Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

In a Perfect World

 

 Case for the Prosecution

Facts. We love them.

Facts are so unambiguous, so straightforward, so clearly themselves. When you have facts, there’s no need for fumbling and floundering. All questions are answered, all doubts removed. Facts are a bulwark against uncertainty, when certainty is what we all crave.

It’s not surprising, then, that so many scientists rely on observable facts to guide them. And they are by no means the only ones. Lawyers, judges, and law enforcers depend heavily on the facts of a case to help bring the right person to justice. Consequently, tremendous effort is invested in gathering those facts: clear, cold, and unambiguous.

“I saw it with my own eyes!”

“I heard it, loud and clear.”

“I got the story straight from the horse’s mouth.”

The more cut-and-dried the facts of a case, the more positive we are about how we ought to feel about it.

Facts. We love them, and we use them to render judgement all the time. But can we always be sure that we’ve got the right ones?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

As the police are well aware, witnesses can be extremely unreliable. When interviewing a witness to a crime, a person’s emotion, self-interest, or plain old faulty memory can play a large role in obfuscating the true facts of the case. Those tasked with enforcing the law must be ever alert to this possibility, and assiduous in weeding out added or erroneous details which the witness is sure she saw or heard, but which may subsequently prove to have been partially or even wholly born in her own imagination.

Even when you have the facts, you need to take under advisement the possibility that the story they appear to be telling may not be as clear-cut as you think it is. Even the most seemingly straightforward facts can be a signpost pointing… in the wrong direction.

To illustrate, let me tell you about something that happened to the rov of our shul, right here in Baltimore, a couple of weeks ago.

Rabbi S. was walking home from shul on his lunch break when he realized that there was an unusual amount of activity surrounding his house. One side of his home fronts a narrow street known locally as “the alley”, while on the other side a long flight of stairs leads down to a broad, forest-fringed parkway. From the rov’s vantage point, walking down the alley toward his home, he saw multiple police vehicles parked on the usually quiet street. Newly emerged from those cars was a swarm of law-enforcement personnel, including local police officers and Federal marshals. Each member of the team was equipped with a bulletproof vest, held a lethal-looking submachine gun, and wore an expression that said he would not hesitate to use it if necessary.

Later, the rov would view footage, taken by a neighbor, of the action that was simultaneously taking place on the parkway below: a second host of police cars, and a stream of similarly armed men making their determined way up the flight of stone stairs at the rear of his house. Eyes alert and weapons ready.

As the rov neared his home, the police stepped forward to prevent him from coming any closer. He caught a glimpse of his daughter, son-in-law, and their baby seated on the lawn in front of the house, looking bemused and more than a little frightened. The young family had traveled in from Cincinnati that summer to visit the rov and his wife. Parked in the driveway was their minivan with its Ohio license plate.

A few minutes earlier, the police had pounded on the rov’s door. When his daughter opened up, they insisted that she wake her baby and that all three of them leave the house, which they then proceeded to search from top to bottom. Searching for… what?

As the police finally explained to the rov, a wanted murderer had escaped from Cincinnati, Ohio after killing his girlfriend. He’d been tracked as far as Baltimore, where his cell phone, which they were also tracking, had pinged at none other than the rov’s address!

Then, like icing on top of the cake, when they arrived at the house in question, what should they see but a vehicle with Ohio license tags sitting in the driveway? That, it seemed to them, was indubitably that.

All this explains the seriousness of the situation. It explains the logic that prompted the SWAT team to gear up and grimly surround the rov’s house on that sunny afternoon. With the facts at their disposal—both the killer’s cell phone being used at that address, and a car from Ohio showing up in the same place—they’d felt fully justified in paying a house call.

The facts were indisputable… and yet, the conclusions were glaringly mistaken. The rov’s son-in-law is a mild-mannered accountant, not the vile murderer the police were seeking. The vehicle sitting in the rov’s driveway was a family-style minivan, not a killer’s getaway car. After the smoke cleared and the poor young couple’s racing hearts returned to normal, the incident could finally be put behind them. But the question remained: how did such a mistake happen? How did the son-in-law’s phone turn suddenly into a lodestone of intense police interest?

Even more important, what can we learn from it?

A Favorable Judgment

There was, of course, a perfectly reasonable explanation for the way that particular story unfolded. A few years ago, when the killer gave up his cell phone, the phone company had “recycled” his number so that it became the property of the rov’ son-in-law. It just so happened that the very week a hunted killer escaped Cincinnati and came to Baltimore, coincided with the week that the rov’s daughter and family were spending time with the grandparents there.

A set of circumstantial evidence that seemed utterly foolproof… until it was shown not to be.

Another of the rov’s daughters later commented on the incident. She pointed out that the facts had seemed incontrovertible, and yet they led in the wrong direction. How often do we witness things that seem equally unequivocal to our unenlightened eyes? How often do we take those facts and run with them? How many times do we use those facts to jump to what appears to be the glaring obvious conclusion?

And how often, if we only knew the inside story and a few as-yet undisclosed facts, would we find out that our conclusion was dead wrong?

If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from this incident, it’s that facts, much as we love them, do not always lead us in the direction of emes. The truth may be quite different from the picture that the facts seem to be painting. Which means that, when in doubt, judging other people favorably is not only a good idea. It’s absolutely mandatory!

A veritable SWAT team of experienced lawmen made a mistake based on hard facts. They made the mistake because they were missing a couple of other crucial pieces of information.

I’m sure those men learned something valuable as the cavalcade of police vehicles drove away from the rov’s house that day. Something that each of us, in our role as judge and jury in the ever-present private dramas of our own lives, might do well to remember!

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