March 21, 2022

On juries, fact-finding, truth

For absolutely no reason at all (see addenda at bottom), I found myself with a lot of time this week to reflect on courtrooms, trials, juries, judges, prosecutors, attorneys, evidence, arguments. Some of what came to mind:

Exhibit A: Rashomon


a famous sequence from Rashomon, the camera is moving along the forest floor pointed directly at the sun, as trees block out the sunlight (a shot some have interpreted as representing the obscurity of truth)

Rashomon is “the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth.” — Pauline Kael
"Its very name has entered the common parlance to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of “the Rashomon effect” when firsthand witnesses confront them with contradictory testimony." — Stephen Prince

Exhibit B: Helter Skelter 
I read this book a while ago, and all I can recall now is a) how Vincent Bugliosi made terribly dense, overly detailed material gripping and compelling reading and b) what a narrow victory the Manson case was due to the mismanagement of evidence.

Exhibit C: Just Mercy

White serial killer/cult leaders aside, the criminal justice system has been used to deeply unjust, racist ends, and nowhere is this better catalogued than in Bryan Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy. As it turns out, the courts and juries of this country often have little to do with justice, facts, and truth.

Don't trust everything you see


Several years ago, the International Center of Photography Museum had a fantastic exhibit about photography, film, and surveillance called "Public, Private, Secret". Several of the pieces in the show (examples above) were interested in the way everyday people are being surveilled by the state, and how narratives can be constructed from surveillance footage edited and stitched together in motivated ways...

Exhibit E: movies about seeing and listening, and not being sure what you've seen and heard (even with the help of technology and recording devices)
Blow-Up (1966) 

The Conversation (1974)

Exhibit F: forensic "science"

Due process

Exhibit G: Chekhov's Gun

Thinking about how the inclusion or omission of information has implications for and colors narrative, even in nonfiction. Maybe how the inclusion of a piece of information implies that it is important/relevant to the narrative?

Exhibit H: judges gone wild

I grew up thinking the criminal justice system infallible, and judges as absolute, pure executors of justice. While there are good, fair, honest people who are judges, judges are still people. And there don't appear to be many checks or balances in place to counteract when judges exhibit bias or poor judgement. Case in point, the tricky web weaved by Ginni Thomas (above). And how can we forget the way Judge Bruce Schroeder behaved in the Rittenhouse case...

Exhibit I: the trouble with jury selection

Exhibit J: blind vs. headless justice
left: section from the New York state seal, of Blind Justice
right: a mannequin holding up a mobile, she is nicknamed Headless Justice. perhaps a more apt symbol?