More than Just A Word

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite of all the books I read in high school. I read it in my sophomore year English class. When I read Huck Finn, I read all the words, not just the “n-word.”  So when I saw today’s news that Auburn English professor Alan Gribben and publisher NewSouth Books are releasing a version of the novel that uses the word “slave” instead of the usual word prefacing Jim’s name, I really wasn’t all that bothered.

Mr. Gribben and the publishers hope that making these changes will make the book more accessible in schools because the questionable language has led some (Or many? I don’t know, I went to a private school and that, plus being nine years removed from high school, I really don’t follow public education) schools to ban it and parents to complain.

The real problem is the banning or–probably more common and equally deleterious–just avoiding in schools of one of the greatest books in American literature if not the English language by a great writer and social commenter. Banning or shying away from books, science, history and other information because of the fear of controversy or the focus of the material (think people who complain about reading things written by dead white men or studying Western-centered history) is not just spineless, but anti-intellectual. People and students especially must think for themselves even if they may be offended.  Don’t put down the scholars and publishers, put down the schools and other people that took the original book out of the classroom in the first place.

So what does substituting the word “slave” into Huck Finn do to the work.  In messing with Twain’s original language, it changes his intended meanings and themes.  While some of the chatter on Twitter and the rest of the Internet criticizes the move as an eraser of sorts to racist language, the fact remains and is even intensified with a frequent reminder that Jim was a slave in the United States–that the United States was a slave-holding nation for the first eighty-nine years of its existence.  Beyond the word in question (I am avoiding typing it out because I too fear my own words being taken out of context, especially now in a “cut and paste” world), the book is filled with plenty to get Twain’s point across.  Mr. Clemens was able to express his themes and story with far more than one word.  It’s not like the name n-word Jim is being changed to Content-in-his-bondage Jim.  When students read the whole book, they should pick up on it.  For them to do that, they have to be able to read it.

I believe in free speech almost to an absolute point. I believe in the free access to and exchange of ideas.  This is not a free speech issue.  In fact the publication of Mr. Gribben’s book is precisely what free speech allows.  This is one edition by one publisher.  No one is proposing to require all publishers to clean up the book.  The original will still be available and will probably be even more popular now that the discussion has been reprised. It is an academic issue.  Perhaps the existence of the n-word-free edition will prompt students to question why they are reading a book different from the original text.  That information must not be withheld from them.

Caught Up in Snitches

No scientific evidence? No witnesses? Just use a snitch. Last week a jury in Washington D.C. convicted Ingmar Guandique of the murder of Chandra Levy, the Congressional intern (who had an affair with California congressmen Gary Condit) from California who disappeared in 2001 and whose body was discovered in 2002.

The only evidence linking Mr. Guandique to the murder was testimony from his former cellmate.  Prosecutors also produced evidence of previous attacks against women by Mr. Guandique in the same park in the early 2000′s.  From jurors’ quotes in the Post article, it was the snitch testimony that swayed the jury:

Juror Sharae Bacon said the cellmate’s testimony convinced her that Guandique killed Levy. “There were no holes in his testimony,” she said.
Bacon, the juror, said Morales was the key to the verdict for her and others on the panel.

“They were gang brothers. Guandique confided in him,” she said.

Bacon said the jurors focused on Morales’s discussion of the pouch. It never was recovered and other witnesses recounted how Levy wore the fanny pack around her waist when she exercised.  Pages 1 and 3.

I’ve taken an interest in snitch testimony, or jailhouse informant testimony as it is more properly known. It was likely my opinion on the matter that caused the State to use a challenge on me when I was voir dired in the Bellamy case. When asked how I would assess the testimony of witnesses who are testifying in exchange for favorable treatment on other cases they have, I said that although I would weigh the credibility of those witnesses the way I would any other, I would be more skeptical of a snitch than an ordinary person. I said that I just find it difficult to believe that these witnesses (criminals and prisoners themselves) who tend to HATE the police and prosecutors all of a sudden become altruistic to law enforcement.

