Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

On Having One of Those Days

with 3 comments

Well, nights really.

Greg and I like to watch political opinion shows, and at eight at night, right before I go to be, we watch either Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly, depending on three factors:  who is likely to have the funniest take on the story of the moment; whether we’re presently annoyed at  Republicans or Democrats more; and whether either of them is off for the evening and being covered by a host substitute we don’t like.

That last one is the deal breaker.   O’Reilly tends to be subbed by a right wing blonde named Laura Ingraham, and I find her more annoying than any other human being in politics except for Nancy Pelosi.  Olbermann’s sub tends to be this bland, sort of not very exciting person who ends up sounding very odd, because the writers are still delivering scripts that are written to Olbermann’s style, and, um..

We’ve been watching more O’Reilly than Olbermann late, since Olbermann’s father is very ill and he’s been taking a lot of time off, but last night, both of them were off.   Greg and  bounced around a bit trying to see if there was anything worth putting up with the sub hosts for, and as there wasn’t, we ended up where we sometimes do these days:  at a show called Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader, hosted by Jeff Foxworthy on–wait for it–CMT, Country  Music Television.

For those of you who are actually interesting in hearing country music, you should know that most of the music is on another country cable station, called GAC (Great American Country).  CMT, which seems to be owned by the same people who own VH-1, is mostly, you know, shows.  World’s Strictest Parents.  Extreme Home Make-over. That kind of thing.

At any rate, we got to thise particular episode of Fifth Grader late, and we found ourselves staring at a young woman who teaches seventh grade world history in the Teach for America program. 

The way the game works is this:  there are two questions from each grade, one through five, up on the board.  Each is worth a specific amount of money, and if you get one right you get that amount of money, and if youget one wrong you get that amount subtractred. 

The young woman had managed to screw up the game to the point that she had ended with exactly $2000 as she entered the bonus round–out of a possible $25,000.  She now had the choice of either taking that money and going home, or taking the bonus question.   If she answered that question correctly, her money was multiplied by ten.   If she answered it incorrectly, it was eliminated, but she got the consolation prize of a pre-paid Visa card with $2500 on it.

Apparently, she could count.   Which was good.  Because the bonus question was in the category of fifth grade American History, and things were about to get ugly.

Her parents were in the audience right behind her.  Every once in a while the camera would pan back to them, and her m other looked like she was in pain.

Here was the questiong:  who was President when the last of the states joined the Union?

I don’t think that was the exact phrasing, but it was the question. 

The yoyung woman stood there and said, “I can’t remember when the last few states joined the country, but I’m pretty sure it was in the mid-1800s, so I’m going to say–John Adams?”

I really don’t make these things up.  I couldn’t make them up.  I barely believe them when I see them.

Believe it or not, this was on my mind for the past few hours because it reminded me of that discussion about process and outcome in the criminal justice system.  Robert has expressed the opinion that the only reason anybody ever goes to jail is because he doesn’t have the money to fight forever, since the process is so stacked against conviction by n ow we’d never convict anybody with adequate resources to fight.

I don’t agree–I mean, I really don’t agree–but I know something else about the justice system, and that is that the vast majority of cases never go to trial.  That’s not because the accused doesn’t have enough money for good lawyers.  Even most rich defendants plead out.

It’s because the vast majority of crimnals make that woman on Fifth Grader look like Einstein. 

And that’s true even when these people seem to be smart enough in their everyday lives.  If you don’t believe me, think about that NBC show To Catch A Predator.  That show has been on for years, and guys are still driving up to those suburban houses in SUVs, armed with sex toys and videotapes–and then being shocked as hell that the whole thing is a sting.

The other reason most criminals plead out is that any good defense attorny knows that most juries lean towards conviction–after all, if he wasn’t guilty, why was he arrested?  And they’re hypersensitive to the idea that “smart laywers” get guilty people off by confusing everybody.

That’s how a substitute teacher in a Connecticut public school got sentenced to ten years in prison and a place on the sex offender registry after ner classroom computer started spewing out porn while she was using it in a demonstration.  A computer can be hit by a virus that  makes it throw up porn images and the person using the computer can’t stop it?  Yeah, right.  If that was possible, we wouldn’t be having this trial!

Juries like to convict.  They tend to think police officers and prosecutors are automatically more reliable than defense lawyers and witnesses.  That’s why when they don’t know somsething–like how a computer virus works–they take the prosecution’s explanation over that tof the defense, even when the defense is right.

Fortunately for the young woman in the case above, the appeal was heard by a judge who did now something about computers, and he threw the case out, voided the verdict and had a screaming fit at the prosecution, but her life is likely to be largely screwed up permanently.

I am not the kind of person who thinks that all police officers and prosecutors are corrupt and care only about getting their arest and convict records up as high as possible.  I know that the Ray Nifongs of this world are blessedly rare.

But I also know that Ben Franklin was wrong.  The only things certain in this world are n ot death and taxes.   There is also human ignorance and stupidity, of which we havee a supply so vast that if we could figure out how to run cars on it, we could give ever man, woman, child and flea their own personal Volkswagen to run for free.

