The More We See, The Less We Know

Digital technology was supposed to make life easier for us and in many ways it has. Letters used to take days to arrive. Now, emails and texts bounce back and forth in seconds.

Phones used to be anchored to walls. Now, we carry them everywhere.

Typing used to require multiple carefully reworked drafts, as white-out and typos looked ugly. I rewrote that sentence three times in the time it would have taken for me to reinsert a piece of paper into my old IBM Selectric.

And yet, when it comes to video, it’s almost made our lives worse, especially when it comes to our judgment of others.

There is that “obvious” fumble that Cris Collinsworth shows us over and over and over again, his nasally whine berating the guy who got six-tenths of a second to make the call on the field. There are the umpires with Princess Leia Earmuff Headsets talking to New York if something was or wasn’t a home run (Jeffrey Maier be damned…). I’ve heard “Secaucus, New Jersey” so often on NBA broadcasts, I think I want to move there.

The ability to capture a moment allows us to see and analyze every instant of a moment and pass judgment. And yet the more we see, the less we really know.

Two things happened this week that had me pondering this issue and why it is we seem to be getting worse as we become more informed.

The first was, obviously, the “Making a Murderer” series on NetFlix, which follows the trials of Steven Avery. He was first convicted of rape, spent 18 years in prison and then was exonerated based on DNA evidence. He maintained his innocence throughout the process and even the old news coverage shows the police and sheriff’s officials were sketchy in their work at that point.

After being exonerated, Avery sued for more than $30 million. In the middle of the depositions, he was accused of murdering Teresa Halbach, a photographer who went to Avery’s home the day she disappeared. He was tried and convicted, with Avery, again, pleading his innocence.

I’m not going to re-litigate the case or post my thoughts about the issue here, if only because it would take away from the primary point I’m trying to make. However, I will say that based on what I saw of the documentary, I just pray to God that my life is never in the hands of the criminal justice system. I don’t think “clusterfuck” is a strong enough word to describe what happened throughout the process.

The documentary has come under fire, as it portrays Avery in a sympathetic light, according to some, and because it “left things out,” according to others. Ken Kratz, the Cyril Figgis of the DA’s office, slammed the documentary for missing out on all sorts of important things that would have clearly shown Avery was guilty. Of course, he a) declined to take part in the film during the TEN YEARS the producers were making it and b) declined to explain how some of the most basic things the documentary revealed didn’t sink his case (as in why the victim’s DNA wasn’t on her own car key, an item only recovered after the eighth search of Avery’s home and only after the Manitowoc cops were alone in his trailer, something even they admit they shouldn’t have been allowed to do).

In watching this series, I found myself learning about this case (I was too young to remember his original conviction and I was out of state when he was on trial for the murder), so I didn’t have a stake in the game. Interestingly enough, the kids around here all seem to have some connection to the area or have friends who do and it’s become kind of a rage-fest between those who want “justice” (I put that in quotes because it means a lot of different things to the array of people here.) and those who want it to go away. I understand why the Halbach family wants it to go away. I wouldn’t like to have to relive the worst moments of my life and have everyone talking about them. I understand why the cops want it to go away. It was a high-profile case and they got put through the wringer (in some cases, justifiably so; in others, probably not so much).

However, what struck me the most was that the more I watched, the less I knew. I’m watching actual video of a confession that Brendan Dassey (Avery’s nephew) gave regarding the role police said he played in the murder. It’s clear to me this kid has a serious mental defect, and I mean that in a clinical way.

The press conference that Kratz gave when the cops broke Dassey outlines this passionate confession of rape, murder, blood, death, fire and mayhem, as if this kid poured out a George R.R. Martin novel worth of detail.

The video? The kid can’t string together three words without prompting. He changes his story and he’s pretty clearly just guessing at what the cops want to know.

His main concern about confessing to murder? He wants to make it back for his 1:30 class because he has a project due.

His main concern about being in prison for the rest of his life? Wrestlemania is showing on Wednesday and he doesn’t have a TV.

Still, the jury convicted the kid of murder and defiling a corpse. The other jury? It found Avery guilty of murder, but not defiling a corpse even though it was supposedly Avery’s murder and fire.

I keep thinking, “Am I missing something? Or are we just stupid on the whole and the juries’ main concerns were about getting a lunch break?” Comedians for years said they wouldn’t want to be judged by 12 people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty. I sat in a couple jury rooms and there were times I think I might have outpointed the collective IQs of the people in there with me.