Yet prosecutors use snitches and jurors believe them.  Not that snitches always lie because there are some that don’t and that juries should never believe them, but I don’t think that many jurors know enough about snitch testimony to prudently weigh its credibility.  I personally do not have much experience in this area either but I do know a little through reading and research as well as my own dealings with defendants, criminals and prisoners to not hold it out as a source of truth.  I’ve talked to clients who were frequent prisoners and they told me of known snitches all of a sudden being transferred into their cells or trying to start conversations with them.  One motive prisoners have in common is their desire to get out.  While prisoners may boast of their experience, many also keep quiet because they know the system and known that boasting about crimes yet to be tried is not going to get them out.

Juries often do not know “The Snitch System.” Some of that is defense lawyers not producing enough evidence to discredit that kind of testimony; some is also courts not permitting it.  The above-linked 2004-05 study by the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions asserted that “snitch testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases.” Capital cases.  At the time of the study’s publication, 51 people were exonerated for crimes they did not commit yet were convicted by snitches, “witnesses with incentives to lie.”  The total number of exonerated persons at the time of publications was 111.  In 2009, the Innocence Projected helped exonerate Dewey Bozella who was convicted in New York on the testimony of two witnesses with criminal histories who repeatedly changed their stories.  Mr. Bozella spent 26 years in prison before a judge ruled that he was wrongfully convicted.  In 2007, Roy Lopez Garcia was convicted of murder in Santa Clara, CA  in part on testimony by snitch Timonthy Villalba–who provided the evidence most directly linking Mr. Garcia to the murder.  Mr. Villalba previously testified in the 2002 murder trial for Glen Nickerson.  Nickerson was convicted but the conviction was overturned by a U.S. District Court judge who held that Mr. Villalbal was “entirely without credibility.”  In the Garcia case, the jury was told Mr. Villalbal testified in the Nickerson case but was not allowed to hear that a judge found him to not be credible.

As much as prisoners have purported to brag (or confide) to fellow inmates about their crimes, snitches have come forward to boast about their craft.  The Justice Project website has the story of legendary snitch Leslie Vernon White, who, in interviews with 60 Minutes and Time, described his process of fabricating testimony and making it believable.

As long as there are prisons there will be inmates willing to perjure themselves out of them.  As long as prosecutors have evidence linking defendants to crimes, they will use it.  Prosecutors must be more scrupulous in deciding to use it and have an obligation to determine it is credible.  Defense attorneys must also examine the credibility of jailhouse informants as well as teach the jury about the snitch system.  Courts must also permit the defense to take jurors into the world of prison and snitching.  It is the unfamiliarity with this world that likely leads to jurors to not understand snitch testimony.  If prosecutors are going to use it, the defense must be allowed to question it.  Just as the parties can call experts on scientific evidence, they should be allowed to call experts on snitching.

Courts have not however been so receptive.  In the winter of 2010, George Leniart was convicted in New London of the murder of April Pennington, who disappeared in 1996 (Disclosure: I interned with the lawyers who defended Mr. Leniart–Norm Pattis and Kevin Smith–I did work on this case and met with Mr. Leniart in  the summer of 2009).  The State did not have a body or any scientific evidence.  The evidence linking Mr. Leniart to the kidnapping, rape and murder of Ms. Pennington came from prisoners.  Norm and Kevin called prisoner witnesses of their own to discredit the State’s snitches but were not allowed to call a snitching expert.  Expert testimony is allowed when it is helpful to the trier of fact and is beyond the knowledge of jurors.  While the determination of credibility is not beyond the ken of jurors, prison culture and the snitch system (perhaps fortunately) are.  Juries need to be informed about the jailhouse informant testimony that is relied upon frequently in high stakes cases.

Justice for all,


[For a fictionalized story about snitch testimony and the death penalty, check out this classic episode of The Practice, the best legal show ever made.]

Football in a law blog is like football in a baseball stadium…

…it’s what you’re getting this weekend. Maybe not a perfect fit but it’s still football and that alone makes it better than most other things in life. We’ll save the law talk for the week days.