But then, if I’d been on the OJ jury, I’d have voted to acquit–and not because of anything OJ’s lawyers did or did not do.

Written by janeh

October 31st, 2009 at 10:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'On Having One of Those Days'

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  1. A cop once told me that the one thing that everyone he had ever arrested had in common was gross stupidity.

    But stupidity & ignorance can’t be all that lead someone into a criminal life. I’ve known plenty of stupid people who were perfectly nice & would never have dreamed of committing any crime. They can cause a lot of trouble–they can be easily fooled, or led, or simply misunderstand, and it would never occur to them to check something out before believing some plausible (to them) story. Not that most of us of normal intelligence are always much better! (I just checked out the data a Chicago Tribune columnist used in creating a column, & I’d like to whack him over the head with the report–what he claimed isn’t remotely justified by the data. But somebody will probably read it and believe him. Can you tell I’m irritated?)

    However, ignorance is curable, if the ignorant person wants to learn. But nobody can help the intelligence they’re born with.

    But to choose to commit an actual crime, I think there has to be an attitude–either learned or innate–that crime is an acceptable means to an end. Or that violence is fun. Or something like that. Maybe if you’re stupid, you have fewer mental defenses against acquiring an attitude like that?

    Lee B

    31 Oct 09 at 12:25 pm

  2. Lots of people “really don’t believe” things which are perfectly true. Denial is not refutation, though I’ll admit I see no way to prove either side of this one. Still, we’re talking about an appeals process that runs years at least and for decades without anyone raising an eyebrow. And anyone who pays attention can point out murderers who have been set free–not retried: set free–over procedural matters having nothing to do with any uncertainty about their guilt.

    So why not appeal forever? Logically, either because the money ran out, or because we have an appeals process with can take a decade or more and sentences for many crimes figured in months. No one’s going to spend five years appealing a two-year sentence he’s already serving.

    If we–that is, the modern bureaucratic West–really believed that no one should be punished until guilt had been established beyond reasonable doubt in a fair trial, no one would begin serving a sentence until the appeals had been exhausted, and there would be no such thing as pre-trial detention. I do not criticise these customs, but they are an interesting example of theory bending to reality.

    And the high percentage of plea bargains really has nothing to say about our ability to hold people. We are, as you say, mostly not losing the criminals in the courtroom. (Often we lose before, of course.) But if a murderer thinks it will take him five years to get out on appeal, and he can plea-bargain his murder down to four years, he’s well advised to plea bargain, however rich or smart he is. Of course, if you keep him in prison forever, he might as well–and can–appeal forever, and with every year he stands a better chance of being “cleared” at a retrial. Witnesses will be dead or senile. Evidence will be deteriorated or lost.

    Telling the grieving family that the monster who killed their loved one will be in prison forever, then retrying him every decade until he gets lucky is “procedure” to a T. It’s also why procedure is not justice.

    As for overall levels of human ignorance and stupidity, I commend to one and all the old SF short “The Marching Morons” which looks more like a documentary every time I read it.

    I recently saw a man quite shocked by the name “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea” since he had understood the north to be a communist dictatorship. About 15 years ago, I had to explain to a commissioned officer in Military Intelligence why the Yugoslavs couldn’t all just get along. He’d just read that it was a federal republic, after all. In between times, one of my colleagues had to explain to a staff officer why the Hungarian contingent couldn’t travel entirely by sea to Iraq. All three of those men had four-year degrees or more from accredited American colleges or universities. The Command Sergeant Major who thought the 38th Parallel was the same as the DMZ didn’t have a degree, but he was stationed in Korea when I broke the news to him, and his unit extended to the DMZ.

    None of those people was stupid, but I would like to have a word with some of the people responsible for their education.

    There is, sadly, no way to express general ignorance with a number. There is no scale or index. It’s a pity, because if there were, we could soon identify the tipping point–exactly when a country became so ignorant it could no longer function as a democracy.


    31 Oct 09 at 1:48 pm

  3. You have stupid and honest, stupid and dishonest, intelligent and honest…well, I know not everyone fits into neat little categories, but maybe the bright criminals don’t get caught, at least, not if they commit crimes that are planned, and not while they are in a fit of rage or something.

    Some people have different moral codes than others, and I swear some simply don’t see things the way the law does, and not always because they don’t agree with laws on importing or speeding or parking.

    I am not getting into details here even though I said ‘no’ and am sticking to it, but someone who is not unintelligent at all asked me to help out in a certain matter. I refused to lie, which was part of the matter, but I could also instantly see at least two ways in which the proposed plan could be considered a pretty serious violation of the law. I don’t think the other person understands that yet, although I tried to explain that I wasn’t objecting only to the lying or only to the inconvenience. This was a seriously bad idea.

    And as for general education, 90% of the people on the Internet or in the media whose opinions I have been reading should be sent back to school for rememdial science education. That’s not a random sample, of course, since they include people who have sent me URLs for websites or videos containing the ‘truth’ that’s been suppressed by everyone else, but their uncritical acceptance of whatever someone puts on a website is ….extreme.


    31 Oct 09 at 6:22 pm

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