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Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Hit Man's Story: legal v. journalistic truth

I highly recommend an article in the Oct. 15, 2012, edition of The New Yorker, by Nadya Labi, headlined The Hitman’s Tale: From Honors Student to Hired Killer (subscription required)Labi tells the story of Vincent Smothers, who is serving life for eight murders in Detroit that he carried out as a hired hit man.  I plan to write separately on some legal issues raised in the article.  For now, I want to offer the observation that this sort of high quality journalism has a greater capacity to present us with the truth of an offender such as Smothers than the legal process does, which strikes me as both inevitable and unfortunate.

    Most of Smothers' victims were drug dealers; a rival dealer paid Smothers to kill them.  His last victim, however, was a police officer's wife; the officer hired Smothers to kill her.  Smothers' guilt is not in doubt for any of the murders, even by Smothers himself, and his sentence is not open to challenge.  Yet in Labi's nuanced profile, Smothers comes across, at least to me, as somewhat sympathetic, and certainly human in the sense of possessing a recognizable moral capacity for reflection and regret.  He describes feeling great remorse now for his killings, and for having instantly regretted murdering the officer's wife because he recognized her as an umabiguously innocent victim.  (He rationalized killing his drug-dealer victims with the view that everyone who enters the drug trade knows that it ends one of two ways—with one's murder or imprisonment.)  He concludes that for his crimes there is simply "no atonement."  (Which, in turn, led him to attempt suicide.)

    What strikes me about all this is that this portrait of Smothers is credible precisely because it is journalism rather than a part of legal process.  The criminal justice system would have a very hard time giving us a comparably subtle and credible portrait of a serial killer's conscience, even though that conscience is (or can be) legally relevant to sentencing.   The very fact that Smothers is speaking to a journalist, and speaking post-conviction, makes his claims, and the broader portrait, credible.  Smothers' same narrative offered during trial or sentencing, on the other hand, would be equally credible to few people if anyone—even though it would be equally true.  In that sense, the legal process just doesn't have to some the truth about some legally relevant things as other ways (or venues) in which we reach conclusions about truth.  Add to that the additional barrier of (or for) judges and prosecutors.  They hold the most power over a defendant's legal fate yet are the least inclined, by their professional/political roles, to accept a subtle, morally complex story such as Labi presents about Smothers.  Much more likely to prevail is a more typical, incomplete (if not inaccurate) legal narrative of "a cold blooded killer" or the like.  Even if it doesn't change the legal outcome--even if life without parole is appropriate for an eight-time murderer with a conscience--there's something lost in the reductive accounts that legal systems (and other, lesser forms of journalism) provide.

Posted by Darryl Brown on October 14, 2012 at 01:07 PM | Permalink

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Comments

1. You wrote: Most of Smothers' victims were drug dealers; a rival dealer paid Smothers to kill them.

Really? Although I recognize that this was the message the article tried to convey, I didn't pick that up. Aside from Cobb, the article focuses on the Runyon Street killing. Four people died. Even assuming that the target was a drug dealer - hardly supported the article - that adds at least 3 more innocents to his total. Just to start.


2. You wrote: Yet in Labi's nuanced profile, Smothers comes across, at least to me, as somewhat sympathetic, and certainly human in the sense of possessing a recognizable moral capacity for reflection and regret.

Which part? His reaction after his first murder-for-hire: "[e]motionally, it didn't affect me." At his sentencing "[h]e declined to address his victims," i.e., apologize. In his chance to actually take action (as opposed to talking) showing remorse - testify regarding the murders he willingly disclosed to the New Yorker and free Sanford - "he pleaded the Fifth."

3. You wrote: He describes feeling great remorse now for his killings, and for having instantly regretted murdering the officer's wife because he recognized her as an umabiguously innocent victim.

If he was so remorseful, why didn't this come out before he was arrested? And if he feels so bad, why not testify on Sanford's behalf.

This is not the Wire, and Smothers is not Omar. He's a smart person who killed real people for $5,000 a shot. He is not sympathetic; he's a sociopath.

Posted by: Charles | Oct 14, 2012 10:17:49 PM

There are a lot of differences between stories as told in journalism (especially long-form journalism) and stories as told in litigation. One significant difference derives from the general prohibition on character evidence. Much of what this article is presenting (or trying to present), while presenting a "complete picture," is the type of character/propensity evidence that we don't like.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 14, 2012 10:50:57 PM

Regarding Howard's comment: I take the point about limits on character evidence--and largely accept rationales for them--but one could take that as another way by which we get different stories, and maybe truths, in court and out.

Regarding Charles' comments: (1)I was too breezy in describing Smothers' victims as drug dealers. Some were bystanders, family members, friends, etc., of his intended drug-dealer victims. Point well taken that there's a very plausible moral distinction to be made there.
(2) and (3) I don't doubt that Smothers' conscience, regret and other actions of moral capacity manifested only after his conviction and punishment. That strikes me as evidence of the good that punishment can do. I didn't claim his every decision, during the murders, then during court proceedings, showed acceptable moral judgment. My point was that--in my view--he doesn't seem morally irredeemable; that punishment has triggered some moral progress on his part. It's a different question whether his punishment should be different in light of that. I personally think so, but I didn't present that point in the post largely because it's far out of the American mainstream range of possibilities to sentence a multiple murderer to less than life (or death). If I were blogging for Europeans, where Smothers would probably get 20-30 years, I might have added the view that I see him as a good example for why release can be appropriate at age 50 or 60 after a couple decades of incarceration. But I'll rest quietly on the fringes of American opinion regarding that.

Posted by: Darryl Brown | Oct 15, 2012 3:04:34 PM

I think I overreacted to your post because I had no place to vent about the article itself. That's my mistake.

I understand your point regarding legal v. journalistic (or factual or moral) truth. Our system generally doesn't do well with moral nuance, especially in a multiple-murder case. I also generally agree that people are redeemable, and that the U.S.'s draconian sentencing regime is too harsh.

The thing that bothers me about Smothers - and, therefore, the article - is that he seems like a smart guy who calculated that a little money justified murdering random people. Indeed, while it may be false contrition, Smothers's final quotation is something to the effect of: society is better off with me in jail because I'm a danger. I just wonder if Charlie Mason, Smothers, or any other serial killer deserves this type of sympathy and attention - especially compared to Ms. Cobb, Sanford, or any of Smothers's other victims. (I think that the Manson comparison is apt, except that maybe Manson and other clearly mentally defective serial killers deserve more sympathy.)

As an aside, it's also incredibly strange, and I'd say indicative of something (not sure what), that Smothers' friends and girlfriend knew what he did and tacitly approved. Somehow it makes it harder to accept his change of heart.

Anyhow, I apologize for my initial criticism's harshness. And I appreciate that our legal system's good/bad dichotomy doesn't really account for a person/defendant/criminal's nuances. But I still think that this guy did not deserve a New Yorker profile or much sympathy. It's often seen as sophisticated to see complexity in every person and situation; (we) educated liberals do so with pride. But some things in society should be unacceptable; a grown man hunting down random people like dogs is one of them.

Posted by: Charles | Oct 17, 2012 12:29:30 AM

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