My BC Eagles are bowl eligible again, notching a sixth win (four straight after a dreadful 2-5 start) with one game left to play. This was not a fun season to watch and even as the team improved (with scheduling help from Wake, Duke and Virginia), it was still not the most exciting. Things are finally looking up as some young players–notably defensive end Max Holloway, quarterback Chase Rettig, tight end Chris Pantale, receiver Bobby Swigert, safety Jim Noel and kicker Nate Freese (we now have a kicker, not just an extra-point specialist)–stepped up and really show a promising future. Although bare bowl eligibility is football’s version of the sub-NIT basketball tournaments, BC locked in a .500 conference record. Despite being one of our worst seasons in more than a decade and having a stretch of games where the team looked like it would go 2-10, it says a lot about the character of the team that, where many teams would have mailed it in and fallen apart, they turned things around and won games.

With a 59-0 win over Fresno State on Friday, Boise State maintained its blue turf winning streak. Boise State last lost in the 2005 Humanitarian Bowl to none other than BC. The Broncos go on the road this Friday night to play a ranked Nevada team that is really the only remaining obstacle in their run for a BCS bowl. This week’s game will be Boise’s third straight Friday night game. Like the last two Boise State opponents, Fresno State and Idaho, Nevada last played on Saturday, effectively giving Boise State one more day of rest for two straight weeks. Boise State waxed Fresno so badly that it probably didn’t matter but it is an advantage worth noting. Here’s to Nevada pulling an East Dillon upset of the boys on blue.

Two of the storylines in college football this week revolved around the same theme: playing football in a baseball stadium. Northwestern and Illinois flashed back to the team’s 1923 meeting when the teams played each other at Wrigley. Army and Notre Dame played at Yankee Stadium III, flashing back to when the teams played their rivalry game at Yankee Stadium I. Both illustrated the folly of playing a sport in a venue designed for another. Wrigley’s alignment subjected the Big Ten to require offenses to only go toward one goal. The Bears played in Wrigley for over fifty years and used a North-South layout compared to the 2010 East-West layout.

After some renovations, the North-South layout led to the first-base dugout to be in part of the south endzone. When I saw that, I immediately thought: Three-point conversion.

The Bronx version left many seats at funny angles and some unable to see the outfield endzone.

Playing college games in these two ballparks when better stadia were available in each city (Northwestern and Soldiers Field in Chicago and New Meadowlands in NY/NJ, although NFL obligations may have excluded the pro stadia) is really just gimmicky and novelty. At least with Army-Notre Dame, Army benefited by playing the game close to home and both schools benefited by playing in NY (even if it was the South Bronx). Still, it probably would be fun to do once in a while. The entire game experience changes. Wrigleyville gives fans plenty of bar and restaurant options before and after the game. The South Bronx lets you take the Subway to the game and for one day brings major college football to New York City.

When it comes to stadium gimmicks, this one has Fenway written all over it. I would be shocked if the Red Sox ownership, who brought a soccer match between Celtic F.C. and Sporting Lisbon last summer, haven’t thought of a throwback to the days of the 1960s Boston Patriots and 1940s BC. Especially since the Fenway Sports Group was working with BC. I bet Fenway asked BC and BC refused. Alumni Stadium provides a great home-field advantage (which is why it would actually hurt us to play a big game in Gillette) and I believe a college campus is the true place for college football games (really, students should be the last people to have to drive to a game) so I would not support playing meaningful games anywhere but Alumni. As for weak games like our annual FCS opponent, I’m up for Fenway, BC’s old home field. Those games don’t draw well and shouldn’t be exciting anyway so Fenway would actually add something to them. It’s not far so students would be able to go and the park can serve beer. If we could schedule Holy Cross and count the game to our bowl eligibility, then have a throwback to 1942. Make it ultimate retro day. At least then the “Sweet Caroline” late in the game would be tolerable.

