A Scar On The Map
February 14, 2015 6:52 AM   Subscribe

 
I came in prepped to be a touch unnerved - there are a lot of concerns when judges use their bench to make speeches, even when done with the best of intentions, and it's easy to open to the door to an apprehension of bias which wastes everyone's time & energy.

But this was very well done, both from a speech-making perspective and from a legal CYA perspective. He weaves the case's history right into the speech and talks about where all of his information comes from. Very impressive in such a terrible case.

grrr also I hate the prevalence of letters showing good character. Such a privilege-reifying pattern.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:08 AM on February 14, 2015 [10 favorites]


Here's a little information on the sentences these men received, as I didn't see it in the original post:

"The three pleaded guilty in March 2012 to one count of conspiracy and one count of committing a hate crime. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves sentenced Dedmon to 50 years and five years to be served concurrently; John Aaron Rice to 18 ½ years and five years to be served concurrently; and Dylan Wade Butler to seven years and five years to be served concurrently. None of them are eligible for probation."

In addition it appears that Dedmon also has already received two life sentences for the actual murder, although for some reason I don't see additional state sentences for the other two men.

SEVEN other participants to this murder and related assaults remain to be sentenced.
posted by cyphill at 7:20 AM on February 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


Simply brilliant, passionate, judicial, measured, tempered and elevating. I hope to see him on an Appellate Court if that is where he would like to be.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:21 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm always apalled at the amount of comments describing the perpetrators of hate crimes as "good people" from church leaders, business partners, or other. I've never understood the need to say that, as if that exonerates one from the hateful crimes they have commit, as if it excuses them from having to deal with the consequences of their actions.

This was a truly fantastic speech in every way - and it's excellent to see coming out of Mississippi, which is the state that I have long sworn to avoid, and what many believe to be the epitome of negative southern stereotypes actually realized.
posted by MysticMCJ at 7:22 AM on February 14, 2015 [19 favorites]


Those punk ass shitbrains would be facing a death penalty if they were black.

And these were "good kids". White people are poor judges of character, apparently.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:27 AM on February 14, 2015 [45 favorites]


I hate that this happened but it's so fitting that those dipshit douchebros had to face an African-American judge.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 7:29 AM on February 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


> And these were "good kids". White people are poor judges of character, apparently.

Anyone who speaks publicly on behalf of them who isn't their family is most likely holding on to some deep unexamined racism themselves.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 7:31 AM on February 14, 2015 [11 favorites]


MysticMCJ--it really is no different than the comments and character references for many criminals--"he was always a good boy", "he loved his sister", "this isn't like him" "he/she always went to church and prayed with us", he/she loves their child and would never do that". I spent my early career working in court/corrections. It is hard to rethink people we know as evil, mean spirited, malicious, etc. And "Anyone who speaks publicly on behalf of them who isn't their family is most likely holding on to some deep unexamined racism themselves". Could be right or wrong but at best conjecture. That probably can be said of most of us when it comes to discussing race.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:34 AM on February 14, 2015 [12 favorites]


The Court must respond to one letter it received from one identified as a youth leader in Dylan Butler's church, a mentor, he says and who describes Dylan as "a good person." The point that "[t]here are plenty of criminals that deserve to be incarcerated," is well taken. Your point that Dylan is not one of them — not a criminal...is belied by the facts and the law. Dylan was an active participant in this activity, and he deserves to be incarcerated under the law. What these defendants did was ugly...it was painful...it is sad...and it is indeed criminal.

In the Mississippi we have tried to bury, when there was a jury verdict for those who perpetrated crimes and committed lynchings in the name of WHITE POWER...that verdict typically said that the victim died at the hands of persons unknown. The legal and criminal justice system operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call WHITE POWER.


I think one of the most powerful things he does in this is explicitly name what this crime involved, and how much a part of a long chain of history it is. It's not an isolated incident, it's not an aberration.
posted by rtha at 7:41 AM on February 14, 2015 [55 favorites]


Wish someone in power had something to tell about the white man who shot execution-style three Muslim students in Chapel Hill this week other than "it was over a parking dispute."
posted by oceanjesse at 7:49 AM on February 14, 2015 [16 favorites]


> And these were "good kids". White people are poor judges of character, apparently.

The cry of "He's a good kid" knows no racial bounds. The difference with white people is that it actually sways things.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:50 AM on February 14, 2015 [28 favorites]


grrr also I hate the prevalence of letters showing good character. Such a privilege-reifying pattern.

They are meaningless. They only show how oblivious people are to the true character of others. It's like those cases where a person offs his entire family and the neighbours all say, "But he was such a nice guy!" Why? Because he said hello to you?

I don't see it as a sign of privilege, but as evidence that people can never, ever admit they were wrong about something or someone. Arrogance is as blind as it is ugly.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:54 AM on February 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


Arrogance, too, is a sign of privilege.
posted by infini at 7:58 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Arrogance, too, is a sign of privilege.

Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. It's a universal human trait. Among the powerless it won't affect much outside of their immediate social sphere, but it's there.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 8:04 AM on February 14, 2015 [30 favorites]


That, right there, was a hell of a speech.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:11 AM on February 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


As a Mississippian, I have long since learned that -- in the words of someone I don't recall -- the devil walks on earth as a young blond man with blue eyes. I gasped when I saw a picture of Deryl Dedmon. It seemed too much, too perfectly evil. When Dedmon was in court listening to this, what did he hear? If he's anything like the boys I grew up knowing, it was probably just the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher. I grew up in a once-cosmopolitan town that suffered from relatively little racist violence. This allowed the upper crust to talk about racism as a problem from poor white trash and hillbillies up in the interior of the state, and go on ignoring what they were doing.

For a white person, moving away from Mississippi and badmouthing it every chance you get is not enough, and it is not any more righteous a choice than otherwise. I am drawn to the title of the horror movie: we are what we are. You have to understand who you were born to, what that has made you, and what you amount to (hint: not a whole damn lot). And sometimes you have to talk to the kind of people who will listen to you, but not to black people.

And, often as not, you have to shut up and let others talk, so I will do that thing.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:14 AM on February 14, 2015 [16 favorites]


This was an excellent find, btw. Thanks for posting it.
The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it: each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal; having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American AUSA from an office headed by an African-American U.S. Attorney — all under the direction of an African-American Attorney General, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP — an agency headed by an African-American.
I went back and forth on the inclusion of this paragraph. It places its thumb squarely on the wound that White Power people fear -- that black people will take over if left unchecked -- and as such it makes good recruiting fodder. On the other hand it paints a picture of an extremely powerful and entrenched black power structure, and reminds you that it won't be your Southern Gentleman football coach turning a blind eye when you get caught.

All in all I think including it was a good idea. It will scare away the bit players, leaving only the hardcore who can't be reached anyway.

In any case, truly an excellent speech and thanks again for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:19 AM on February 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm hesitant to mention this given the gravity of the case, but it's weirdly reminiscent of a scene in Better Call Saul: The defence argues character -- "near-honor students," Bob Odenkirk calls them -- then gives the floor to the prosecution, who wordlessly wheels out a TV and plays the video the defendants made documenting their crime.

And that's the thing. It's very easy for friends, family, and acquaintances to say with full belief and conviction that so-and-so is a good kid--and very easy for a judge and/or jury to be swayed by that line of reasoning--if they're not privy to that burst of inhuman brutality the "good kid" is being tried for. Murderers are only murderers when they're murdering.

But even after Anderson's murder, the conspiracy continued ... And, only because of a video, which told a different story from that which had been concocted by these defendants, and the investigation of law enforcement — state and federal law enforcement working together — was the truth uncovered.


Thank fucking christ for that video.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:36 AM on February 14, 2015 [10 favorites]


The cry of "He's a good kid" knows no racial bounds. The difference with white people is that it actually sways things.

There was a great article from Arthur Chu the other day making the point that one of the greatest privileges of any privileged class is the benefit of the doubt.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:52 AM on February 14, 2015 [21 favorites]


Arrogance, too, is a sign of privilege.

How is arrogance -- a sign of moral neglect -- privilege? How is being turned into a decrepit and unfeeling loser privilege? You have people who take normal human beings and indoctrinate them into being hateful nobodies by ignoring all the blaring signs and pretending everything is just fine.

Privilege is being nurtured and encouraged to be the nicest, kindest and most moral and sensitive person you can be -- and being brought to task for your selfish ways and wicked blindness to become a better person than you would have been without that guidance.

Who would be jealous of three losers like these who ruined their lives by proving themselves to be utterly untrustworthy to be left out on their own out on the street? Pity is too good for them.

People just use a posh word like "privilege" without thinking and then think it's reality. There is no privilege -- only people who have others around them who are incapable of giving them a moral compass and now the rest of society has to put them in a concentration camp for the untrustworthy otherwise known as prison.

Who'd want to be unfeeling and destructive? Who'd want their disgusting and dysfunctional thought processes? Who'd want to be enabled into being nothing and their lives pass them by as they know who they really are? They can take those letters and use them as toilet paper because that's how much those empty words are worth...that's not privilege -- that is permanently turning your pathetic reality into a place below Hell...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:52 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I think it's important to remember that people are more than one thing, and when someone says "he's a good kid," they mean "he's always been goid to me," which may be true. It's horrible and disconcerting that the good son, the polite parishioner, the understanding boss, can also be, in other settings, a racist, a rapist, or just viciously cruel toward another person or people for any range of reasons. This is why a sane justice system doesn't let people be tried by their families and friends.

I feel a special sympathy and horror for the stepfather -- what would it feel like to discover a member of your family was hunting and murdering people like you?
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:04 AM on February 14, 2015 [11 favorites]


How is arrogance -- a sign of moral neglect -- privilege?

Because if you don't have privilege and you act arrogant, those with privilege tie you to a tree and set you on fire.

If you can act arrogant in public and not be beaten down by the privileged sect, you are part of the privileged sect. Why do you think that gangs act arrogant? They're claiming that privilege power.
posted by eriko at 9:10 AM on February 14, 2015 [32 favorites]


. People just use a posh word like "privilege" without thinking and then think it's reality. There is no privilege

Yes there is, and to learn more about what that means you could try using a dictionary or google.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:39 AM on February 14, 2015 [20 favorites]


Honestly, dismissing the entrenched advantages these boys enjoyed as "but they weren't privileged, they grew up to be terrible people! How sad!" is one of the most determined displays of obliviousness I've ever seen.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:41 AM on February 14, 2015 [30 favorites]


Alexandra Kitty, I'm just going to say that it sounds like you don't understand the meaning of the concept of -- in this case -- racial privilege. It is more than a "posh word". It is, very often, very specifically, "people who have others around them who are incapable of giving them a moral compass", at least a moral compass that treats others with tolerance and equality. It is, as John Scalzi has put it, playing life on the lowest difficulty setting, or having the permanent benefit of the doubt.

