Half-right about victims

Here’s a news story that sees a real problem in the way that crime victims experience criminal justice. But then it falls into a familiar trap in criminal justice thinking.

Liz Shepard of Gannett’s Times Herald in Port Huron, Michigan, wrote about a horrifying crime in which a teen, just before her 18th birthday, arranged for a violent attack on her adoptive parents. Her father died and mother was wounded. Tia Skinner and the two assailants were sentenced to life without parole in 2011.

Mara McCalmon describes to Shepard the trauma of going through that trial and sentencing, only to endure two resentencings of her daughter. Thanks to changes in the law governing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Michigan prosecutors twice put McCalmon back in court to describe her ordeal. At the third sentencing, Skinner’s defense team made the family feel under attack as it pursued claims of a troubled childhood, which might mitigate against the most severe sentence.

Quoting the defense lawyer as saying such experiences for victims are a necessary “reality,” the story barely explains the factors considered in sentencing or the reasons for the constitutional and statutory changes that called a juvenile LWOP sentence into question. The story’s primary message: silly legal technicalities that stood in the way of a speedy resolution only served to harm the victims without changing the outcome. If only we figured out, the story seems to conclude, how to make the system a little more punitive, we’d finally do right by victims.

This is the standard approach by American criminal justice, to assume our only societal obligation to the victims is to punish wrongdoing as severely and efficiently as possible. But what stares us in the face in this story is how inadequately that serves these victims. McCalmon, who graciously concedes that important questions were at stake in the resentencings, practically begs for alternatives that would not stick her and her family in the middle of win-at-all-costs adversarial system. She tells Shepard:

Victims never get over these life changing events, however we strive to carry on. And so while we begin and work through this process, with the help and support of our faith, family and friends, rulings that open wounds really re-victimize victims in so many ways.

The rulings are the central problem only if we see victims as tools to be used in achieving “justice” (defined strictly as punishment) and then left to sort out their problems on their own. All too often, victims like McCalmon never hear of methods proven to ease this sort of pain. In restorative justice programs, dialogue and group conferencing take words like McCalmon’s and then dig deeper, to discover what victims truly need that isn’t satisfied by the ultimate sanctions against an offender. Maybe it’s a bridge between the family and the defense team, so that sentencing can proceed without causing so much damage. Maybe it’s face-to-face meetings, after intensive preparation, between the family and the offenders so that the family can say what it needs to say, ask what it needs to know, outside of the harsh glare of a staged conflict in court. Restorative justice doesn’t preclude punishment, but it doesn’t define justice for victims as beginning and ending there.

The first step, though, is listening — really listening — to what victims tell us.

