Cases, Clues, and the Misinterpretation of Justice: Trumpian Edition

In 1989 five youngsters from Harlem were arrested as suspects in a Central Park rape case.  They were convicted based on coerced confessions.  They were later exonerated after the collection and analysis of DNA evidence, which demonstrated the identity of the actual criminal.  [NYT] There are several reasons to remember the Central Park Five Case, including the interrogation tactics of the time, the proclivity of the public to assign potential guilt based on race and ethnicity.  However,  there’s another reaction we should remember because it keeps inserting itself into conversations about our politics and our judicial system.

The reaction came from one Donald J. Trump, who famously took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the boys’ execution.   Trump defended his ads later during an interview with Larry King:

“I don’t see anything inciteful, I am strongly in favor of the death penalty,” Trump told King. “I am also in favor bringing back police forces that can do something instead of turning their back because every quality lawyer that represents people that are trouble, the first thing they do is start shouting police brutality, etc.” [CNN]

In light of Trump’s continual public comments about locking people up — Sec. Hillary Clinton should be locked up; former FBI Director James Comey should be locked up — as Lawrence O’Donnell’s program reminds us this evening,  perhaps if we reflect on the Central Park Five instance we can discern a pattern that’s been there all along.

Trump’s first line in the King interview is revealing.  He had then, and may not now, have any idea that what he did in placing his advertising in New York City newspapers was a racist reaction to the charging of Black and Hispanic boys in the rape of a white woman.  It’s hard not to miss the lynch mentality in Trump’s call to bring back the death penalty.  He said he saw nothing “inciteful” in his behavior, asserting by implication if he doesn’t see it as “inciteful” then it must not be.  So, not only do we have the lynch mentality at play, it is exacerbated by an incapacity for self reflection and analysis.

Perhaps it’s a crowd pleaser on the hustings to get the “lock her up” chant going, or to point out members of the press for mob vilification; but, since Trump himself doesn’t see it as “inciteful” it can’t be perceived that way by other observers.

He is a ” retributivist,” as defined as: “A retributivist is somebody who believes in retribution. That is, as the principal purpose or justification for punishment. Very simply, [convicted criminals] deserve it. [They are] punished for the sake of justice.” [ARPubMedia] “I am strongly in favor of the death penalty,” he told King.   Trump’s consideration of the Central Park Five Case obviously extends no further than there were some young minority males who allegedly raped a white woman, and thus their crime demands retribution at the most serious level.  By extension, if Trump believes someone has done an injustice (especially to him?) then there must be retribution — lock’em up.

Since Trump’s predilection for word salad encompasses several decades let’s take the next sentence in pieces. “I am also in favor bringing back police forces that can do something…”  This portion of the statement might be interpreted as the complaint of a person trapped in a Film Noir world of rubber hose interrogations and the extra-judicial antics of hero-private eyes.  Phillip Chandler would be proud?  Except in many of the film noir classics the police are stumbling bumbling characters, who are relatively inept in comparison to the private detectives.  There’s another model, which at first glance appears more attuned to the Trumpian world view — the G Men.  Trump seems to like the “tough cop” imagery descending from this era?

This is Your FBI” was a self-congratulatory radio series broadcast from 1945 to 1953.  The G-Men always got their man; the villains were nearly always male. “I Was A Communist for the FBI” ran during 1952 and 1953.   The spirit of McCarthyism got a boost from the stories of Matt Cvetic.  Then, of course, there was Dragnet, and the launch of more police procedurals. These pre-date Trump’s formative years in which he’d have been directly aware of the narratives, but a combination of “pro-police” attitudes and the subsequent challenges to police (read: white, male) domination during the late 1960’s could certainly have formed an authoritarian perspective.  Perhaps Trump absorbed the vestiges of the old narratives and the delusion that “toughness” is a matter of physicality.

Thence we move to: “…instead of turning their back …”  this remark seems to indicate the police weren’t actually policing.  It’s difficult to contend the police were the heroes, always getting their “man,” with the notion that the police could “get their men” if … they weren’t restrained in some artificial manner.

“…because every quality lawyer that represents people that are trouble, the first thing they do is start shouting police brutality, etc.”   Here we have the artificial barrier Trump sees preventing effective policing.

There is no evidence to indicate that initial defense strategies involve challenging the nature of the arrest.  Actually, more common defenses are that (1) the wrong person has been detained; (2) the person acted in self defense; (3) evidence was illegally seized; (4) arrests were made based on unreliable witnesses or informants; and (5) the state cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. [CDcom] However, Trump isn’t exactly known for his reliance on observable evidence. He’s assuming that because he disagrees with the opposition to heavy-handed police tactics this must be a serious problem, and if he believes it then it must be true.  At this point the “etc” may be important.

Since we know that “police brutality” isn’t the first resort of criminal defense attorneys,  the “etc” could be a clue.  “Et cetera” can be very useful for truncating long lists, or it can be extremely sloppy, standing in place of any clarification of a series of contentions.  In this instance we’re probably justified in believing the latter.

Why, then, are we surprised when Trump inveighs against his political opponents in terms which repeat his declarations against the Central Park Five?  No evidence is necessary — membership in a minority group will do; opposition to authority (especially his own?) is automatically suspect; a mythologized version of policing is embraced; and it sounds ‘tough’ to call for someone to be locked up even if there is no legal justification.

And, so we need to be watchful should we become inured to the outrageous nature of calls for extra-judicial punishment for political opponents.  This is serious stuff, on display since at least the Central Park Five advertising, and should be taken seriously.

 

 


 

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