I think I see what you're saying -- who would want to live such a blinkered life, where you hurt others and never have to become self-aware? -- but that's just not how the word is used and by using this framing you risk creating a derail.

Such a privilege-reifying pattern.

True enough, although one may argue such letters have some relevance to the question of rehabilitation. Oversimplifying drastically, but the presence of a strong support network in the community is usually critical to a determination of likelihood to reoffend. In practice, though, race-privileged defendants are more likely to have social connections which will allow them to get a sentence reduction, so judges in theory ought to take that into account when considering them.
posted by dhartung at 9:43 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


The Court must respond to one letter it received from one identified as a youth leader in Dylan Butler's church, a mentor, he says and who describes Dylan as "a good person." The point that "[t]here are plenty of criminals that deserve to be incarcerated," is well taken. Your point that Dylan is not one of them — not a criminal...is belied by the facts and the law.

This is really disturbing. There's saying "he's a good kid," and then there's saying someone who pleaded guilty to hate crimes is "not a criminal." What. The. Actual. Fuck. Hey, youth leader, remember that Jesus was crucified between two thieves? One accepted his fate as a criminal, the other asked to be saved from suffering and death. It looks like you're siding with the one who looks for redemption despite the crime.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:01 AM on February 14, 2015 [7 favorites]


Such "good kids" who had gone out multiple times to attack people simply because they were black. The only difference being they got caught this time. I guess "good" means something entirely different in Mississippi.
posted by tommasz at 10:19 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


In letters received on his behalf, Dylan Butler, whose outing on the night of June 26 was not his first, has been described as "a fine young man," "a caring person," "a well mannered man" who is truly remorseful and wants to move on with his life ... a very respectful ... a good man ... a good person ... a lovable, kindhearted teddy bear who stands in front of bullies ... and who is now ashamed of what he did. Butler's family is a mixed-race family: For the last 15 years, it has consisted of an African-American stepfather and stepsister, plus his mother and two sisters. The family, according to the stepfather, understandably is "saddened and heartbroken."
...
The court must respond to one letter it received from one identified as a youth leader in Dylan Butler's church — a mentor, he says — and who describes Dylan as "a good person." The point that "[t]here are plenty of criminals that deserve to be incarcerated," is well taken. Your point that Dylan is not one of them — not a criminal ... is belied by the facts and the law. Dylan was an active participant in this activity, and he deserves to be incarcerated under the law.
I am particularly glad that Judge Reeves chose to make a special point of addressing the outpouring of support Dylan Butler received, because in my opinion, there is something deeply ugly, vicious and horrifying at the root of all that support: the bedrock feeling on the part of all these people standing up for him that he really cannot be blamed for what he did, because he had to live from early childhood with the shame and stigma that his white mother was consorting with a black man.
posted by jamjam at 10:38 AM on February 14, 2015 [17 favorites]


I guess "good" means something entirely different in Mississippi.

In this context, it means "white".
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:44 AM on February 14, 2015 [15 favorites]


How do I vote for someone to be on the supreme court?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:55 AM on February 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


the bedrock feeling on the part of all these people standing up for him that he really cannot be blamed for what he did, because he had to live from early childhood with the shame and stigma that his white mother was consorting with a black man.

What???? How can you infer that support for him stems from anything more than normal familial support for a son facing many many years in prison??

While some of what motivates the support they've received most likely stems from old attitudes of privilege (and there are very few people on this Earth who wouldn't use every advantage, moral or not, to save a loved one), it seems to me your reading of their families' support is very uncharitable and possibly betrays a simplistic understanding of the complexity of current race relations in the South.
posted by the lake is above, the water below at 10:56 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I wish that people sentenced to things like concurrent life sentences were also mandated into educational community service. I mean, I understand that these people did a monstrous thing to a man who will not get his life back. But rather than sending a "he's a good boy" letter to the Court, I wish there would have been "he can do something for society" letters. Our prisons are terrible places that don't do anything to stop the scourge of hatred or racism. And they don't deter crime.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:01 AM on February 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


How do I vote for someone to be on the supreme court?

Directly? Wait a few decades, and that's a big maybe.

Indirectly? Consider very carefully which candidate you will vote for in the U.S senatorial elections, and urge everyone you know to do the same. Considering your location you might be considered well-represented already, but YMMV.
posted by The Zeroth Law at 11:08 AM on February 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


I was being rhetorical but you're wrong the answer is: be a billionaire then you can vote for anything.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:52 AM on February 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


I have no words.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:12 PM on February 14, 2015


If those were good kids, I'd hate to meet the bad ones.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:05 PM on February 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


I read this in the middle of the night last night, and should have thought to post it myself. Amazing writing.

And I'm glad to know they didn't get off lightly.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:38 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's saying "he's a good kid," and then there's saying someone who pleaded guilty to hate crimes is "not a criminal."