Nightstand reading: Tuesday, 3/31/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Sasha Abramsky describes the making of the campaign for California’s Proposition 47, the “smart on crime” initiative that rolled back some of the state’s harshest tough-on-crime measures. Californians for Safety and Justice, the group Abramsky profiles, won by successfully arguing for better investments in public safety than just more and bigger prisons. (The Nation)
  • This is one of the most enjoyable narratives I’ve read in some time. Daniel Riley‘s story about a story — how one many’s tall tale of buried cocaine led his friends to attempt to find and smuggle it to the U.S. — has what passes in drug-enforcement stories as a happy ending, when the lead character, caught in a sting, gets off relatively easily. Riley’s brisk, lively writing makes this a great read. (GQ)
  • Jessica Benko describes a Norwegian prison in terms that will make many Americans sneer at European standards of justice. Not only does the treatment of prisoners sound extravagantly cushy by American standards, but when she takes a critical look at an important measure of success — recidivism rates — she finds that this method does no better than American prisons. Her final point is her most important: why else it matters that a nation dedicate itself to humane treatment of prisoners. Read alongside another story in the same issue (which I wrote about on the previous nightstand-reading list), there’s no doubt which approach reflects better on the national character. (The New York Times Magazine)
  • Mark Bowden profiles Judy Clarke, whose astonishing career of defending the most notorious criminal defendants now alights in Boston for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Though heavily reliant on others’ stories, Bowden presents some new reminiscences about Clarke’s past victories. And he places Clarke’s work in perspective by posing it as a struggle between legal theories: one that sees such defendants as evil, and another that sees them as ill. (Vanity Fair)
  • Michele McPhee traces the history of a years-long investigation by a Boston federal agent of a Rwandan immigrant in New Hamphire whom he suspected of a role in her country’s genocide. He proved his case and won her conviction on immigration charges in the U.S. Next, he hopes to bring her to justice in her homeland. (Boston Magazine)
  • Martin Kaste explores the reasons for the rise in unsolved homicides, even when overall murder rates are way down. Neglect of poor neighborhoods, no-snitch culture, tactics, resources — he looks at a number of factors, and provides a lookup tool to check local homicide clearance rates. (NPR Morning Edition)
  • Madison Missina explains the #FacesofProstitution campaign, which tries to distinguish between sex trafficking and sex work. By treating all sex workers as victims of trafficking, activists confuse the issues and end up mistreating people who choose to do this work, she says. (Mamamia Women’s Network)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Nightstand reading: Friday, 3/27/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Albert Samaha gets close enough to his subject, exoneree Clarence Harrison, to tell a story not often told, about the struggles a man faces after he’s freed from a lengthy and wrongful incarceration. Candid yet sensitive, this story shows Harrison’s struggles with money (despite a large financial award) as he tries to learn how life on the outside should be lived. (BuzzFeed)
  • Thanks to a prison-reform lawsuit, writer Mark Binelli gives us a clear picture of life inside the nation’s highest-security prison. Where the line is between dangerous and desperately ill, no one seems to know or care. You need a strong stomach to read this one. (The New York Times Magazine)
  • Rachel Baye takes a critical look at the Law Enforcement Alliance of America and its role in raising money to produce tough-on-crime attack ads in political campaigns. Calling itself “the nation’s largest coalition of law enforcement professionals, crime victims and concerned citizens,” the group takes stands that mainstream police organizations reject. The story makes no mention of LEAA’s victim advocacy — whether it’s just the usual empty rhetoric or if there’s substance behind it — but it’s old-style groups like this that perpetuate the myth that all victims naturally insist on the harshest punishment for offenders. (Center for Public Integrity)
  • Benjamin Wallace relies heavily on anonymous sources, and on his magazine’s appetite for gilded-age tales plutocrat misbehavior. But his story of Thomas Gilbert Jr., charged in the death of his father, doesn’t disappoint as an engaging read about a spoiled, disturbed young man. (Vanity Fair)

Two half-hour podcasts make the list this time:

  • Adam Davidson uses an interview with Ira Judelson in the “Working” series to explain how the bail bonds industry works. The policy-wonk reporter in me wanted less infomercial and more pros and cons (and boy, are there cons) to this business. But that’s not the point of this series, on what people do for a living and how they do it. By that measure, it’s an entertaining discussion (again, if you tune out the part of your brain that knows how exploitative and questionable the whole business is). It’s the perfect story for audio, considering Judelson’s brash, New Yawk patter. (NPR Planet Money)
  • Michael May, using his research for an upcoming documentary on the wrongful-conviction work of exoneree Chris Scott, questions the conviction of Max Soffar for a triple robbery-murder in Houston in 1980. Soffar’s death sentence rests solely on his confession. Even after he was retried, he was found guilty and sentenced to death again. His lawyers, still working to reverse his second conviction, claim that cops papered over Soffar’s inability to recall actual details from the scene.  Note Soffar’s statement around minute 22:45, where he says what’s most painful about his situation is that the victims’ families believe the alleged lies about his guilt. At 24:15, after May’s story, Nancy Mullane interviews law professor Richard Leo about false confessions.  An effective package of stories. (Life of the Law)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Nightstand reading: Monday, 3/23/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Lead reporter Debbie Cenziper, with an enormous team of reporters, researchers, editors, producers, database specialists, and others, tells the definitive shaken-baby-syndrome story. The team traced 1,800 cases and documented their dispositions. Numerous case examples, told in compelling short videos and text, dot the lengthy but graphics-rich story. The story’s main point: Medical claims of certainty have gone too far, imprisoning innocent people or suspects whose guilt was never truly proven. (Washington Post)
  • David Kushner tells the story of Matt DeHart, who claims he’s the target of an FBI smear campaign for threatening to expose embarrassing national-security secrets. The FBI says, however, that DeHart is just a child-porn suspect. By spelling out extensive arguments and evidence in this long and captivating narrative, Kushner leaves the reader uncertain of all but one thing: there’s more to this than what’s on the surface. (BuzzFeed)
  • Seymour Hersh travels to My Lai to revisit not just the scene of the infamous massacre he documented in 1969, but also the questions of guilt and trauma that still haunt the place and the people. (The New Yorker)
  • Judith Shulevitz‘s reported commentary serves as a powerful takedown of the campus culture that attempts to protect students from any idea that might conflict with their own. Invoking the language of trauma therapy, the speech police turn everyone into a victim and then assume, wrongly, that all victims need to live in a cocoon, protected in “safe spaces” from any thoughts that may be “triggering” or merely troubling. (The New York Times)
  • Ed Pilkington examines the lackluster effort by federal law enforcement to reopen unsolved killings from the civil rights era. He focuses on the car-bomb murder of Wharlest Jackson Sr., a Korea veteran and working man whose son — nearly 50 years later — refuses to stop pushing for answers and accountability.  (The Guardian)
  • Marisol Bello looks at the wreckage left by a disputed police shooting, focusing on the ruined career and personal life of the police officer. Shaun Cowley tells how a split decision that cost Danielle Willard her life also unraveled his, but more slowly. (USA Today)
  • Rebecca Onion goes inside America’s oldest women’s prison to tell the story of budding historians who have written a revisionist history of the prison’s founders. The researchers who found reason to question the founding myths of a Quaker-led benevolent reformatory are themselves prisoners in the same prison now. (Slate)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the road again

