23 April 2007

Rolling out the character witnesses

News reports this weekend tell us that a jury for the upcoming Phil Spector murder trial has been chosen, and speculate about stellar "character witnesses" who may testify for the defense.

Some history, if you will. In the early days of the jury, the days when the Norman conquerors were still trying to get a handle on these odd Anglo-Saxons they were now ruling, the jurors were themselves thought likely to be familiar with the defendant's character and reputation. After all, he probably came from a village where everybody knew everyone -- and they were drawn from the same locale, so his reputation WAS the opinion they held of him.

But as cities large enough so that people didn't necessarily know each other became a common fact on the island, it naturally became increasingly common that a jury would decide the fate of a stranger. Indeed, over time the idea that he OUGHT to be a stranger to them took hold. The jurors shouldn't have any pre-conceived opinion about his reputation, but should be allowed to develop one.

Hence, the character witness, who generally doesn't testify about character, but about "reputation in the community." The jury is allowed (but of course not required) to infer that people who have a good reputation probably got it the right way -- not by fooling everybody but by acting neighborly, repaying debts, etc.

All that said, the institution of a character witness seems in the 21st century to be an institutionalization of pointlessness. What juror will be persuaded to vote to acquit Phil Spector on the basis of the willingness of some other show-business bigshot to say, "yes, he has a high reputation in the community"? I'm afraid there are such jurors, but that means I'm afraid there are people who are so celebrity-blinded as to ignore the obligations of an oath.

Anyway, Phil Spector is playing the game in that hope. His character witnesses may include Yoko Ono and Keith Richards. Neither of whom have anything to contribute to the actual question of how Lana Clarkson died on February 3, 2003. Indeed, even musically the first of those two names brings me up short. Didn't Spector do what Beatles admirers generally think was a really lousy job of producing the one Beatles album he had a shot at? Whatever....

I recently read something amusing on this trial. I've forgotten the source. But someone wrote an article in the form of a letter of encouragement OJ Simpson might write Phil.

"If you're lucky, at some point the prosecutor will hand you the gun you killed Clarkson with. When this happens, be prepared. Be sure to twist your fingers around each other arthritically, act pained, and say, 'I can't reach the trigger.'

"Then you'll just need a cute rhyming phrase that will get into the jury's head and do the rest of the work for you. 'If my hands can't shoot, the case is moot.' Okay, that's pretty lame. But you were in the lyrics business, you can come up with something."

It was a very clever piece, whoever wrote it. Anyway, my one suggestion to the prosecutors: keep Chris Darden miles away.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.