“Stay Up and Get Drunk All Over Again”

What wold Zack Morris do if he were here today?  He (with Screech as his underpaid chemist) would concoct and bottle a drink that contained high amounts of alcohol and caffeine and had a fruity taste, then sell it to the students of Bayside.  Zack would bask in his riches until a bunch of losers who couldn’t handle their booze got sick and ruined the prom, prompting Mr. Belding to ban the drink.  Plot holes aside, everyone would learn a valuable lesson.

Four Loko, the caffeinated, alcoholic potion of fun that received free advertising in the form of news articles warning of its dangers–it’s HIGHLY ALCOHOLIC, ENERGIZING and CHEAP (other than “gets you laid,” what could possibly make it more appealing to college students than those words?  We’re talking about a class of people that will go to any event that has free food and will drink highlighter fluid if it’s in a liquor bottle*)–is being pulled from shelves and the company is agreeing to take the caffeine out.  Similar drinks such as Joose are also feeling the effects, at least here in Connecticut as my buddy Steve and I found out earlier tonight when we asked a package store clerk about it.

Harmful products should be regulated.  Liquor already is a highly-regulated industry so if something that both gets people really drunk and energetic and is marketed on that concept (Four Loko wasn’t going for a sip and enjoy kind of image) should be banned or at least controlled better than it was.  If not, why regulate anything?  Then again, would it be different if these drinks were addictive and caused cancer with fifty years of medical research to prove it?  What if these drinks were taxed heavily?

With Four Loko and similar products on the way off shelves, you can still get your kicks from the original alcoholic energy drink, Buzz Beer, which the Drew Carey Show invented more than ten years ago.

Just Another Murder Case

Like much of Connecticut, I followed a murder case in New Haven earlier this month, eagerly awaiting a verdict. The verdict came last week: Brandon Bellamy was guilty of two counts of murder, assault and firearms charges. Who? Brandon Bellamy. Not Steven Hayes. Brandon Bellamy was tried in New Haven at the same time–and the same courthouse–as Steven Hayes. Mr. Bellamy was charged (and now convicted) of shooting three men, killing two and wounding one, in April of 2008. The State asserted that the County St. shooting was the result of an earlier altercation with the victims downtown at the Gotham Citi nightclub.

I had personal connection to the Bellamy case: I was a prospective juror. For the first jury. In mid-September–at the beginning of the Hayes trial–I was called for jury duty in New Haven. After about fifteen minutes of voir dire by prosecutor Kevin Doyle and defense attorney Glen Conway, I was sent to the jury room while my fate was decided. About thirty seconds later I was called back into the courtroom and told I was dismissed, satisfying my jury service for the day. I looked the case up online when I got home and became interested in it.

I tried following the trial in the newspaper, mostly the Register. But I couldn’t. Every day the Register had the latest from the Steven Hayes case accompanied by a picture of Dr. William Petit (the survivor of his family’s murder) and often, his sister. When I left the New Haven J.D. after being excused from the Bellamy jury, I passed all the news vans and reporters on Church St. The Bellamy case received almost no mention in any of the papers. The only way I was able to find out about anything going on in the Bellamy case was by searching Google which occasionally turned up an article or a blog post. There were no live updates on the Register homepage or courtroom Twitter feeds by Register or Courant reporters. Yet, the Bellamy case was more interesting.

It was a foregone conclusion that Steven Hayes would be found guilty. He confessed to the murders and his lawyer even said in his opening that Mr. Hayes committed the crimes. He offered to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison. He only went to trial because it was a capital case and he was by law not allowed to plead guilty and voluntarily subject himself to the death penalty. The Bellamy case however had clear questions of fact. Mr. Bellamy did not admit to the crimes and professed his innocence. The survivor of the shooting could not identify Mr. Bellamy. Witnesses changed their stories. The first jury (the one I didn’t make) was wholly excused as Judge Alexander declared a mistrial before evidence began after one of the prosecutors became a potential witness when another witness recanted her story. Yet the only article that came out of the Bellamy trial was the verdict. The date on that article: Saturday November 13. The verdict came the day before–four days after penalty phase verdict for Steven Hayes. There were no articles in anticipation for a verdict in the Bellamy case during the days the jury was deliberating. Nor a video about a New Haven woman’s reaction to the Bellamy verdict, like this one about a Cheshire woman’s reaction to the Hayes verdict. Newspapers and TV channels report the news, but they also want to sell papers and deliver ratings. The reason for the constant coverage of the Hayes case has as much to do with who reads the articles as it does with who writes them.