I think you're looking too narrowly at that one. When people say "He's not a criminal" what they generally mean is, "He's not a habitual criminal" or, "He's not criminal often enough that his entire life should be defined by his criminality." When they think of a criminal, they think of someone who started committing crimes at the age of puberty and hasn't ceased, or who went wrong and stayed wrong, who pushes little old ladies over for their groceries and laughs maniacally as he does so.

I understand why you're upset that someone might plead for mitigation for someone who did something like this, but the race to condemn everyone making a character statement as secret racists is a little much.
posted by corb at 2:06 PM on February 14, 2015


I understand why you're upset that someone might plead for mitigation for someone who did something like this, but the race to condemn everyone making a character statement as secret racists is a little much.

Except that for black kids, "criminal often enough that his entire life should be defined by his criminality" can be something as simple as smoking pot once. There's a double standard there that is unambigously racial.
posted by kagredon at 2:08 PM on February 14, 2015 [17 favorites]


I would never deny that that double standard does exist - but I think it's impossible to know whether the authors of those letters lived by that racial double standard about criminals or not. Just as many people condemn "white trash hillbilly methheads" and talk positively of "boys from good families".
posted by corb at 2:10 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just as many people condemn "white trash hillbilly methheads" and talk positively of "boys from good families".

Yes, classism is also a thing that exists. What's your point, exactly?
posted by kagredon at 2:11 PM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Won't someone think of the racists-in-denial?
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 2:23 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


My point is that it doesn't take racism to decide that someone doesn't belong to the "criminal class" or if we want to get technical about it, the lumpenproletariat, and that the desire to keep people who others believe have "momentary lapses" from the punishment they believe appropriate for "career criminals" is an entirely separate phenomenon, that, while it can be affected by racism, does not necessarily include it. Thus, it is not appropriate to call people writing character testimonials "holding onto deep unexamined racism".
posted by corb at 2:43 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Alexandra Kitty, I'm just going to say that it sounds like you don't understand the meaning of the concept of -- in this case -- racial privilege.

That would be an extremely arrogant presumption to make, dhartung. As a woman, the level of abusive misogynistic treatment I have endured in both my personal and professional life is real and substantial. As someone of Slavic ancestry, I still have people tell me that somehow I just don't get things because I am of inferior stock, as if it is true, never mind the grades I skipped or the degrees I earned. Being raised without a father also got me my daily dose of discrimination. My grandmother's entire family was slaughtered in a concentration camp in World War II because they were the wrong kind of Christian and that same grandmother is physically disabled and bed-ridden and you don't know discrimination until you are disfigured and immobile and people tell you to your face that you should not be a burden and ought to just die.

So yes, I know those spits to face, and I stand by everything I wrote. I am not blind to the truth. Those killers got no privilege: they had people never show them how to be human beings. They have nothing.

As for me, I had a family who actually love me and showed me what kindness does. They showed me not to blame people or be jealous. Most of all, they showed me to look past the facades to see who people really are.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:50 PM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


> . Thus, it is not appropriate to call people writing character testimonials "holding onto deep unexamined racism".

I'm so glad someone is standing up for the character of those who speak well of hate crime perpetrators.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


I just wanted to thank the OP for sharing the FPP, as I remove this thread from my recent activity. I believe its time to take a walk outside of this room.
posted by infini at 3:31 PM on February 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


Didn't they sort of get off lightly, though?

I do not generally support the death penalty. However, if these educated white men from (some of them) "good" two parent families had been given the death penalty, I think it might help our country take a hard look at how awful that penalty is. And if the death penalty is appropriate in cases of felony murder, it seems certain to me that it should be appropriate for hate crimes.

Hang on, now I see they were teenagers when they killed Anderson. Scratch that.
posted by onlyconnect at 3:42 PM on February 14, 2015


That was an amazing speech. On the subject of character letters, I think that Reeves had a perfect response, but as stated above -- people can be more than one thing. That applies to the letter writers as well as the perpetrators. Yes, I believe Dylan Butler was a criminal who was correctly given a prison sentence for his crime. But, he did receive the shortest prison sentence, and for a young man seven years seems like a long time, but it also leaves a long lifetime after he gets out of prison.

Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.

I don't know the characters of any of the letter writers, but if this last statement by the judge is to come true, I'll hold on to hope that at least some of them had some motivation other than hatred, and that they can help nurture whatever spark of goodness exists in Dylan Butler upon his release. Not that his crime is washed away, not that he gets to ignore the more ugly side of his nature. But I think we are better off as a society if, indeed, a chance of reform is possible and all evidence suggests that it usually takes a support network to do that.

In full disclosure, I have the kind of racial privilege that allows me to more or less ignore "race" as an issue most of the time, and I admit that may color my views and I really have no idea what it is like to live in Mississippi as a person of any race.

In full disclosure, I also do some work with people who have committed crimes, who have been released from jail, who are re-offenders, who have been found incompetent to stand trial for crimes...so, you know, my heart does bleed a little on the subject.

Thank you for posting, that was a good and very thought-provoking read.
posted by freejinn at 3:53 PM on February 14, 2015


Those punk ass shitbrains would be facing a death penalty if they were black.

Without a doubt. It's worth noting though that in the state case Anderson's family was opposed to the death penalty:
"Those responsible for James' death not only ended the life of a talented and wonderful man, they also have caused our family unspeakable pain and grief. But our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another.