As I approach my 12th month of reporting and writing under a Soros Justice Fellowship, after multiple trips out of state and to New York City to tell stories far from my home in New York’s Finger Lakes region, today I will hop in the car and drive under an hour to begin interviews on my last story.

By happy coincidence, I live near the site of a notable experiment in criminal justice that I will reexamine for the final story in my series for Slate on crime victims. Without giving too much away, I can share the topic and the question that I intend to address.

In the earlier installments of the series, a recurring sub-theme is restorative justice. As I point out gaps in our traditional criminal justice system in what we know about victims and what they need from us, reformers frequently point to restorative justice as the antidote. I’ve written before about victim-offender dialogue, a standard restorative method, and the related topic of forgiveness. But I haven’t taken a look at the movement in America as a whole and assessed its capacity to lead needed reforms in victim services and prisons, nor have I seen it done by other journalists in any comprehensive way.

As we journalists like to say, that’s the topic. What’s the story? That is, what narrative will I use to color in that topic? More on that later, as I near the start (finally!) of the series. But, as I dance past that question, I will say there is no substitute for face-to-face interviews when writing narratives. During the past year, I’ve been reading books and articles, gathering string on this last story. I’ve talked to many people by phone, and have many more phone interviews to go. But I’m excited to begin meeting with people whose experiences I hope will provide the characters, scenes, and plot to make the topic interesting to readers.

There’s no schedule yet for when the series will start, but my editor and I hope to have most of the pieces whipped into final shape by a little over a month from now, probably coinciding with when I finish drafting this final installment.  Once the entire series has appeared, that won’t end my work in telling stories to advance our understanding of crime victims. In my research and reporting, I’ve turned up several other stories that I hope to pursue once I complete the work for my fellowship year.

First things first. Time to hit the (unfortunately snow-covered) road.

