American Violet and the Idolatry of Law

By Alan Bean 4-17-2009

090417-regina-kellyNPR's Wade Goodwyn has been working on this story ever since he attended the premier of the film American Violet at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hearne, Texas, three weeks ago. (I know because he's been calling me for background every other day.) The reporter's interest in the Hearne story isn't surprising; as the introduction to this morning's story indicates, American Violet was inspired by Goodwyn's reporting. When producer Peter Newman heard the Hearne story on NPR he had to pull off the road to get his emotions under control.

Those emotions sparked the movie project.

As I suggested in an earlier post, the Hearne story is largely dependent on the early publicity the Tulia drug sting received. Tulia and Hearne were parallel stories -- one featuring a racist white cop, the other a hapless black informant.

There is one difference: Terry McEachern, the district attorney who prosecuted the Tulia cases, was voted out of office; John Paschall, the architect of the Hearne fiasco, is still in power.

Paschall's control over Hearne and Robertson County provides a backdrop for Goodwyn's story. The priest who offered his church for the preview screening of American Violet was amazed to see handbills advertising the event disappearing from shop windows after a bizarre and shadowy emissary from the district attorney's office paid a visit to local business owners.

Paschall recently told The Dallas Morning News: "The only way I'd watch it, I'd have to be handcuffed, tied to a chair and you'd have to tape my eyes open."

Not everyone in Hearne's white community agrees: the audience at St. Mary's was only two-thirds African American.

Goodwyn's piece nicely captures the sense of threat and oppression hanging over small southern towns like Hearne (deep East Texas is on the Western tip of the Old South). Prominent white folk don't feel it, of course, but sit down with residents on the black side of town and you learn the meaning of fear.

With men like Paschall in power, the law sinks far below the grand ideal emblazoned across the facade of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.: "Equal Justice Under Law."

University of Virginia sociologist Donald Black has argued that in the real world, the law often behaves like a criminal.

Conventional legal thinkers regard law as inherently legitimate and worthy of respect. Otherwise it is not law at all. Illegality is the antithesis of law, and law that is criminal is seemingly a contradiction in terms. But from a sociological standpoint this conventional view of law is untenable. It is even worse than wrong: It is factually meaningless. It is factually meaningless because conventional legal thinkers such as lawyers and law professors confuse factual statements and value statements about law -- what law is and what it should be. For this reason it is difficult to know whether they are speaking of something that actually happens or something that should be happening. (The Geometry of Law, 2002)

I never apologize for my lack of legal training. If I was doing the work of a lawyer my lack of precise legal knowledge would be a major problem. But since my mission is to effect justice by changing the narrative of racially charged cases in the American South, a certain distance from the legal trade is a distinct advantage.

Don't get me wrong -- I lean heavily on the expertise of trained lawyers. There are several attorneys on the Friends of Justice board of directors and that is no accident. I need their assistance at every turn.

But Donald Black points to a fundamental problem all legal professionals face:

Their closeness to the subject makes it difficult for them to be scientific. Instead, they continually embrace the existence and operation of law. They romanticize it. They revere it as a sacred process. They worship it. They are no more likely to be scientific about law than is a priest to be scientific about God.

Or, as legal amateur (and devout Catholic layman) G.K. Chesterton put it exactly 100 years ago:

Now it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it. Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop.

Hearne demonstrates the dangers of accepting the legal fiction that prosecutors, judges, and juries are fair and nonpartisan. They may aspire to these high virtues, but rarely do they come close. Human beings are inherently biased and the tortured history of the American South magnifies this tendency.

Regina Kelly would have been tried, convicted, and incarcerated if her accuser hadn't recanted his testimony and prominent allies like the ACLU hadn't latched on to her case. Both were required: a recanting accuser and high-status allies. As we celebrate Regina Kelly's courage may we remember that most innocent defendants aren't so fortunate.

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice. Click here to read his blog.

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