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Month: November 2019

Innocence: Round, not Flat

Photo courtesy of The Innocence Project.

Thesis

Racism is the result of flat characterization, and leads to issues like false incarceration. The Innocent Project is one way to challenge that.

Main claims

  • We are always surrounded by narratives, and that influences our views of the world and the people in it.
  • Flattening a person or persons based on race → racism 
  • Examples of racism among police demonstrate flattening further
  • Innocence Project as a means to confront and reject flattening

Best Evidence

  • Abbott 
    • Round vs. Flat (133)
      • Flat characters are “limited to a narrow range of predictable behaviors” (133)
        • no hidden complexity (133)
        • Keen- “easily recognizable, easily remembered” (68)
  • Reader/Viewer + Narrative → Reader/Viewer’s construction of a character (134)
  • Reader/Viewer + Narrative → Reader/Viewer’s construction of a real person (135)
    • However poorly they are composed or however poorly we may read or view them, histories, biographies, newspaper reports, legal briefs, documentaries, film biographies all purport to tell us of real people. But are real people characters? (135).
      • Perhaps they can become characters simply by the nature in which we view any story. When it comes to race, we see repeated mugshots of black men, ‘criminals.’ Might some come to see them as a specific kind of (flat) character?
  • Delgado and Stefancic
    • Reasonable racist: one who treats members of another group in racist fashion because he or she believes that, statistically, the other group is prone to crime or similar behavior (183).
      • Influenced by narratives and ultimately flatten individuals based on race.
    • Racial Profiling: In which the police stop minority-looking motorists to search for drugs of other contraband (121).
      • Searching for certain characteristics, repeated examples of how someone is ‘just like the others.’
    • The number of young black men in prison or jail is larger than the number attending college (120).
Example of racial profiling: Shaquille Dukes, 24, was arrested during a walk near the hospital, where he was being treated for pneumonia.
  • The Innocence Project
    • “The Innocence Project’s mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”
      • Most known for providing DNA evidence to prove false imprisonment
      • Most of TIP’s cases are for sexual assault and murder
    • Over 300 cases detailed on their website of people falsely incarcerated. Small number in comparison to the overall prison population, but even then majority of clients are African American men.
Malcolm Alexander and his dog, Innocent. Courtesy of Today.

Case Example: Malcom Alexander.

  • Convicted 11/05/1980 for rape
  • Unrelated incident prompts police to place photograph in an array shown to the victim
    • “Tentative selection”
    • Confidence jumps to around 98% by the time of the trial
  • Means of blood type testing connection available but unused
  • True perpetrator’s hair found and tested in 2013
  • Exonerated 1/30/2018
    • Spent 38 years in prison, some have spent even more

The Innocence Project may become one way to confront flattening based on race.

  • Expansion to help more clients in the present
  • Speak about racial bias

Counterpoint

A lot of those cases from TIP came from much earlier times (late 70s, 80s, 90s). If flattening was a problem, it could have just been a problem during those times.

Rebuttal

The Pew Research Center shows that, as of 2017, black men make up the majority of men in prison. While that percentage is shrinking, it’s still significant.

Counterpoint

Doesn’t all of this have more to do with masterplots than round and flat characterization?

Rebuttal

That may be so, however I would argue that to limit someone to a ‘type’ is also a form of flattening. And maybe that’s something I can explore a bit in the project itself.

Counterpoint

There’s no real point to relying on The Innocence Project since it can’t help everyone.

Rebuttal

Unfortunately, that’s true. There are many who cannot be helped by TIP, for example there are many cases involving drugs rather than DNA. However, TIP does more than just provide DNA evidence. They also work to improve case law and push for reform in order to prevent false incarceration. Even if this cycle continues, as it likely will, it could be that they are able to take away the validity of those who make a habit of flattening a person based on race. There’s still more I have to do to tie in this piece of my project, so I will focus on it more as I continue.