Nightstand reading: Wednesday, 3/18/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Trevor Aaronson obtained internal FBI communications to show the inner workings of a sting operation that netted a supposed terrorist. That “terrorist” is serving 40 years for going along with a scripted, fake weapons plot that never would have happened but for the federal agents’ roles. (The Intercept)
  • Michael Paterniti‘s contemplation of a car accident 33 years ago involving his high school friends — one who died and two others who were blamed for the crash — turns on questions of memory, fault, youth, and a life cut short. As with all things Paterniti writes, the ordinary turns extraordinary. This is a great read. (GQ)
  • Alexandra Starr looks at the history of policing in New York’s public housing projects, in response to the shooting death of Akai Gurley, and explains how residents once trusted the police much more because they got to know the individual officers who patrolled their buildings. Will community policing help restore that trust? (NPR Codeswitch)
  • Aaron Glantz follows up an earlier report on the “Candy Man” doctor at a Wisconsin VA hospital with this report on the “collateral damage”: the addicted veterans and their innocent victims. (Reveal/Center for Investigative Reporting)
  • Casey N. Cep tells the story of “The Reverend,” another of Harper Lee’s unfinished projects — this one a true-crime book on a series of murders in Alabama. The murder saga itself is fascinating, but more so is Lee’s work on the story and the sad state of affairs she left it in as her health declined. (The New Yorker)
  • Marie Eisenstadt reports on the decline and premature death of a bus driver whose accident killed four passengers and injured several others. He, too, suffered severe injuries that eventually contributed to his death. Although cleared of criminal charges, he never forgave himself and never got defined publicly beyond that one catastrophic moment in his life. As Michael McAndrew, one of Eisenstadt’s colleagues, put it in a Facebook post, “When a person makes a mistake and lives are lost, it tends to define who they are in the court of public opinion. But life is often more complicated than what is captured in a single snapshot.” (Syracuse Post-Standard)
  • Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Oliver Roeder analyze crime data and public opinion research to ask: Why do Americans persist in thinking that crime keeps going up, when in fact it has dropped precipitously in the past 20 years? They blame it on the media’s love for crime-and-mayhem stories, and no doubt there’s much truth in that. I’d add another culprit: scaremongering politicians who whipped up anger about crime back in the bad old days, and whose propaganda stuck in the public consciousness so firmly that it’s taking a very long time to dislodge. (Brennan Center)
  • Mark A.R. Kleiman and two co-authors, Angela Hawken and Ross Halperin, describe an intriguing plan to make needed and dramatic cuts in prison populations to bring them back to historic levels without needlessly endangering the public. Their idea of “graduated re-entry” envisions a system of prison without bars as former prisoners earn progressively more freedom. The whole idea is to free many people, including those with violent pasts, instead of relying on a failed and bloated prison system that doesn’t turn out people destined for success. (Vox)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Welcome to Jinxapalooza

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 9.38.40 AMThe HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst was the talk of crime town even before Sunday night’s dramatic conclusion, in which Durst unwittingly mutters into an open mic his apparent confession to two killings for which, at that point, he had never been charged. This would be one of those times when I wish I hadn’t ended my HBO subscription at the conclusion of The Wire. But, thanks to this morning’s chatter and news coverage, I have at least seen the high points (check out this video-enhanced summary from Forrest Wickman at Slate).

So, what to make of it? As with the Serial podcast phenomenon, the Twittersphere will endlessly mull over How This Changes Everything in Journalism, and people seemingly unaware of how much good true-crime journalism exists will exclaim over a supposedly new art form.

I, on the other hand, just want to enjoy a good story and pay tribute to a notable piece of reporting and storytelling that was said to be nearly 10 years in the making by Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate journalistic and legal questions to ponder. Will Durst’s recorded reactions after being confronted with incriminating evidence be admissible as evidence? Will this lead to a subpoena battle over reporter’s privilege and shield-law protections? What were the ethics of saving the good stuff to maximize ratings and publicity, rather than turning it over to the cops? (That last one is super easy to answer, but rest assured it will be asked again and again.)

The question that New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum asks in this critique (which ran before Durst’s arrest and the final episode) concerns the social value of such storytelling. Does this, like much of the true-crime genre, appeal only to the voyeur in us? Is it just, as she writes, a “noir striptease” that’s meant only to titillate? It’s not exactly an original discussion, and she doesn’t seem to know much about the genre, basing her generalizations on Serial and a handful of films. Nussbaum could benefit from some reading of literary true-crime, the kind of journalism (unlike the sleazy down-market forms of the genre) that puts murder and other crimes in their proper context: understanding human nature and justice (something I’ve written about many times before, such as here).

The same wide-eyed ignorance of true-crime journalism will undoubtedly color much of the commentary to come, as newbies marvel over their discovery (reporters investigate crimes and weigh the evidence, just like cops except not really!) and lament the supposed dearth of such storytelling until this came along. We should welcome them, finally, to the party and introduce them to our friends. Newbies, meet David Grann, Pam ColloffThe Marshall Project, and many others. May I interest you in my curated list of such work?

