Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: Popular Crime

Those of y'all who have more than a passing interest in baseball know who Bill James is. Mr. James practically created the algebra we use to analyze hitters and pitchers.

But Bill James has a hobby outside baseball - he's addicted to true crime stories. So addicted, in fact, that he decided to write a book about our fascination with them. The result is Popular Crime. The book takes us on a whirlwind tour of every "crime of the century" over the last 150 or so years.

His theory is you can really learn something about the history of a people by studying the crime stories they wrote. Crime stories are popular when you have beautiful people, tension and a vicious murder. Put in a "damsel in distress" or a child victim and the popularity of the story will go through the roof.

At their heart, true crime stories are an expose of a society's culture, customs and mores. Adultery, jealousy and greed provide the narrative for a sordid little murder.Want to know who the bogeyman is? Just take a look who the villain is in the books. We've gone from black men to Germans to communists to Latin American immigrants.

Not being a lawyer, Mr. James has little use for the rules of evidence and the concept of due process. In fairness, his interest is determining who did it -- not whether the prosecutor can prove who did it beyond all reasonable doubt. In his utopian court system, the only requirement of evidence would be relevance to the matter at hand. To determine relevance, Mr. James created a seven-step process.

  1. State the fact itself in a way that is unambiguously true.
  2. State that which tends to be proven by the fact, as if this was known to be true.
  3. Put the statement of fact proven by (2) in a "standard evidence" form.
  4. Establish the value of the statement of evidence with reference to a standard set of values for such evidence.
  5. Make an estimate of the extent to which the statement is unproven.
  6. Make an estimate of the extent to which the statement is irrelevant.
  7. Discount the value of the statement by the extent to which the statement is unproven or irrelevant.

The hardest thing for Mr. James to wrap his head around is the notion that a jury should not hear evidence that is unduly prejudicial to the defendant. The concepts of hearsay and confrontation are also both out of his grasp.

An interesting point that Mr. James makes is that after the expansion under the Warren Court of protections for the accused, far more defendants are convicted than before. He offers up an explanation that rings true. According to Mr. James, it's harder to beat the rap due to the professionalism of the police and pretrial discovery.

Juries are much more likely today to believe a police officer on the stand than they were in the 20's and 30's. Officers are perceived as more educated and disciplined today. As Gordon Gekko told Bud Fox, "the perception is reality."

It's the other idea that I'm interested in. Back in the early part of the century there was no pretrial discovery. Every trial was trial by ambush. The defendant didn't know what the prosecutor had up his sleeve and the prosecutor had no idea what tricks the defense attorney had in the works. That made it more attractive for defendants to roll the dice and go to trial.

Nowadays we see the offense reports. We see videos of traffic stops or interrogations. We see photographs. We read witness statements. There is very little the prosecutor has that the defense doesn't know about (but, of course, Brady is one case that is honored more in the breach than in the observance). Over at the civil courthouse there is little or no mystery at trial anymore. Thanks to liberal discovery rules, everyone knows what everyone else knows and what everyone's going to say. There's a reason most civil cases settle long before trial.

Is something similar playing out in the criminal courthouse? Does knowing the strengths of the prosecution's case make defendants more likely to enter into pleas rather than taking a chance at trial? As both sides operate with more information we're seeing prosecutors drop more and more of their weak cases and defendants pleading when confronted with a strong case against them. The cases going to trial tend either to be the coin flips or the cases in which a defendant is hoping to "beat the rec."

Popular Crime is an interesting book that will make you think -- it's just that sometimes that's after you've thrown your book (or your Kindle) halfway across the room.

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