On a ‘backer, a hacker and a pedestrian whacker: A Rant

No innovative solutions on offer today.  I just caught the pattern as three cases darted across the pages and screens from which I get the news.  And please be advised: as will be readily obvious, I am not a lawyer. 

This week we think about  life above the law in reference to a football star;  supporters of a famous hacker and suicide victim; and an Ivy League undergrad.

The details of the three stories vary significantly.  But in the past few days the three shared a spotlight. The focus illuminated  how we, the people, place elites above the law in our criminal justice prejudices and processes.

Looking across these three cases I believe that “the reasonable person,” that elusive character who lives somewhere in the US Supreme Court building, would conclude that the cases also involve disdain for the rule of law.

The ‘backer

Ray Lewis is the football star, a Baltimore Ravens linebacker who was involved in a double homicide in Atlanta’s Buckhead Village after the Super Bowl in 2000.  The Ravens’ Feb. 3, 2013 Super Bowl appearance inevitably reminded everyone of the Atlanta murders 13 years ago.

Two men were stabbed to death allegedly during an altercation with Lewis and his entourage.  Victim blood was found in Lewis’s limo.  The two men tried for the murder were entourage members and were accused of buying knives a few days prior to the killings to be used in the protection of Lewis .  The white suit Lewis wore that night somehow disappeared.  Lewis made various consciousness-of-guilt statements to his people.  The future Hall of Famer later cut a deal with the prosecution to plead guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice.  He proceeded to dissemble on the witness stand just enough to inhibit conviction of the two accused knife-wielders and keep himself out of a perjury charge.

In an interview with the great Shannon Sharpe of CBS prior to this year’s championship game Lewis offered this reflection:

CBS: “What would you like to say to the family?”

LEWIS: “It’s simple: God has never made a mistake. That’s just who he is, you see. If our system — and this is the sad thing about our system — if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have gotten to the bottom line. But the saddest thing ever is a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family: If you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for his glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.”

Even James Bulger lacked the brass to claim ultimate indemnification.

The hacker

Aaron Swartz is the hacker or “information rights activist” who was indicted for stealing copyright-protected journals from an electronic repository at MIT. He committed suicide late last year.  His anguished parents and others who cared about him blamed the US Attorneys Office in Massachusetts and MIT for causing the death.  They said the weight of the serious charges in the indictment, which carried total possible prison terms of 35 years or so, drove this young man to take his life.  I don’t believe the prosecution is guilty but I sympathize with the emotional evisceration suffered by his parents.  The poor kid was only 26.

Others with axes to grind re-stated the understandable agony of grieving parents.   They are yet telling anyone who will listen that The State hounded Swartz to his death because of his righteous liberation of “information.” On Sunday the Ideas section of The Boston Globe published a tome on “prosecutorial overreach.”  The writer believes this overreach to be the number one problem in our criminal justice philosophy and process.  I would like to live in whatever place in America that is the case.

One might say Swartz’s case does not belong in this rant about privilege and the criminal law.  He was indicted on charges that carried decades in potential prison time.  In Swartz’s case it is the controversy over the perceived aggressiveness of the US prosecutor that has kept his story in the news and in this blog entry.  It is the premise that computer scientists of a certain outlook and affiliation (Swartz was affiliated formally with Harvard and formerly with MIT) are above the law.  Laws governing copyright and other property protections are ancient history, bankrupt paradigms impeding the mighty and righteous flow of Information. Perhaps the Prophet Amos should have said, “But let information flow like water, and the internet, like an unfailing stream.”  In this regard, some have analogized the information rights activists to Daniel Ellsberg and his courage in stealing the Pentagon Papers for us.

I do not see the analogy between stealing 5 million pages of  academic journals from MIT and, for example, Ellsberg photocopying the Pentagon Papers so that grave and consequential lies by our representatives in government might be revealed to the citizenry.  The big rights fight at the crux of the Pentagon Papers case wasn’t our right to know stuff but the right to a free press to print anything it chooses to print. It was an important victory for that bulwark of liberty: the First Amendment prohibition against prior restraint of the press by the executive branch of government.  We will always have balancing tests in our society that weigh the moral rightness of the act against the moral rightness of the law.  Ellsberg did not claim to be above the law.  He acted knowing he was morally right and legally wrong.  He knew it was not child’s play.  If the idiom of our day were available then we would have said he knew it was not a video game.

To me, many of the “information rights activists” are like the printers just after Gutenberg.  They improved the press but their work always was derivative.  They didn’t innovate anything in and of themselves. They didn’t invent the printing press nor write the Bibles they could reproduce.  Though over 500+ years they made Bibles and other print materials faster and made them look prettier.  Like most inventors Gutenberg had no clue what his new technology might make possible.  He could not know that his printing press would be a tool for revolution.  Catholics would start reading the Bible in their vernacular languages and initiate the tremors that became the Reformation. Within 50 years Martin Luther stuck his Principles on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Mass literacy would drive the Enlightenment.  Oral cultures would assimilate or wither and die out.  Childhood would be invented to give young people time to learn to read.

The advances in printing since 1456 are still derivative.  The same is true for today’s electrical engineers and scientists.  But in the contemporary case, they  maintain a shaman-like hold on the imaginations of the rest of us, for whom the theories and operations of IT systems are wondrous and mysterious things altogether.

I picked the first title in the list of new titles available through JSTOR, the publishing server at question in the hacker case.

February 1, 2013 Release Content

New Titles

Acta Turistica (Arts & Sciences X)

http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublication?journalCode=actaturistica

Coverage: Vol. 1, No. 2 (Prosinac, 1989) – Vol. 18, No. 2 (December, 2006)

Moving Wall: 2 years

Publisher: Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Zagreb

ISSN: 0353-4316
Note: The content for 2007-2010 will be released as soon as the issues become available to JSTOR.

If this material were important to me in a more or less free market why can’t I buy it or read it on a computer in the library?  I can’t speak for you but my relative contentment at the moment of death will not be affected by my never having had free access to whatever it was the folks at U. Zagreb were thinking about in Vol. 1, No.2.

The pedestrian whacker

Brendan Ross is the Yale undergrad who killed a Salem MA woman with a keg-laden U-Haul truck during tailgating at the Yale Bowl before The Game  in 2011.  He is alleged to have rounded a corner doing his best Frank Merriwell imitation, mistaking fellow tailgaters for menacing Harvard fellows.

This week he took a plea with some community service that will have his record expunged if he keeps his nose clean for the next few years.

Nobody wants to screw a kid with everything in front of him.  But there’s a thumb on the scale as far I can see. The late Nancy Barry was just a few years older than Ross when he sped up as he turned a corner and ran her over with a TRUCK.  He also injured two of her friends.  The boy behaved just about as recklessly as is humanly possible with that truck in that situation.  The next level was probably sticking his t-shirt in the gas tank and lighting it.  But that would have blown up the kegs, too.

We don’t want vengeance.  That almost never works.  But we’ve got three dead and no consequences.  And an influential portion of social opinion that believes that because we can steal certain categories of property we should and that having the technical means to steal makes it other than stealing.  (Then again, wasn’t it MIT kids who with their keyboards helped the Wall St. pirates to steal our economy?)

How about a big fat festival of argument in which we all lay out our prejudices, fears and aspirations for justice?

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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