Plans for Development

  • Continue paper
  • Edit as necessary

Madeline Welch Reading Blog 9

When something terrible happens, people want justice. They want to make sense of the event, support the victims, and insure that the perpetrator is properly punished for what they did. They look to the legal system as a way to accomplish all of these goals. Things can get tricky, though, if the story is not so black and white. If the perpetrator is also a victim. If speaking one’s truth might be more dangerous than staying silent. We insist, still, that everyone should have the chance to tell their story. That everyone deserves the same opportunities. But what happens if there is no innocence in the story that the defendant has to tell? And what happens if recounting it does nothing but bring more harm to them?

Both of those questions must be asked when considering Hetty Sorrel’s case in Adam Bede. All during her trial she was “‘frightened, very frightened,’” and “‘hung her head down’” rather than face anyone (Eliot 762). She didn’t speak at all, only letting out “a piercing shriek” when the sentence was given (777). She was certainly traumatized by what had happened, what she had done.

One might say that if she had only spoken up, explained sooner why she had taken the actions she did, then perhaps the jury may have requested mercy along with the guilty verdict. After all, “the unnaturalness of her crime stood out the more harshly by the side of her hard immovability and obstinate silence” (776). However, there’s little in her story that would have helped her. True, there was some proof of her poor mental state during the act, her admitting to thoughts of suicide-“I tried to kill myself before…I tried so to drown myself in the pool” (804). And she claimed that she “heard the baby crying” even though that wouldn’t be possible because she was “a long way off from the wood,” implying that she was not altogether present in reality even afterwards (807). A case for not guilty by reason of insanity, if such a thing existed here, might have been possible. It could have been argued in this hypothetical situation that Hetty was “under the influence of insane delusion” (United Kingdom House of Lords Decision). 

But even if the M’Naghten case had occurred before this time, it wouldn’t have helped Hetty much because the conclusion was that M’Naghten was “nevertheless punishable if he knew at the time that he was acting contrary to the law” (United Kingdom House of Lords Decision). Hetty did know what she was doing, even if coming to that decision had been the result of a poor state of mind. She didn’t want the child, in fact later saying that she had “seemed to hate it” (Eliot 806). A little while after the birth, “the thought came into [her] mind that [she] might get rid of it and go home again” (805). She eventually decided that she’d put the baby in a shallow hole she’d come across “and cover it with grass and chips-I couldn’t kill it any other way” (806). There, that second part of the sentence, shows that she knew she was killing it, and murder is of course wrong. Her guilt was what drew her back, after all. So, in answer to the first question, since there is little to no innocence in Hetty’s tale, it’s likely that her speaking it in court would have only intensified the negative opinions of the jury.

Hetty could not speak at all, though, even if she wanted to. Dinah claimed that it was “the pride of her heart” that kept Hetty silent, but I’m skeptical (812). The young woman hardly knew it was Dinah entering the cell, after all: “Hetty kept her eyes fixed on Dinah’s face–at first like an animal that gazes, and gazes, and keeps aloof” (796). I think that’s more closely tied to trauma than pride. Regardless of intent or reasoning, to realize that you’ve killed your child can’t be easy. And I know that it can be difficult to speak properly after going through something traumatic. (It’s not completely the same, admittedly, but when I saw my dog get hit by a car, I found my speech halting for several hours afterward.) Then, when Hetty was actually telling the tale, she had to keep stopping, and to actually start was difficult because “the tears and sobs were too violent” (803). So for the second question, if she had been able to speak up in court, it not only would have harmed her case further but brought her even more trauma to go through it again. Going further, her trauma prevented her from speaking in the first place, so this insistence that everyone must do so can be very insensitive and harmful in that way. 

Yes, it is important for the accused to tell their story, but perhaps it should not always mandatory. Perhaps it’s just a nice idea. The more personal a crime, I think, the harder it is to examine. I think about all those who experience sexual assault, and the people who tell them that it’s their responsibility to bring the perpetrator to justice. That it’s their responsibility to not let the person get away with what they did. All this puts so much pressure on the individual and, I would argue, is an offshoot of victim blaming. I’m not saying Hetty is a victim per say, or that women who have done similar things should just stay quiet and accept their fate. I’m saying that our idea of justice can be intense, and there’s a possibility that it can harm more people than it helps. 

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