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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Paging Dr. Durkheim

Its been a busy week, but I would be remiss to let Campbell Robertson's fine story on murder, capital punishment, and wrongful conviction in post-Katrina New Orleans go by with out a comment.

Early one morning in June 2006, when this city was only half full and in many areas still desolate from the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, five men were shot to death in an S.U.V. in the Central City neighborhood.

The killings sent the city into an uproar, galvanizing politicians, who spoke of “Hurricane Crime,” and adding urgency to the city’s request for hundreds of Louisiana National Guard soldiers to return and patrol the streets.

The criminal case that followed was just as incendiary in many ways, and it ended this past August with a death penalty verdict, the first in a dozen years in a New Orleans murder case, against a 23-year-old man named Michael Anderson. It was a trophy verdict for the district attorney’s office, a sign that law and order had triumphed in one of the city’s most heinous and high-profile crimes.

But there is a problem. New evidence from the state’s key witness released in early January by the district attorney’s office — evidence that the office had for over two years — could put a hole right in the middle of the case against Mr. Anderson.

The city's response to the murder is a classic reminder of Durkheim's claim that crime and punishment form one of society's most powerful devices to reaffirm its existence as a moral community. Although New Orlean's is not an entire society, that community was devastated by the flood, which quite literally displaced its population, and by the clear failure of social institutions to protect the populace. The murder only nine-months into the recovery was clearly read by New Orlean's citizens as a direct challenge to the existence of common consciousness in the city, just the kind of event that Durkheim predicted would be met by the most explosive demands for punishment.

But the terrible miscarriage of justice that may have subsequently occurred is a reminder of how double edged the creation of professional law enforcement is for the evolution of social control. On the one hand, unlike the "primitive" societies that Durkheim compared "modern" Europe to, professional law enforcement brings about the potential to solve crimes that would have gone unsolved altogether in the past, and perhaps to avoid lynchings and other popular miscarriages of justice. On the other hand, the creation of distinct institutions with unique responsibility for addressing the communities desire for punishment, and significant powers to coerce testimony, opens the awful possibility that unconsciously or consciously, law enforcers could seek to give the community the Durkheimian release of convicting and condemning a target of their rage, even if they have the wrong man. I'm not saying that many (let alone most) in law enforcement succumb to this temptation, but we need to start by acknowledging some of the cultural forces that facilitate it.

cross-posted at Governing through Crime

Posted by Jonathan Simon on March 3, 2010 at 04:46 PM in Criminal Law, Jonathan Simon | Permalink

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