We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James' killers will not help balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment."
posted by edeezy at 3:56 PM on February 14, 2015 [21 favorites]


So yes, I know those spits to face, and I stand by everything I wrote. I am not blind to the truth. Those killers got no privilege: they had people never show them how to be human beings. They have nothing.

Except that they apparently had many people who loved them enough to write in letters about how good they were at "being human beings" when it came to doing service to their white community, plenty of people who believed that this service should in some way wipe out their brutal murder of a black man (except that we can't call this belief "racist" because corb knows the word "lumpenproletariat"). So even by your highly idiosyncratic definition of the word "privilege", these guys had plenty. Try again. Or better yet, don't.
posted by kagredon at 4:00 PM on February 14, 2015 [12 favorites]


When they think of a criminal, they think of someone who started committing crimes at the age of puberty and hasn't ceased, or who went wrong and stayed wrong, who pushes little old ladies over for their groceries and laughs maniacally as he does so.

Yes, in this case no groceries were taken. He simply went out night after night and never ceased terrorizing African-Americans, beating them with his fists and eventually escalating to intentionally driving over one of his many victims, squashing him like a bug and laughing maniacally. "I ran that nigger over," Dedmon said in a phone conversation to the teens in the other car. "He was not remorseful, he was laughing, laughing about the killing," said Smith.

But you are a right, no little old ladies were harmed, so no real criminal.
posted by JackFlash at 4:15 PM on February 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


"Those responsible for James' death not only ended the life of a talented and wonderful man, they also have caused our family unspeakable pain and grief. But our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another.

We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James' killers will not help balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment."


These are wonderful, thoughtful people. Far better people than I.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 4:23 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I do not generally support the death penalty. However, if these educated white men from (some of them) "good" two parent families had been given the death penalty, I think it might help our country take a hard look at how awful that penalty is. And if the death penalty is appropriate in cases of felony murder, it seems certain to me that it should be appropriate for hate crimes.

The victim's family requested that the death penalty be taken off the table.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:23 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sys Rq: "And that's the thing. It's very easy for friends, family, and acquaintances to say with full belief and conviction that so-and-so is a good kid--and very easy for a judge and/or jury to be swayed by that line of reasoning--if they're not privy to that burst of inhuman brutality the "good kid" is being tried for. "

But the judge and jury ARE privy to the burst of inhuman brutality, and judges (at least) are well-used to these letters. I have read a lot of these letters in the course of my work, and they aren't people pleading that "this crime wasn't so bad" but rather that "this crime is a one-time thing." And, really, it's more a function of "we are his family and we love him" and "I was his friend and feel morally obligated to speak for him since his mother/lawyer has asked me to." After Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison, his mother said something along the lines of, "Now that I've given every interview in the world, can I go back to remembering him as my little Jeffy?" Family don't stop loving people even if they're terrible people -- the Unabomber's brother never stopped loving his brother even though he turned him in and gave most of the reward to his brother's victim's families. Also people know how bad prison is -- often their "character" letters are more aimed at getting a perp into a safe prison, not getting them off the charges.

When I read these character letters for school expulsions -- which were mostly about fistfights, obviously, not murder -- the family (and pastor) letters mostly just said to us, "This kid has people who are willing to write letters for him, so clearly he has some kind of support system." (Many kids did not have that. It is good to know.) Of course he loves his little sister and is sweet to his mom. The ones that actually might affect our punishment ruling were very specific and said things like, "Since Joe was in the fistfight he has been going to church immediately after school on days he does not have basketball practice, and doing his homework in the church secretary's office. When he is done, he helps with the filing or sorts the hymnals. His mother has switched her work schedule so she can supervise him on weekends." Because those are showing how the kid's community is working on making sure he's supervised so he can't get in trouble again, and how he's focusing on school and not running around with his friends. The other letters that had impact were from employers saying, "These are the things he does at work, he is a model employee, these are the things I trust him with." (Because not that many employers are willing to write letters for indifferent teenaged employees.) Those kinds of specifics could help us mold a specific "sentence" that helped keep a kid out of future trouble by leveraging his community contacts and their willingness to supervise him and work with him, rather than fully relying on our school remedial system. He would still have to fulfill the punishment for a fistfight, but his "probation" might be different if he had robust community support and character letters that were specific.

But letters that are just like, "He's a good kid who's never been in a fistfight before!" Well, sure. Every kid who commits a crime was, at some point, a good kid who'd never committed a crime before. Maybe if I'm a judge this helps me decide he should be in a medium-security prison where his mom can visit a lot, instead of maximum-security, because he's not likely to get in trouble in prison and doesn't have a history of violence, but it's not like it convinces me he shouldn't do time for his crime.

My favorite character letter ever was when a couple of second graders got in a fight and one of them slapped the other and ended up suspended and the one who got slapped wrote us a laborious, hand-printed letter asking for us to reduce his friend's suspension, which said, in part, "Even though he slapped me we are still best friends, just not as good right now."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:40 PM on February 14, 2015 [26 favorites]


. That would be an extremely arrogant presumption to make, dhartung.