The one commentator so far to get the point exactly right comes, ironically enough, from the tabloidy side of the genre. The former Westchester County, New York, district attorney, Jeanine Pirro, spoke to The New York Times for its team-generated report on the latest in Durstland. The host of Fox News’ Justice With Judge Jeanine, whose investigation of the disappearance of Durst’s wife never led to charges, told the Times, “These two producers did what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years. Kudos to them. They were meticulous. They were focused. They were clear.”

Pirro gave a more extended set of comments to Lisa DePaulo for this interesting story and Q&A at Bloomberg Politics before the latest developments in the case. It’s worth reading for a grounding in what’s happened in these cases to date.

Now, pardon me while I call my satellite TV provider and restart HBO before The Jinx reshowing starts March 21.

Nightstand reading: Sunday, 3/15/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Patrick Radden Keefe‘s masterful narrative on the death 42 years ago of Jean McConville — a single mother of 10 murdered by the Irish Republican Army during Northern Ireland’s “troubles” — focuses on one of McConville’s sons and his quest for the truth. The story builds on an extensive public record that links Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to McConville’s death. But where it truly shines is in asking questions about the ultimate point of the bloodshed, and what the aftermath has done within the ranks of once-true believers. (The New Yorker)
  • Ken Armstrong looks back 250 years at what one scholar calls the birth of death-penalty abolitionism. Armstrong calls it “an 18th Century version of the Innocence Project.” It’s the story of a wrongful conviction and gruesome torture-execution that inspired the philosopher Voltaire to crusade against injustice. (Marshall Project)
  • Joanna Walters tells the horrifying story of Danielle Hicks-Best, whose reports of being gang-raped by young men when she was 11 resulted in her getting charged with lying and locked up for years while her emotional troubles worsened. Walters examines the mishandling of the case by Washington, D.C., police and asks what should have happened to Hicks-Best, who it’s clear was at least a victim of statutory rape. (Washington Post Magazine)
  • Jennifer Gonnerman‘s story on the tragic death of Miriam Carey couldn’t be timed better, coming just after the latest Secret Service screwup.* When two allegedly drunken senior Secret Service officers drove the wrong way through a barrier at the White House, they got sent home to sleep it off. Carey got shot to death with her young daughter in the car. Even worse, journalists and members of Congress blindly embraced the story of a major threat averted by brave police work, when in fact, as Gonnerman shows, Carey was a disturbed, confused woman who was an innocent victim. (Mother Jones) SEE CORRECTION BELOW
  • Steven Rosenfeld uses a Connecticut case to examine the disparity between how men and women are treated under self-defense laws. Thanks to the attitudes of police and prosecutors, female domestic-abuse victims who kill their abusers get treated far more harshly, he writes. (Alternet/Salon)
  • Geoffrey Gray profiles Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, portraying him as a man on a mission to blend law enforcement with racial justice. (New York) A remarkably similar story appeared days later, in Sunday’s New York Times, by Alan Feuer.
  • Antjie Krog tells the story of Eugene de Kock, known as “Prime Evil” for his role in the brutal repression of apartheid opponents in South Africa. He became a primary force for good in the truth-and-reconciliation process, showing victims his repentance through his deeds. Krog explains his theory of why white South Africans now oppose de Kock’s parole. (New York Times)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

* CORRECTION: As became clear in later reports on this incident, I erred by repeating unverified — and false — accounts of this incident at the White House involving Secret Service agents. See this apology by Marc Ambinder, which says what I want to say about my own work here. I apologize for my errors.

