Saturday, May 30, 2009

Very Squishy Knowledge

Physics and mathematics are known as the pure sciences. The accepted "facts" of these disciplines can usually be verified by mathematical proof. If 2+2=4 then 4-2=2. It doesn't leave a lot of room for argument. The late Harvard University Paleontologist Steven Jay Gould referred to Biology and the Social Sciences as the "squishy" sciences. These disciplines do not provide clear mathematical proofs, but rely primarily on statistical probabilities to support their theories.

In courtroom trials of the "he said-she said" variety, there is often a complete lack of any meaningful physical or corroborating evidence. The jury must make a decision based primarily by weighing the perceived credibility of one person's word against another, and of course, the pomp and theatrical abilities of their respective lawyers. In child sexual abuse trials this is often the case. But the reality is that most juries find child witnesses to be highly credible, in spite of the fact that it has now been shown that children often lie on the witness stand, for a variety of reasons. Juries also convict not because there is innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, but because there is the possibility that the accused person might be guilty, and they don't want the responsibility of setting them free to abuse another child. This is a manifestation of the child sexual abuse hysteria that has become an integral part of our culture over the last quarter century. By reaching verdicts based on these fears, juries have sent untold innocents to prison for decades, or life.

In reviewing the sparse and often circumstantial evidence in these cases, one can never be absolutely certain of whether or not the alleged assault actually occurred. Anytime any adult is alone with a child there is the possibility that a sexual assault could have occurred. Eventually you have to come down on the side of guilt or innocence of the accused. That decision is based on epistemological knowledge. After reviewing all of the evidence we ask ourselves the question - does this accusation seem plausible and reasonable? That is as much an intuitive decision as it is a logical one. And therefore, it is a decision subject to the pitfalls of human fallibility, fear and ignorance.

Very squishy knowledge indeed!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Media Attention!!

After a year-and-a-half of banging the drum we finally got some media attention.

I would like to extend kudos to Michael Hall and Elaine Smith at Texas Monthly for taking the time to review the evidence in this case, recognizing a serious travesty of justice had occurred, and giving us some space on their webmagazine.

Michael investigated and wrote a feature piece for the April 2009 magazine on the controversial Mineola Swinger's Club case. On the TM webmagazine Gary Cartwright revisited the horrible case of Dan and Fran Keller who were convicted in an Austin satanic-abuse case in 1992, and remain in prison to this day. Also, Michael wrote a short summary/background piece entitled Hysteria, that linked to a short piece called Behind Bars he had asked me to write about my involvement in the case.

The media adage that "ink begets ink" must hold sway here, as less than week later the Austin Chronicle published a set of investigative articles by Jordan Smith, Michael King and Jena Birchum on the Keller case.

In the last few days I have been contacted by several Texas journalists who have expressed interest about investigating and writing about the Four Lives Lost case. Hopefully this is the leading edge of a groundswell of media interest in the few remaining cases of MPMV convictions, where innocent people continue to languish in prison.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Journalistic Apathy

Good journalists wear their skepticism like a badge of honor. However, as the recent rash of DNA exonerations has shown, when the media fail to be objective in their reporting of questionable criminal cases, a layer of protection for innocent citizens is bypassed.

Coverage of this case by the Texas media was scant. San Antonio Express-News wrote one article on Elizabeth Ramirez' conviction, and three short pieces during the trial of Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh. While the newspaper reports are primary "just the facts" reporting, what struck me after reading them was the absolute lack of skepticism. This was a multi-perpetrator, multi-victim assault carried out by 4 young women with no criminal records or history of drug abuse. A woman sexually assaulting pre-pubertal children is a very rare occurrence. A gang of women doing so is rare as a herd of unicorns. Yet the reporters treated this highly unusual case with seeming apathy and nonchalance. There should have been a huge outcry and followup with secondary investigation into the facts of the case. But it never happened. If the women had been heterosexual would the case have been reported differently?

The articles fail to address discrepancies in testimony between the two trials. Notably who held the gun following the alleged assaults. There was no acknowledgment of the fact that there was at least one previous unfounded allegation made by the girls, or that Prosecutor Kazen would not allow the statements of the other three women to be brought into evidence at Elizabeth's trial. The newspaper articles say there was medical evidence brought by Dr. Nancy Kellogg, but fail to mention this evidence was never challenged by defense witnesses. There was no investigation into the accusers or their family background. The evidence was very one-sided and for the most part parroted the prosecutions case. Perhaps court reporters are leery about questioning evidence in trials involving crimes against children. The prosecutor is seen as protecting children and questioning evidence might be seen as protecting child sexual abusers.

The Texas media completely failed these four women in terms of questioning the charges brought against them. When the media have too much faith in the system, and fail to exercise a healthy level of skepticism, innocent people are convicted. Investigative journalism needs to take place pre-conviction to prevent this from happening.