No, it wouldn't, because he didn't presume anything. He said "what you said sounds like you don't understand", and thats not a presumption, that is a statement of fact. It turns out that you do understand the existence of racial privilege as everyone else means it and you are just sticking to an idiosyncratic and in my opinion useless definition of privilege anyway. Thats a great way to derail any conversation.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:16 PM on February 14, 2015 [19 favorites]


But the judge and jury ARE privy to the burst of inhuman brutality

No, they're not, unless, as in this case, there happens to have been a camera pointed at it while it occurred. Any other situation -- even with several eyewitnesses and a full confession -- leaves just that itty-bitty sliver of a possibility that just maybe they might be convicting the wrong guy, or the incident didn't go down quite like the prosecution said, or Guy 1 was the ringleader instead of Guy 2. And if everyone says he's a swell guy...

But in a case like this, where there is incontrovertible proof that the people on trial are the people who did it, and they're shown to have done it on many occasions, and character witnesses all still say they're swell, well, lock those people up even longer because that just means they're good at committing crimes undetected.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:12 PM on February 14, 2015


It's not like being unaware of one's racial bias is an unusual or rare state of being.
posted by rtha at 7:23 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


"How could hate, fear or whatever it was transform genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers?"

It didn't. They were murderers and sadistic torturers to begin with. Their "God-fearing" and "God-loving" "gentility" were just ruses to let them lurk through daily life.
posted by carping demon at 8:24 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have been pondering whether I would write one of these letters for my extremely helpful, all around good kid nephew.

I am of course certain that he never would -- never could -- do something like this. As I'm sure were the members of these guy's communities.

In any case it's an interesting thing to ponder, and I highly encourage anyone who dismisses the writers to consider their own special niece, or nephew, or child, or kid from the neighborhood and what you intend to do when it turns out they've quietly gone off track to the point of senseless murder. I know I won't abandon mine, but I'm not sure what form my support would take.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:32 PM on February 14, 2015


I sort of regret starting the letters discussion. I certainly don't think that the writers are doing anything wrong, and I agree that they can be beneficial to the decision-maker (and thanks for you comments, Eyebrows McGee, with experential knowledge!). My problems with them are structural - they absolutely favour those with long roots in the community, people whose network have trust in the judicial system, etc, which are people with existing privilege. But at the same time those privilege makers do, for real, change the risk to re-offend. There's no good answer there, balancing structural equality problems vs attempts to minimize carceral time in the individualized cases. Not something for any given judge.
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:07 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I am reminded of the recent FPP on how hate is generated and propagated as a social phenomenon. The law is effective and practical, but it is almost always silent on the basic question of how these things come to happen, from a social science point of view. (As distinct from the why's, which depending on the kind of person you ask will vary from individualist attributions "because they are dipshits", to historical-material "because these are like lynchings from 1946 or prior", to social justice "because of racism".)
posted by polymodus at 1:28 AM on February 15, 2015


The letters, and many of the comments in this thread, anger me because they suggest that the class of "real criminals" and the class of "this person who broke the law this time" are somehow essentially different, and that race plays only an accidental role in our perceptions of this distinction.

In our culture, criminals and "good people" are certain viewed as essentially different; at this point, anyone who doubts that our conceptions of criminality are informed by racism, classicism, and other intersectional oppressions appears to be afraid of the truth. It's a racist culture; Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is not only widely available, it's a very easy read, and it's nowhere near the first book to convincingly make a case about the use of our criminal justice system to maintain white supremacy. It's not the only thing happening in the criminal justice system, but it's a palpable, undeniable thing.

W/r/t tfa: Mississippi Goddamn.
posted by allthinky at 8:12 AM on February 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's not the only thing happening in the criminal justice system, but it's a palpable, undeniable thing.

I don't think anyone is trying to deny that that is a real thing: what people are saying is that those racist issues are not a given in every single situation. For example, in this case: where the prosecutor, judge, and others were African-American and had zero interest in mitigating the sentence due to white privilege, and the judge made a speech about the cultural context of these crimes.

It's a really hard thing to separate out racism from the criminal justice system, but it is a necessary thing to do if you want the criminal justice system to function at all. Because there is a strong value to society to knowing, for example, if the offender has a network of "respectable citizens" - community ties with an investment in a law-abiding society - that will work to prevent the perpetrator from re-offending. There is a strong value to society in knowing who has a possibility of being rehabilitated, if you believe in the purpose of prison as rehabilitation as well as deterrance. There is a strong value to society in knowing what the good impulses that a person who has committed crime has, so that the keys to their reform can be adequately evaluated.

It is really shitty that some people, because of structural racism, don't get to avail themselves of that - because they either don't have a community support network or because they don't have a community support network of people who have never had interactions with the law or because their community support network (rightly) doesn't trust the justice system and so doesn't bother with writing those letters of support. But that doesn't mean that the entire practice of letters of support and testifying to character is a bad thing that should be stopped.
posted by corb at 10:04 AM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Bravo, but it is racism in this case so that's settled.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 10:13 AM on February 15, 2015


But that doesn't mean that the entire practice of letters of support and testifying to character is a bad thing that should be stopped.

Good thing literally nobody has said that!
posted by kagredon at 10:48 AM on February 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


But that doesn't mean that the entire practice of letters of support and testifying to character is a bad thing that should be stopped.