Nightstand reading: Thursday, 3/12/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Jordan Smith investigates a woman’s conviction for murder in Las Vegas and finds it so riddled with flaws — namely, a nearly complete lack of incriminating evidence, and gobs of exculpatory evidence — that she concludes Kirstin Blaise Lobato is innocent. After a troubled youth as a crime victim and drug addict, Lobato has been imprisoned for more than 14 years. (The Intercept)
  • Alastair Gee writes about modern-day lepers, people convicted of sex offenses, and an organization that tries to help them reenter society as a constructive alternative to what we do too often: endless punishment and social shunning, which only make future offenses that much more likely. (Pacific Standard)
  • Richard Acello tells how Texas tech creative writing professor Jill Patterson uses her skills to help defend capital murder cases — by researching and writing the narrative of why a defendant ended up where he did. (Patterson’s project is supported by a Soros Justice Fellowship in the same 2014-15 group as mine.) (ABA Journal)
  • Lisa Riordan Seville reports on what’s driving prisons’ and jails’ move toward video visitation — and on the arguments that depriving families of face-to-face visits further alienates prisoners from the positive influences in their lives. (NBCnews.com)
  • Frances Stead Sellers explains forensic linguistics, the part-art, part-science of identifying people by their writing quirks. After the most famous use of it in the Unabomber case, practitioners have been using the method and debating its reliability in criminal investigations, among others. (Washington Post Magazine)
  • Dahlia Lithwick spanks Texas’ highest criminal court for its petty retaliation against David Dow. The Court of Criminal Appeals suspended the renowned death penalty advocate from practicing before that court because of missing an ambiguous deadline. This would be the same David Dow whose case led to an embarrassment for the court’s chief judge over — yes — a missed deadline. (Slate)
  • And, on the blog I wrote about the Charlie Tan murder case in Rochester, which illustrates how race and class differences influence our snap judgments about which victims and defendants deserve our sympathy.

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

The boy next door

One of the themes I will explore in my upcoming series on crime victims is the effect on justice that we have when we jump to conclusions about victims or defendants as good or bad, deserving or not of our sympathy. In the stories I’ve been reporting and writing, I look at how our predispositions to believe the best or worst about certain people — young black men accused of crimes, police officers, victimized people who supposedly were or weren’t “asking for trouble” — determine to a great extent whom we help and whom we lock up for a very long time. And, yes, race and class have everything to do with it.

A case that’s playing out now in Rochester, New York, near where I live, helps illustrate this point. Charlie Tan is charged with second-degree murder in the shotgun slaying of his father, a tech entrepreneur. They live in a wealthy, mostly white suburb, in a big, fancy house. Charlie was president of his high school class and is a student at Cornell. Tan’s media-savvy defense lawyer, James Nobles, quickly let reporters know the heart of his defense: that the victim, Jim Tan, was abusive toward his son and wife. No specifics of the actual incident have come out, but the defense is shaping up as one of self-defense or, at most, manslaughter based on the victim’s provocative behavior.

In Charlie Tan, Nobles has the proverbial sympathetic defendant and he’s found no shortage of support for that theme from the community and the media. News coverage of Jim Tan’s death and Charlie Tan’s arrest last month has focused repeatedly on the outpouring of community support for the defendant. Friends have raised nearly $50,000 to help pay for Charlie Tan’s defense, the newspaper’s “Suburban Outlaw” columnist has lamented what has happened to “the boy next door,” and many stories like this one have reinforced the idea that a bad thing happened to a good person (meaning the defendant).

No one, to my knowledge, has called Charlie Tan a “thug” who should be locked up forever, even though he is accused of pumping multiple rounds into his father and possibly left the body in their house for days. We have learned next to nothing about Jim Tan’s life and personality, other than that he stands accused of domestic violence.

In this video by the Democrat & Chronicle‘s Lauren Petracca, we hear many of those themes — a “great kid” and a demonized victim — while the people emotionally hugging in the courthouse hallways are supporters of the defendant, not the deceased. 

I was visiting my mother in another Rochester suburb last week when a similar scene appeared on the TV news. Her spontaneous reaction: “That poor kid.”

My point is not to criticize the newspaper’s coverage — to the contrary, I think it has done a generally good job in reflecting the true community response to this tragedy. (Nor is it to criticize my dear mother. Love you, mom!) But, to appreciate what this response tells us about our attitudes, imagine that Charlie Tan were not a high-achieving, affluent, suburban, Ivy Leaguer, but instead a black high school dropout with a juvenile record and a dearth of media-friendly spokespeople to tout his better qualities.

These stories that we tell ourselves about human nature — about why people behave in certain ways under pressure; whether they choose to harm others out of sheer cruelty, or because of impossible circumstances — dictate the quality of justice that victims and defendants receive in this country. It makes me wonder what justice would look like if our priority in every case — every case — were to wonder, first, why this happened, and next, to ask what would begin to set things right for victim, defendant, and community.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business