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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

No Room for Judgement

There are many dangerous and evil people loose in our society. Mark Steyn identifies one such pair:
Do you know Cory Mashburn and Ryan Cornelison?

If you do, don't approach them. Call 911 and order up a SWAT team. They're believed to be in the vicinity of McMinnville, Ore., where they're a clear and present danger to the community. Mashburn and Cornelison were recently charged with five counts of felony sexual abuse, and District Attorney Bradley Berry has pledged to have them registered for life as sex offenders.

Oh, by the way, the defendants are in the seventh grade.

Seventh grade? Wow! They must've done something really heinous:

They were arrested in February after being observed in the vestibule [at school], swatting girls on the butt.
Mr. Steyn happened to ignore some of the other charges which included being accused of "poking or cupping girls’ breasts", but still, the authorities' responses seem a bit much to me:
So, upon being caught butt-swatting, Mashburn and Cornelison were called to the principal's office, where they were questioned for several hours by vice principal Steve Tillery and McMinnville Police officer Marshall Roache. At the end of the afternoon, two boys who'd never been in any kind of trouble before were read their Miranda rights and led off in handcuffs to spend five days in juvenile jail. [...]

After a court appearance in shackles and prison garb, the defendants were charged with multiple counts of felony sexual abuse, banned from school and forbidden any contact with their friends.

Funny that they were read their Miranda rights after being questioned for several hours.

It doesn't quite end there. It turns out that some of the victims felt pressured to answer in a way that hurt the defendants:
At the initial hearing, a couple of female students spontaneously testified that they'd felt very much pressured to conform during their interviews with the vice principal and the police officer. "Well, when the principal asked me stuff, I kind of felt pressured to answer stuff that I was uncomfortable, and that it hurt, but it really didn't," said one girl.
In addition, the district attorney's office withheld evidence from the defense:
A motion says that until its existence was disclosed last week, the district attorney’s office failed to give the defense a February police report in which a female Patton Middle School student disputes an officer’s account of the behavior of two boys.
Rather important evidence too:
In his initial police report Feb. 22, Roache said the girl told him that Mashburn and Cornelison writhed up against her in a sexually suggestive form of dance. Roache described the moves as “party-boy dancing” from the movie “Jackass.”

But in the Feb. 28 report, taken by a different McMinnville police officer, the girl said there was never any touching involved and that she did not believe Mashburn or Cornelison should be charged with a crime.

I'm starting to get concerned that we are losing our way as a society. Mark Steyn believes we are losing our sense of proportion:
A world that requires handcuffs and judges and district attorneys for what took place that Friday in February is not just a failed education system but an entire society that's losing any sense of proportion. Without which, civilized life becomes impossible. So we legalize more and more aspects of life and demand that district attorneys prosecute ever more aggressively what were once routine areas of social interaction.
I think it's more fundamental than that. None of the authorities were able to exercise any judgement. I don't know if they were simply incapable of exercising judgement, afraid to exercising judgement, or prohibited by statutes or authorities above them from exercising judgement, but in my opinion, from the admittedly limited information on the Internet, the use of critical reasoning skills and judgement was notably absent.

Granted, it is just my opinion. A quick google based search tells me that around 85% of people agree with Steyn and me (that the reaction was over-the-top). The rest either didn't have an opinion one way or another, or felt that sending two 13 year-olds to trial, convicting them of multiple felonies, sending them to jail for up to ten years and having them registered as sex offenders for life was a perfectly reasonable response given the crime (allegedly) committed.

But humor me for a moment and assume that my opinion and judgement is near the mark on this one. For sure the boys' behaviors were wrong. For sure they should have been sent to the principal's office and been punished with detentions, suspensions, and other disciplinary tools available to school authorities. If it was repeated behavior, then perhaps getting legal authorities involved would be appropriate. Everything else was needless and most likely damaging to the community. Pressuring testimony against the boys; handcuffs; five days in juvenile detention; being charged with multiple counts of felony sexual assault; overzealous prosecutors; withholding evidence; a judge that didn't immediate throw the whole case out. This doesn't even count all the money and court resources wasted.

My guess is that the principal was afraid of lawsuits and was happy to wash his hands of the whole affair. The police were just doing their jobs without thinking and ended up interrogating the students in a way that might've been appropriate for adults but was intimidating to young girls who felt pressured as a result. Either the DA transposed the age of the defendants and thought they were 31 instead of 13 or was just blindly handling the case like he would any other without considering the defendants age. The one person I would think might be likely to exercise some judgement would be, well, the judge! However, maybe even the judge's hands were tied given that the DA wanted to pursue the case. Maybe the DA's hands were tied given that the mother of one of the girls wanted to pursue the case.

I don't know, but whatever the explanation, there was a rampant systematic failure in being able to exercise judgement.

If too many people in society are unable to exercise reasonable judgement whether because of lack of critical reasoning skills, prohibition by statute on using that judgement, or fear of reprisals for using judgement, then eventually every possible interaction between people will need to be codified into law and civilization will sink and suffocate in the quicksand of legal detail and court proceedings, weighed down by the costs, both to our wallets and souls, of supporting such a legal regime.

If you think I'm exagerating, think again about the concept of dragging two thirteen year-olds through the court system for six months because a teacher's aide saw them touch a girls clothed bottom.

Government power and legal complexity are almost never rolled back. The best we can hope for is that it doesn't get any worse.

By the way, the case was ultimately dismissed (just a couple of weeks ago):
a judge dismissed charges against the two, ending a six-month case that drew national attention. [...]

The News-Register newspaper of McMinnville reported that a "civil compromise" reached by prosecutors and the defense called for both boys to apologize, to pay each of the four girls $250 and to complete a "boundaries education" program.
Perhaps they should've worked toward a civil compromise before making it a criminal matter? "Civil" is the root of "Civilization". Best to keep it there whenever possible.


erp said...

Thanks for this post. I hadn't seen that a judge dismissed the case. Thank God somebody with half a brain took the correct action. I wonder if the ignoble conclusion to Nifong's similar over-the-top reaction to alleged wrong doing might have had a sobering affect on the bozo school authorities and the Katzenjammer police force.

Anonymous said...

I once knew a quasi-marxist professor of political science who argued that the reason the British aristocracy lasted so long is that they were shrewd enough to throw up one of their own occasionally to be hanged for treason or exiled in order to defelect passion and resentment about general exploitation. I never bought it, but it is hard not to think in similar terms about our collective march to sexual licence needing an occasional good dose of Cotton Mather on the margins lest anybody dare suggest we are having too much fun. This is mind-boggling and disturbing, but what is really astounding is to see these savage witchunts going on at the same time as we make oral sex lessons part of the core curriculum for 13 year olds, and to see the same school authorities defending both.

Bret, lack of discretion is a problem in some cases, like charges of domestic abuse, but in these kinds of cases the story just goes on too long. This is more likely a terrified bureaucracy daring one another to be the first to have the courage to step outside of abstract orthodoxy in the name of the real world and human decency.

Bret said...

Are those mutually exclusive? Can't the terror of the bureaucracy be what leads to lack of discretion (and lack of courage)?

Anonymous said...

I suppose so. Frankly, I'm out of simple answers for this kind of thing. It is the length of time it went on and the difficulty officialdom had in changing its path once it got going that are really chilling.

Oroborous said...

I agree, it's like the Duke "rape" thing.

It's not so much the furor at the beginning, it's that it was so very hard to derail, even after it became clear that it was absurd.