Who's arguing this? It looks to me that people are saying the character testimonies for the murderers in this case look ingenuous and stupid because the good people they depict killed a black man in cold blood and were caught on video. It doesn't seem unreasonable to me to suggest that these white Mississippians may have other reasons beyond family ties to assert their relatives' goodness and non-criminality in the face of video evidence of their evil and criminality.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:53 AM on February 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


It doesn't seem unreasonable to me to suggest that these white Mississippians may have other reasons beyond family ties to assert their relatives' goodness and non-criminality in the face of video evidence of their evil and criminality.

I guess the real question is - why do you think that? Do you think that the video evidence of what they did should horrify people so much that it overrides family ties and causes people to completely cut them off? That may be the piece I'm failing to understand. It seems to me that if someone did something like that, it's completely normal for people to be horrified and say basically "he didn't start that way, there is good in him, don't treat him as a hardened criminal, we can still save him." The more horrific the crime and the more different from their average behavior, the more likely, imho.
posted by corb at 10:57 AM on February 15, 2015


Do you think that the video evidence of what they did should horrify people so much that it overrides family ties and causes people to completely cut them off?

That's not what I said. What I suggested was that racism and classism, as well as family ties, probably affected their willful belief that these boys had good character. However good their "support network" was, it clearly didn't effectively raise them not to go out and hurt black people for fun. Why is that?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:03 AM on February 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


The more horrific the crime and the more different from their average behavior, the more likely, imho.

That's some mighty fine logic there. The worse the crime the more likely they are good at heart.
posted by JackFlash at 11:07 AM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's some mighty fine logic there.

I don't think that's what corb meant; I think she was saying that the more horrible the crime, the more people are going to get hung up on the terrible cognitive disconnect between their experiences of the person and the evidence of the crime. "He's a good boy" is a banal and horrible comment in this case, but it can arise from motivations other than approval for the crime. corb and I don't see eye to eye on a bunch of issues, but I think you are being really uncharitable in that reading of her comment.

I think we are doing a lot of speculating without evidence about these letters. We don't even know much of the contents of the letters, much less the conscious and unconscious impulses in the hearts of the people who wrote them. Some writers probably are openly racist, others acting from unexamined racist impulses, others are driven by family feeling, still others by the shock of having someone they know commit an appalling series of crimes. We really don't know, and I'm not sure speculation is helpful.

What is helpful is Judge Reeves' measured and historical analysis of the crimes and the pressures at work. What he doesn't say so openly (and maybe can't say, all things considering) is that our bloody racist history in the US not only harms black people, it also prevents white people from moving forward from that grotesque past, and so we keep repeating and reiterating the culture of lynching, and the denial of the culture, and this has left us so alienated and ruined that I despair that this country is ever going to get out of this cycle of abuse.

It's pretty clear that there has to be a whole lot of racism (overt and covert) in a community for the young men to think that going out and hunting black people for sport is anything other than monstrous, so, while I think the people seeing entrenched racism in the letters are likely correct, I'm not sure corb's assertions that these are also people defending their families are totally wrong, either. I certainly don't have the ability to peer into their hearts, and I don't think guessing at their motivations is helping this thread.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:43 AM on February 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


while I think the people seeing entrenched racism in the letters are likely correct, I'm not sure corb's assertions that these are also people defending their families are totally wrong, either.

Absolutely. These things are not mutually exclusive; the family members can try to paint their loved ones in the best possible light (because it's a character reference for the sentencing phase, so these letters really shouldn't be anything else), and they can be blind to their own (and their loved ones') racism, and those of us outside the case can read the letters and be pretty grossed out by them.

Trying to somehow parse these so that racism couldn't possibly be part of the context in which they're written seems to me to be a pointless task, though. It's the United States of America; it's Mississippi; it's the criminal justice system. It's three men convicted of murdering someone because of his race. I can't see how it's appropriate to try to tease out this particular case as somehow being magically racism-free.
posted by rtha at 12:08 PM on February 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Trying to somehow parse these so that racism couldn't possibly be part of the context in which they're written seems to me to be a pointless task, though.

Definitely. I find it hard to believe that anyone can see any part of this story as racism-free, given the context.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:26 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not as sure as others that we should give people with strong family connections a get out of jail free pass more willingly than we give it to those who do the same thing without the benefit of familial support. If anything shouldn't people who have had every advantage be judged more harshly because their fall is farther?

If you have nothing and you shoplift food, it's for a necessity. If you have everything and you shoplift a Twinkie, it's for the thrill of the transgression. Seems like we punish the former more than the latter, and maybe it should really be the other way around.

If you have nothing and commit a felony murder while robbing someone's house, that is a different crime than killing a black man out of racial hatred. Aren't we yet at that point in our history where the latter should be taken more seriously, and punished more severely, than the former, whatever the socioeconomic status of the criminals or their strong connections to family and the community -- indeed perhaps in part BECAUSE these strong ties and relationships makes the crime more insidious, incomprehensible and, ultimately, hateful.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:57 PM on February 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, that's if you're considering the criminal justice system from a purely punitive perspective (say that three times fast.) If instead we're starting from the premise that it should be about rehabilitation, then (as Eyebrows McGee's great comment above details) knowing about a person's community ties is relevant information.

The problem is (1) how to judge what constitutes healthy community ties, and (2) the fact that communities themselves can be sick.
posted by kagredon at 1:06 PM on February 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, except the third consideration is deterrence, and I think, personally, that deals me two out of three.

