Big Louima Case and A $50,000 Question

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A $50,000 Question:

What do you do when you don’t know the law? Here’s a question that might have arisen in the Louima case. I’m still not sure what the answer is. If a cop stops you for speeding and he has no radar gun but does have a laser speed-detection device, can he use that to support his ticket? I can find a bunch of cases where courts said you can’t use laser readings to support tickets, but none where they said you could. And it’s not just me; I’ve asked quite a few lawyers and none of them knew either.

So what do you do? Here’s one possibility. You might say, “I don’t know whether you can use that laser thing to support your ticket, but I feel uncomfortable with your reading my speed without a radar gun, so I’d like to challenge it with the radar gun.” If he doesn’t have one, it’s easy to see him letting you off without any fine at all; if he does have one, he may well let you go anyway out of embarrassment over using the illegal laser device. Either way, you win.

You won’t find this suggestion in any legal treatise on police powers because they don’t talk

The case of Abner Louima and the question of whether a jury can reach a verdict based on what happened in one person’s head are relevant to the issues surrounding this past weekend’s verdict in the Shaima Alawadi murder case.

Text from Mr. Radley Balko at the Washington Post:

The jury in the trial of Charles S. Schwarz — who is accused of killing his wife, Shaima Alawadi, last year — found him not guilty this afternoon on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The jury did find him guilty of making false statements to police.

Schwarz had claimed that he was innocent, and that his wife died as a result of accidental injuries suffered during an argument. Prosecutors argued that he murdered her because she wanted to leave him and move back to Iraq with their daughter; they also alleged that he enlisted his daughter in a cover-up after admitting to her that he killed her mother. But there were no witnesses and no forensic evidence linking Schwarz to the crime, so jurors had to weigh just two things: His claims about what happened versus those made by prosecutors.

Schwarz’s account was certainly more believable than what prosecutors offered. But it was still incredible — if true, it would mean that

In this post, I’ll try to explain why the jury might have convicted Welsley for a crime she didn’t commit. I’m not endorsing the outcome in the case. I think the jury’s verdict was wrong. But I think it was wrong for reasons that illuminate a broader problem.

The problem is one of hidden bias. In this particular case, the hidden bias seems relatively harmless: it resulted in an unjust conviction, but only because it led to a prosecution that was unjust on other grounds.* But in general, hidden bias is a big problem because it can lead to wrongful convictions even when there is no other obvious injustice.

Trial by newspaper headline

The press has been really hostile to Welsley, and that hostility may have influenced how jurors perceived her testimony. That’s neither surprising nor wrong in itself. The press is doing its job when it reports the news and expresses an opinion about it; we want reporters to be passionate about what they are reporting on and to feel free to use their opinions to criticize whatever they consider important.

*I say “relatively harmless” because I don’t have any information about whether Welsley has ever actually been convicted of anything else or whether she has a history of violence or dishonesty. There are obviously

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