Mindless And Stupid

Back in 2013 we touched on the subject of Norma Patricia Esparza.  A few months later we were no longer paying attention, and apparently this woman pleaded guilty to manslaughter and agreed to serve a six year prison sentence.  There was a long article in Slate (“…aimed at helping readers to ‘analyze and understand and interpret the world’ with witty and entertaining writing…”) about the case in February, 2014.

For reasons that may be obvious to regular readers, the episode fascinates.  Especially the Slate article.

On the one hand the article has a couple of things right:

But for the system to achieve justice, prosecutors have to set the terms straight, by bringing charges that reflect actual culpability…Stretching the law to call Patricia Esparza a murderer…[is]… just one more injustice in a series that stretches back for almost 20 years.

Prosecutors have a lot of “discretion” in who and what to charge.  A lot.  But it’s not limitless.  The charges must make logical sense.  They cannot be brought out of vindictiveness.  They cannot – and unfortunately this is the subject of surprising confusion, at least for now – be based on evidence that is fabricated, or perjured, deliberately by government actors.

It’s a fateful step, charging someone with a crime.  For one thing, from that time going forward there is a sizable group of people who will never accept that the person was wrongly accused, no matter what happens from there.  Acquittal at trial?  Meh.  Charges dropped with an apology from the prosecutors? Meh.  100 miles away when the crime took place, verified by the usual unassailable methods?  Still must have had something to do with it.  The police and prosecutors don’t charge unless they know, and they always know.

This surprises the author of the Slate article:

In reporting this story, what has surprised me is the number of people who don’t believe Esparza at all.

The author believes her.  Apparently, there is literally no reason not to believe her other than the mindless and stupid “reason” that she was accused to begin with.

In her account of events she was raped by a man.  Some time later, under some amount of duress and trepidation, she identified the rapist for her violent boyfriend who, with others, rather brutally murdered the man without either her knowledge or participation, although at one point – and we would call this the most inculpatory fact – she was brought in by the group to observe the man while still alive but badly beaten, not knowing that the ultimate goal was that the group would kill him.

There are elements that resonate here – physical presence at some point during a crime in which a person has no role.  For many people – and especially cops, we submit – this is an impossibility, except for whatever person or persons are defined as victims.

It’s a definitional thing, and it’s the product of limited intelligence and imagination, an impoverishment of understanding.  Clearly, while it may be unusual that someone can be physically present at the scene of a crime and be neither a perpetrator nor a victim, it is not impossible.  Especially in the context of a violent crime, which to the uninitiated is often both a horrifying and confusing thing.

Among the subtleties of life that may be a challenge to understand this is not a particularly difficult one – it takes no more reasoning ability than the average adolescent still in grade school possesses, in our view.  But this is a dangerous obtuseness when so much is at stake.

This is what the author of the Slate article is having trouble coming to grips with:  that our system of criminal justice operates at a fairly low intelligence level.  That is the other main concern with bringing criminal charges:  the system isn’t going to do a very good job adjudicating them if the evidence, facts and circumstances take more than a 5th grader to understand.

The only check on all this is the most powerless and despised player – the defense lawyer.  Prosecutors and judges are not usually mindless and stupid, but they mostly act as if they are and in effect might as well be.

And yes, Jessie, we’re repeating ourselves.



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3 responses to “Mindless And Stupid

  1. Jessie

    Have you seen this, John? This is totally the way that I picture you! For the first half, that is, not the second half 😉


    • Appearance-wise? I imagine he and I give similar impressions, what is called “slight”, otherwise fairly ordinary and maybe a little bookish but energetic. I’ve seen that video a few times. The caveat on the subject of the video, of course, is this: lawyers only see the cases where “talking to the police” has gone badly. It’s overstating things to claim that you should never, ever, ever talk to the police. On occasion it’s a good thing to do. But that’s a long discussion.


      • Jessie

        In other words, you do talk too fast? I’ve always suspected as much 😉

        I imagine for his intended purpose (or for anybody who can’t deal with nuance), his message makes sense. Incidentally, I failed the “listening exercise” flat, which rather helps make his point for him.

        One area I’ve always found confusing is traffic stops and I wish he’d addressed that. The ACLU takes an equally hard line: Answer nothing but, “Yes, officer,” and, “No, officer,” or, in more extreme situations, “I do not consent to a search,” and “Am I free to leave?”

        Except that’s easily interpreted as surliness, or having something to hide, and it may not fly so well during an actual traffic stop. I’ve had cops ask questions during a traffic stop that I know they have no business asking—Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What were you doing there? Who were you with? What’s that in your back seat?

        I’ve always interpreted this as a preliminary field sobriety test under the guise of making small talk. Chat me up and you might be able to tell whether I’m drunk or stoned, which is probably all they really want to know that running my license can’t tell them. But this-what’s-his-name? Duane? He’s right. The cops could totally use your answers to those questions against you. For all I know, they’ve pulled me over on a minor traffic violation because they suspect me of a crime—especially since they don’t usually delve into such nosy questions when asking for your license and registration.

        So, “Just don’t talk to cops” makes sense, but it’s easier said than done in precisely the kinds of situations where you maybe should shut your piehole.


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