From what I remember, I'm not sure jails were really working as a means of rehabilitation. Schools, yes. Jails, my recollection is no, though I could be wrong.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:18 PM on February 15, 2015


For example, in this case: where the prosecutor, judge, and others were African-American and had zero interest in mitigating the sentence due to white privilege, and the judge made a speech about the cultural context of these crimes.

That may be an oversimplification. Sometimes people who are themselves members of a class that is transgressed against face societal pressures to remain neutral, lest their impartiality or ability to do their jobs competently be called into question.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:46 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


What???? How can you infer that support for him stems from anything more than normal familial support for a son facing many many years in prison??

While some of what motivates the support they've received most likely stems from old attitudes of privilege (and there are very few people on this Earth who wouldn't use every advantage, moral or not, to save a loved one), it seems to me your reading of their families' support is very uncharitable and possibly betrays a simplistic understanding of the complexity of current race relations in the South.


From her death bed in hospice care in Denver, my rural Georgia born and raised mother beckoned me closer.

"Jammy," she said, "you've met him. . . . Is he black?"

I didn't need to ask what she was talking about. My sister was pregnant, and complications in that pregnancy kept her from traveling to be at that bedside too, but all my mother knew about the father was his name, and it was a common name among blacks and whites alike.

"No mom," I said "he's white -- blond, and good-looking." Her head fell back on the pillow, and I could see the tension leave her emaciated body like water going down a drain. Ten days later she was dead.

What I did not go on to say, and never would have said, though the words did rise to my lips, was 'and he has plenty of money, too, because he's one of a handful of major players in Bay Area marijuana and heroin.'

R.I.P., mom.

The New South? Same attitudes as the Old South, but markedly restrained in word and deed.

For which we can all be thankful. The problem is that those restraints are mainly externally imposed, as the crimes of these young men tend to show. And those restraints appear to be slipping a bit, as I think the crimes of these young men also tend to show.
posted by jamjam at 2:13 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


However good their "support network" was, it clearly didn't effectively raise them not to go out and hurt black people for fun. Why is that?

I think I remember reading a really great article that I wish I could remember enough to google for, that talked about how sometimes important lessons don't get talked about because people don't think they'll be needed, or they don't want to think they might be needed, and they're not usually needed, except for the times they are.

For example, I've never had a conversation with my own kid about "Going out and hurting black people for fun is wrong", in part because I think it should be abundantly fucking obvious why it's wrong, why hurting anyone for fun is wrong, why singling out people in the way that their parents and grandparents have been terrorized for generations is especially wrong, why it's wrong to hate people because of what they are rather than who they are. I'm even tempted to have that conversation now, not because I think it's needed, but just because I'm realizing that I haven't had that conversation, but at least part of me feels like having that incredibly simplistic, should-be-obvious conversation, feels like I'm calling my kid a sociopath who would need that conversation in the first place - the same way I don't have conversations about why it's not appropriate to torture cats or kidnap children. But at the same time I could imagine if something unthinkable like that did happen, the impulse to be like "Oh my god I never TOLD them!" Not even as a rational thing, as a desperate bargaining tool to do anything, think anything, that would still let the person you love be the person you love who somehow made this terrible misstep but could still be fixed.
posted by corb at 9:36 AM on February 16, 2015


As GenjiandProust wrote upthread, this kind of speculation on the letter-writers' real motives isn't really helpful, and for my part, I feel dumb for charging into it. Congratulations on the extent of your charity.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:05 AM on February 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Our criminal justice system has been mostly punitive for some time now, as the aforementioned The New Jim Crow makes clear. Black people who are fighting for social justice recognize that their loved ones and people who look like them will be shunted into "the criminal class" with the merest of evidence or none at all. It really doesn't matter if they come from good families, have good grades, have never engaged in any criminal activity before, have no photos of them looking hard or doing anything other than smiling with Mickey and their folks at Disney etc. Any white people who know those kids may understand (may write letters even), but the general public and a jury will not. They can be executed on sight without any trial even. I cannot imagine that if they attack a white person any letters from their families etc. would be given a thoughtful appraisal by many white people. It wouldn't garner the same kind of sympathy because many whites don't identify with those parents in the same way they might identify with the parents of James Craig Anderson's killers. That's racism.

I also think if the violence and callousness of this crime were caught on video, but both the victim and the perpetrator were whites of even generally the same social class, it would be more common to see a loved ones' refusal to acknowledge the act as evidencing evil as an understandable but pitiable delusion. The more we identify with the victim and/or the less we identify with the perpetrator, the less we identify with the perpetrator's parents.

If you support the death penalty you cannot really believe that our criminal justice system is meant to be rehabilitative, not unless you either think killing is different and all killers are beyond rehabilitation or that there should be a precise criteria for determining which ones are capable of rehabilitation or are not. As it stands, the criteria seem to be things like these letter writing campaigns and whether the defendant and victim are rich or poor, black or white. Ideally I think our criminal justice system should be rehabilitative, but that does nothing to change that it is very far from it.

That said, I really think Judge Reeves judiciously addresses all of these issues in his speech. He plainly does see the possibility of and the need for rehabilitation for these criminals. The fastest avenue for reform I can see is we need more judges like him, of whatever race.
posted by callistus at 10:06 AM on February 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


« Older A cappella Cardiacs   |   Had to "put my oar in" my Valentine Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments