How Did They Know?

June 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The teenager-in-residence is threatening to get one of these to wear when I'm around.

This shirt and similarly inspiring merchandise are available at

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

June 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How can you defend those people?” That’s a question people often ask defense lawyers, especially public defenders, who can’t very well say that they’re in it for the money.

But with all the stories of the exonerated, we might also ask how district attorneys can prosecute people who are innocent, and continue to prosecute them even in the face of exonerating evidence.

The answer is the same for both. If you want to understand what people do and even what they think, look at their roles in the system.

Case in point (and in a story in Monday’s Times):

In 1990, a bouncer is fatally shot outside The Palladium at Union Square. Two men are eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years. In the next decade, new evidence emerges that two other guys did it. The DA asks prosecutor Daniel Bibb to review the case. Bibb investigates and becomes convinced that the convicted men are innocent.

What will the Manhattan DA’s office do?

If you said “release the innocent dudes,” lose a turn and go back three spaces.

“Top officials told [Bibb] . . .to defend the case anyway.”

The reason you lost a turn (if you did) is that you forgot that in the US, we handle criminal cases on an adversarial model, a contest between two sides, rather than as a search for truth and justice. In this system, the lawyers on each side are supposed to fight for their clients.

But Bibb didn’t fight for his client, which is why the story is newsworthy. He tanked, threw the case. He helped the defense as much as he could – tracked down witnesses, went easy in cross-examination, told defense lawyers when they weren’t asking the right questions. At the judicial hearing on the case, he “lost.” One man had his conviction dropped; the other was granted a new trial and eventually acquitted.

Truth and justice may have been served, but apparently what Bibb did was a no-no.

“He’s entitled to his conscience, but his conscience does not entitle him to subvert his client’s case.” So says Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at NYU Law.

Bibb’s client was the DA, and the client’s case was to have the convictions upheld. If Bibb didn’t want to work for that goal, he should have taken himself off the case. That way, they could have assigned it to some other prosecutor who would do all he could to keep the innocent guys in jail.

I had thought that prosecutors were also supposed to be concerned about the truth, and perhaps they are. But apparently their role in the adversarial system outweighs that consideration. That role also shapes their perceptions. Their investigator, Bibb, spent nearly two years searching for the truth about the crime, and he concluded that the men were innocent. Nevertheless, the DA’s office “has said it had good reason to believe that the two men were guilty.”

And Bibb? He left the DA’s office, understandably. He’s now a defense lawyer, but his disloyalty has damaged relations with his former colleagues, and those relations are important for defense lawyers. A lot of their work requires them to make deals with prosecutors.

Searches and Seizures

June 25, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

To be obscene in a criminal trial, a sexy picture, movie, Website or whatever has to be offensive to “community standards.” But how do we know what community standards are?

A defense lawyer in a Florida case is using Google. He’s presenting data on the number of Google searches in Pensacola. (New York Times story here.)
In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” . . . “We tried to come up with comparison search terms that would embody typical American values,” Mr. Walters said. “What is more American than apple pie?” But according to the search service, he said, “people are at least as interested in group sex and orgies as they are in apple pie.”
I’ve come to know a little about this kind of search myself. On May 2, I blogged about the reaction to a picture of Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair. I gave my post the title “Good Girl, Naughty Picture.” Since then, that post has gotten more traffic than any other – about one seventh of all hits on this blog.

It was the “naughty” in the title that did it. Google “15 year old girls naughty pictures,” and I’m at the top of the list. Other search strings that have brought readers here include
  • naughty 9 year old girls
  • naughty girls with their naked photos
  • 16 year old girls naughty pictures
  • 13 year old girls being noughty [sic]
  • disney naughty lines
You get the idea.

I realize that writing these phrases in this post will bring even more naughty Googlers. But how else can I only report the relevant data? I’m not proud to be so highly ranked on these Google searches.* No doubt, these seekers of naughty, like the readers who got here looking to win the lottery by visualization, were disappointed. But I prefer to think that once here, they abandoned their original intent and actually read the post. Then, socio-curious they started looking around at other pages. Fascinated, enlightened, and thirsting for more, they clicked on the links to other blogging sociologists . . . . That’s my fantasy, and I’m sticking to it.

* I am pleased, however, that on a search for “Goffman, Milgram,” I’m in the top two or three. Add “Borat,” and it’s no contest.

Sleeping Around in the Neighborhood

June 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

No, it’s not Desperate Housewives. It’s more Amitai Etzioni than Eva Longoria.

A 50-year-old suburbanite decides to ask his neighbors, one by one, if he can have a sleepover – spend the night, get to know them.

It sounds like that Cheever story, “The Swimmer,” where a man decides to make the eight-mile trip home by water – swimming through the backyard swimming pools of his neighbors.

But where the Cheever character is alcoholic, self-centered, delusional (and fictional), Peter Lovenheim is concerned about community. He has read some Bowling Alone. He cites GSS data on the decline of spending a social evening with neighbors. He realizes that his neighbors know one another superficially if at all and may not know the names of those who live just a few doors down. So by phone, e-mail, or ringing the doorbell, he proposes his sleepovers.
His teenage daughter tells him he’s crazy.
Sure, the sight of your 50-year-old father leaving with an overnight bag to sleep at a neighbor’s house would embarrass any teenager, but “crazy”? I didn’t think so.
In fact, over half of the eighteen people he asks say yes. And the results are positive, at least according to Lovenheim in yesterday’s op-ed column in the Times. The neighbors haven’t written their op-ed pieces yet.

The quest for community seems like a permanent part of the American experience. Books like Bowling Alone document and lament the decline of community. And it’s not just academics who sense this loss. Community, like sex, sells. When I clicked on the Wesbsite for Brighton, NY, the dateline for Lovenheim’s article, I found this tagline: “one of the finest communities in which to live, work, and raise a family.”

Maybe so, but it’s also a “community” where, without the effort of “crazy” people like Lovenheim, “we also divide ourselves with invisible dotted lines . . . the property lines that isolate us from the people we are physically closest to: our neighbors.”