Or by seeing so much of this, did I overestimate my own sense of what I really knew?

The other thing that had me pondering this question was the revelation that more than 100 faculty members on the University of Missouri campus have signed a letter, calling for the school to retain professor Melissa Click. You may remember Click as the assistant professor of communication who called for “some muscle” when a reporter attempted to enter the Carnahan Quad during the #ConcernedStudent1950 protests back in November. She was captured on video pushing a journalist, threatening a journalist with an erroneous statement regarding his rights, calling for people to physically “muscle” him off the Quad and then mocking him as he asserted his First Amendment rights.

The letter calls Click’s actions “at most a regrettable mistake” and argues that “the university should defend her first amendment rights of protest and her freedom to act as a private citizen.”

I’ve watched that video more than a dozen times. I’m bordering on Zapruder status in my intent to analyze it and my reading of other stories about Click and this protest. I’m also someone who works with students in classes that deal with exactly the kinds of First-Amendment (someone should tell the letter-folk to capitalize stuff) issues at play in this situation.

I argued that it was interesting that only two journalism faculty signed on for this letter and that there were clearly some issues here that would lead to dismissal. A good friend who is a First-Amendment scholar and the owner of both a journalism Ph.D. and a law degree argued the opposite. His point was that her words didn’t create an imminent threat and that there are differences between direct threats (“I’m going to shoot you”) and indirect ones (“Someone ought to shoot you.”). He also noted that she had a right under the First Amendment to protest.

Again, I keep watching this thing and trying to imagine myself in that spot. If I’m that kid and I’m in the minority (journalists vs. protesters), I’m already on edge. When someone calls for “muscle” I don’t think it’s so that we can arm wrestle to see who should get interviewed first.

If I’m there, I’m scared. I’m also thinking that in this day and age of stand-your-ground, right-to-carry and the general “Fuck You Nation,” it’s a miracle of modern man that no one pulled a gun in this whole thing. If that happens, you’re talking Kent State times 100.

As a professor, I find myself ALWAYS imagining the headline of the story before I do anything that might be viewed as suspect. For example, “Journalism Professor Pees in Dorm Parking Lot” is not how I want to see myself in the public eye. Sure, I like to think of myself as a private citizen, but if I pull off a public act that casts me and my school in bad light (and that borders on illegal and potentially violent), I know I’m going to be job hunting soon.

And yet, maybe I’m only seeing this as a detached journalist? Maybe I’m missing something?

Or maybe Melissa Click’s right to free expression have to stop at the other guy’s nose. Supporting someone who took advantage of mob-sized leverage and then mocked someone else’s rights probably shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Beyond that, the phrase “at most a regrettable mistake” bugs the crap out of me. As a journalism blog covering this issue noted, it’s unclear if she regrets the actions or if she regrets being caught. It’s also unclear if she really regrets either. Or understands what made this such a shit show.

The phrase, “You weren’t there” is one that people often use to excuse away the actions of themselves and others. To be fair, that concept is a double-edged sword. By being “there” (wherever “there” is), you have access to the raw events as the occur. However, you also have but a singular, momentary frame of reference.

I’m sure when she hears the word “thug,” Click doesn’t think of herself in that context. However, through a longer and wider lens, her actions were “thuggish.” She could have loosed even more violent opportunism as she wielded the power of an angry mob against an agent of the press. (A press, by the way, that she and others openly courted throughout the protests.)

I’m sure that people who lived around the Avery clan saw him not as this bearded, dwarflike man who could never catch a break. The documentary makes it clear that the family has been branded as “The Averys,” a clear local euphemism that transcends this group. Every town or area has a “oh… it’s THOSE PEOPLE,” euphemism. Back home, the Edgerton Apartments were where lower-class, lower-income people lived. People who were said to be dirty, redneck trailer trash were said to be “One of the Edgertons.”

The sense that these people were a few fries short of a Happy Meal and shit-box poor assholes comes through in so much of this series. It’s like they basically had it coming when something bad happened to them. Besides, why would the cops go through all the work of framing a guy with the IQ of a salad bar?

However, when you watch this series all at once, you have to ask, “What the hell is wrong with ALL of Manitowoc County?” Between the strange, backwoods coupling that seems to be going on all over the place in terms of marriages and families and the dickhead cops who browbeat a 16-year-old kid, it’s hard to see this as justice, regardless of if he’s innocent or guilty.

An officer of the court told a reporter, that it made no sense to frame Avery. It would be easier to kill him if they just wanted him gone.

A DNA expert tainted a sample with her own DNA and then broke protocol so she could declare the DNA on a bullet a match to the victim’s.

Despite tons of references to blood, blood, blood and more blood, they couldn’t seem to find any of it anywhere other than in the victim’s car.

I kept watching and waiting for someone, ANYONE to explain how that was possible. I read everything I could to find out how all this worked.

I got nothing.

At the end of the day, Avery’s in prison, Click’s probably going to teach again and we’ll all go back to doing whatever it was we did before knew about either of them. However, I can’t help but hang onto that idea that I’m essentially trying to grab a fistful of Jell-O when it comes to situations like this: The harder I squeeze and try to hold on, the more it just seems to squirt away.

Maybe we were all better off when we didn’t see as much.

2 thoughts on “The More We See, The Less We Know

  1. Yeah, virtually all of the sensational bits of the nephew’s confession used to convict Avery were completely unsupported by the evidence. At the precise point in the garage to where the nephew said they’d dragged a woman who’d been stabbed in the stomach and had her throat cut and was then shot several times, there was no blood–there was even a large crack in the floor which they’d chiseled up looking for DNA evidence which might have seeped in, and found none. The only DNA evidence found in the entire garage or his house was on the bullet fragment and the keys found almost five months after the commission of the crime. There’s video of the garage being searched–there’s an immense amount of clutter in it, and plenty of evidence that there’d been no attempt whatsoever to clean the place of DNA. On the open part of the floor where the kid said they’d dragged her, there was a large fluid stain, which looked a bit like old antifreeze or ATF. How would that have remained intact if there’d been a concerted effort to remove DNA evidence? The kid said she was tied to the bed in the house with rope and chains and was stabbed there and her throat cut there, and then dragged through the house, outside and into the garage where she was then shot. No blood spatter in the bedroom. No bloody sheets, no blood on the mattress. None in the carpets. None on the stairs. No DNA, period. He said they cut her hair with a knife. No hair. That defies belief.

    One of the other oddities about the nephew’s interrogation is that they kept pumping him for proof that Avery had burned her body, how did you know she was in the fire?, they kept asking him. The kid’s reply? He saw her toes. That’s kind of odd, if there was an entire body in there.

    But, the bigger problem of how those inconsistencies translate into a jury bringing a guilty verdict is more complicated. It was evident that the defense attorneys and their investigator did yeoman work on the case–they certainly can’t be accused of negligence and offered numerous examples of reasonable doubt, but the jury still convicted (they did miss a couple of possibilities worth pursuing; first, the swabs taken from the blood in the car were from thin smears, and they needed to question the FBI analyst on the evaporation rate of EDTA from such samples; second, they apparently did not ask for printouts from the car’s various computers–the air bag computer stores data on vehicle speed, brake use, engine behavior, throttle position and the accelerometers show changes in direction, for the 90-120 seconds before the car was last parked–and from that, they might have been able to show if the car came from the main road or was driven around on the lot).

    From plenty of experience in jury rooms, jurors automatically assume that if the state brought a case, the defendant must be guilty. It’s always a lot of work to get them to back away from that initial prejudice (a prejudice reinforced by endless police procedural shows on television that portray inspired analysis of the evidence or gritty determination of the detective–it’s my chief beef with “Law and Order”–the cops and prosecutors are never wrong in that fantasy world), and I think that it’s in large part because jurors are just never advised or instructed on the reason why the concept of a “jury of one’s peers” is enshrined in law: it presumes that ordinary people will put themselves in the shoes of the accused and imagine themselves facing the immense power of the state and consider their own loss of liberty in similar circumstances. In reality, that simply doesn’t happen. Most people today are emotionally and psychologically aligned with the authorities, not the accused, perhaps because the prosecutors and the cops look a lot more like them than does the defendant.

    Jurors aren’t aware, either, of the winning is everything for prosecutors attitude common today. I once watched a prosecutor hand a defense attorney a crucial piece of evidence thirty seconds before a trial began, just so he could technically say he’d complied with discovery. I have a friend who’s been a small-town lawyer for about forty years, and he said there’ve been drastic changes over the years. When he first started out, discovery was never an issue–said the prosecutor or cops would just hand him the entire file and point him to the copier–and now, it’s like pulling teeth getting information. Drug war convictions are especially good for political careers, I surmise.

  2. Great comment. Especially this, “Most people today are emotionally and psychologically aligned with the authorities, not the accused, perhaps because the prosecutors and the cops look a lot more like them than does the defendant.”

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