a fascinating analysis of the late Joan Didion's work.
On the same page, Professor Dyson seemed to say that we should direct more "forgiveness and grace" at people like Kim Potter, "the former cop who, by most accounts, mistakenly killed Daunte Wright, a young Black man in Brooklyn Center, Minn."
We expect to discuss those columns next week. We'll admit that each column seemed to us to cling to the frameworks, facts and Storylines preferred the author's own tribe.
For today, we'll discuss Paul Butler's column in yesterday's Washington Post.
Do we the humans ever step outside our tribal frameworks? Early on, Butler, a good, decent person, presented some slightly odd formulations:
BUTLER (12/30/21): At trial, Potter testified that the only reason she pulled over Wright was that she was training a rookie officer who noticed that Wright’s car had an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror and that its registration was expired. Potter, who had been a cop for 26 years, admitted that ordinarily she would not have stopped someone for such minor infractions during the height of the pandemic.
A records check revealed that Wright, 20, had an outstanding warrant for a gross misdemeanor gun charge. As the officers tried to arrest him, Wright returned to his car and Potter said she believed he was trying to flee. She withdrew her gun, shouted “Taser” and shot him in the chest. Potter claimed that she mistook her gun for a Taser and had not intended to kill Wright.
Did Potter really claim "that she mistook her gun for a Taser?" Did she claim that she had not intended to kill Wright?
Technically, yes, she did—but the prosecutors "claimed" the very same things! Neither side in this high-profile trial disagreed with those "claims."
Even more oddly, did Wright "return to his car" at one point? Did Potter say that she believed he was trying to flee?
Technically, the answer to each question is probably yes; Wright did "return to his car." But why would any journalist present such odd formulations, given what happened that day?
(Also, was it really Officer Potter who "pulled Wright over?" The question played no apparent role in the trial, but Potter testified that it was the rookie officer, Anthony Luckey, who made that decision, and Luckey said the same thing. Potter said she probably wouldn't have done so had the choice, the decision, been hers.)
Did Butler perhaps have his thumbs on the scales as he opened his column? We can't read anyone's mind around here, but "returned to the car" was quite strange.
That said, Butler was soon warning readers about certain provisions of Minnesota state law. We found this part of his column instructive. This is what he said:
BUTLER: To convict Potter of first-degree manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years, prosecutors had to prove only that Potter committed a misdemeanor—recklessly handling a firearm—that caused Wright’s death. This is the manslaughter version of the felony murder charge that prosecutors used to convict Chauvin.
Prosecutors often rely on these kinds of charges when they want the most severe punishment for people who have killed accidentally. But the charges are controversial because people get locked up for homicide when the underlying crime they committed was significantly less harmful. Felony murder and “misdemeanor manslaughter” operate to make it easier for prosecutors to win cases. The United States might have inherited the felony murder rule from England, which abolished it in 1957 because of its potential for unfairness.
Potter’s conviction was also advanced by another extreme prosecutorial power—this one unique to Minnesota. The jury heard emotional “spark of life” testimony from Wright’s father about how his son loved to play basketball and was a great dad to his own son. This was a page ripped from the Chauvin playbook, where Floyd’s brother and partner offered the same kind of gut-wrenching evidence. Minnesota allows such testimony because, according to a court decision, it presents “the victim as a human being.” This is especially important in cases with Black victims, in which the defense strategy is often to depict the victim as a thug who got what he deserved.
But this kind of testimony is problematic because it should be irrelevant to the jury’s determination of guilt or innocence. Whether the victim was a saint or sinner has no bearing on whether a crime was committed against him or her. That’s why Minnesota is the only state that allows such evidence during trial. The danger is that some people’s lives will be deemed more worthy of protection than others...
Interesting! According to Butler, prosecutors relied on the kinds of charges they use "when they want the most severe punishment for people who have killed accidentally." Butler said this type of charge was outlawed in England long ago "because of its potential for unfairness."
Also, Potter’s conviction was advanced by another extreme prosecutorial power—by so-called "spark of life" testimony. This kind of testimony also tilts the scales against a defendant, Butler seems to say—and Minnesota is the only state which allows it.
Should Potter have been convicted of a crime in this trial? We can't quite tell you that.
On the one hand, we weren't there to watch the whole trial. On the other hand, we've never seen a clear explanation of how, beyond being a disastrous mistake, Potter's mistake in this incident involved behavior which could be charged as "reckless."
At this point, it almost seemed that Butler was suggesting that a larger degree of forgiveness and grace should have been directed at Potter. But then, we read his column's conclusion.
Continuing from the passage above, we learned about the apparent parameters of Butler's concern:
BUTLER: But this kind of testimony is problematic because it should be irrelevant to the jury’s determination of guilt or innocence. Whether the victim was a saint or sinner has no bearing on whether a crime was committed against him or her. That’s why Minnesota is the only state that allows such evidence during trial. The danger is that some people’s lives will be deemed more worthy of protection than others. And it’s not hard to anticipate the racial impact of that calculus in a country that, as the Black Lives Matter movement likes to point out, remains tainted by white supremacy.
A racial-justice pragmatist might say that the Potter prosecutors did what they needed to do to secure a rare criminal conviction of a police officer for killing an unarmed Black person. Another racial-justice pragmatist might say that these kinds of prosecutorial power grabs will only come back to haunt people of color because “bad apple” cops will not be their primary targets. Both would have a point.
That's how the column ended.
Did prosecutors only "do what they needed to do" to secure a conviction? After watching former federal prosecutors on MSNBC for the past five years, we've come to assume that such highly principled thinking may tend to prevail in such regions.
That said, Butler doesn't seem to be concerned about what happened to Potter. He's concerned that these Minnesota laws might be used, at some later date, to secure convictions against people of color.
As such, his column seems to capture the principal drift of the society and the culture over the past year.
This morning, the New York Times offers a deeply sympathetic profile of the police officer who unknowingly / mistakenly / accidentally shot and killed Valentina Orellana Peralta, age 14, in Los Angeles this week. Headline included, the profile starts like this:
Officer Whose Bullet Killed a 14-Year-Old Girl Wanted to ‘Change’ the Police
When he first moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago, William Dorsey Jones Jr. was like many others before him, hoping to find a career in the entertainment industry. He went so far as to start his own company, Entourage Entertainment Group.
But when those dreams didn’t pan out, Mr. Jones became a community relations specialist and patrol officer in the North Hollywood area—and he loved it. On social media, he seemed to have a sense of obligation, as a Black police officer, to confront head-on the issues of racism and policing.
He ran a nonprofit that mentored at-risk youth and helped coach a high school football team. Earlier this month, he drove a car filled with presents to hand out to children.
But on the day before Christmas Eve, Mr. Jones became the latest face of an all-too-familiar story of American policing: a rapid-fire tactical operation in a store, crowded at one point with holiday shoppers, that left two unarmed civilians dead.
In our view, Officer Jones is deserving of forgiveness and grace too. This morning, is "spark of life" journalism perhaps being directed his way?
Elsewhere, some Others will surely think so. How good are you at understanding the way the world may appear to Others, even if you don't agree with their views?
For ourselves, we favor the deployment of forgiveness and grace wherever humanly possible. That said, the tendency to demonize Others, then lock Others up, is now widespread in our culture.
We divide into smaller and smaller affinity groups. More and more, then more and more, it can seem like the soul of the age.
Tomorrow: More whimsically, a best book pick in the New York Times—and our question of the year