What was different about the two cases? The major reason is that Steven Hayes faced the death penalty and Brandon Bellamy did not. New Haven had not had a capital case in a long time and most of the suspense was whether a New Haven jury would sentence a person to die. But there’s more. The death penalty aside, why was Hayes’ case (and his co-actor, Joshua Komisarjevsky) hyped up in the media? The crimes were terrible: a mother and her two daughters were brutally murdered in their home in Cheshire. The victims in the Bellamy case were shot on County St. in New Haven which is near Hillhouse High School. The victims were men. The victims and the defendant were black.

The attack of one’s home and harm to one’s family are among every person’s worst fears. The murders of the Petit family plays on both of those fears. But what about shootings in our city? Especially shootings that might have been the result of an altercation at a downtown nightclub that attracts people from outside the city (maybe not Gotham Citi, but suburbanites do go to the other bars and clubs downtown)? Part of the reason is the victims. Haley, Michaela and Jennifer Hawke-Petit were the All-American family of a doctor who lived in Cheshire, one of the more affluent suburbs in New Haven County. Christopher Duncan, William Burruss and Justin Davis were black men who were shot in a black neighborhood in the city. Still, in both cases people died.

While the race and socio-economic status of the victims is a major reason for the different characterizations of these crimes, location is probably the more significant factor. It’s the city versus the suburb. People expect violence to occur in a city, especially the people who say things like “gun wavin’ New Haven.” People do not expect violence to occur in a place like Cheshire. A place where people move to get away from the problems–and very likely the people–of cities. When there’s a murder in a town like Cheshire, it’s shocking–and scary–to all of the suburbanites who used to feel safe in their towns and would never feel safe in any neighborhood in New Haven, never mind County St. A murder in Cheshire is news. For a lot of people, murders in the cities are not news at all. Cases like Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky are the crimes of the century. In New Haven, which had 23 murders reported in 2008 and 12 reported in 2009, in the minds of suburbanites who think that there’s a murder every day in the city, people being gunned down on County St. is just business as usual and State v. Bellamy was just another murder case.

For the best and most-deserved criticism of the death penalty and the media covering the Hayes case, check out this video of Steven Hayes’ attorneys Tom Ullman and Patrick Culligan after the verdict.  Fast-forward about seven minutes in for the real meat.  Thanks to Gideon for posting it.

DeMatteo’s Rise

What should I do?

Should I admit law school was a mistake? (It wasn’t.)

Should I remind you that I’ve done this before? (Remember the Boston Collegian and BC Carpetbaggers?)

Should I really have majored in history?

Should I tell you how much I learned in law school?

Should I really believe I’m fighting for people’s rights?

Should I have stayed in Wisconsin?

Want to see my shiny new blog?  Maybe I should just blog and tweet.

Or should I tell you, “I just want to help people” ?

Should I tell you that I’m a degree earner, that I did it for the money, or to put off going to work for three years?  (Hey, an L.L.M. sounds nice.)

Should I practice what you want me to practice?

Should I accept my role as a villain?

Maybe I should just find a new line of work. (Or just focus exclusively on writing legal softcore porno movies. Coming Soon: Well-Hung Jury.)

Should I have sucked-up at my last internship?

Should I try for a job with a white shoe firm? (Probably should have done OCI.)

Should I make you money?

Should I write you a nicely-researched brief?

Should I just scrap this criminal law thing and represent corporations?  (Because it’s not like they’re criminals or anything…)

What should I do?

Should I take the cases you come to me with?

As a writer who’s dabbled in satire, I had to take a shot at the LeBron commercial.  You know, this one:

The Legal Pad for Connecticut Attorney Christopher DeMatteo. Legal commentary with sides of rock and roll and soul.