Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Pall Hangs Over the City

Two, in fact. Last week, a fire began burning in a marsh to the east of New Orleans. Usually such fires are allowed to burn themselves out, since they don't pose a threat of spreading to homes and businesses, and it's hard to get into the marsh to fight the fire. As days passed, the smoke became a serious hazard to those with allergies and asthma. Yesterday evening, the smoke began clouding the air over Baton Rouge, roughly 80 miles from the marsh as the crow flies. An acrid smell hung in the air as John and I left the house to go to dinner.

This morning, helicopters are battling the fire.

Another pall has been hanging over Baton Rouge for the past several weeks, this one due to a bar fight resulting in serious legal charges being filed. Two weeks ago several LSU football players, drinking in a local bar after curfew, became involved in a bar fight. Several people were injured, two of them with fractured bones. Two LSU players, one the starting quarterback, have been charged with second degree battery. That much everyone agrees on. What happened next is the subject of dispute and conjecture.

One of the victims insists that the team quarterback, JJ, is the person who kicked him in the face while he was down on the ground, causing a fractured maxilla and other injuries. His story is confirmed by the victim's girlfriend. There is a blurry video of the fight in the parking lot taken with a cell phone which shows a tall man in black kicking a figure on the ground. There is also recently released security video taken inside the bar before the fight started showing JJ wearing a light colored shirt. However, there is a "second kicker", in a light shirt, in the video but he seems to be wearing shorts and possibly is of a different race. With the poor lighting and poor video quality, it's hard to tell.

Another complication is that the victim's ex-girlfriend obtained a restraining order against him a few days after the fight, claiming that he is harassing her and her friends. The bar video does show the victim arguing and getting physical with a young woman in the bar. Two bar employees have told the press that the victim took a punch at someone in the bar before the fight started outside. The victim's account of himself has been that he intervened in a fight that was already occurring to help someone in trouble.

The two players who have been charged with battery are out on bond but have been suspended from the team. Sides are being taken, and on the local sports message board, Tiger Rant, have been labelled Team Sweep and Team BRPD Sweep. One side believes that by being out in a bar after curfew, the players were asking for trouble. One side believes the Baton Rouge Police Department are behaving incompetently. As often happens in such cases, the murky gray area between the two sides is rapidly being ignored.

Let me be clear: when I say, "gray area", I am not proposing that there is any moral gray area regarding kicking someone who is down on the ground. He may have been spoiling for a fight, he may have mistreated his ex-girlfriend, he may have bit off more than he could chew, but he did not deserve to be kicked in the face while he was helpless.

No, I am referring to the murky gray area that is human memory and eye witness testimony, and the murkier gray area of how do you treat people who have been accused but not yet tried for crimes. The rule "presumed innocent until proven guilty" is a rule of courtroom law that does not have to apply to the university and the football team. There isn't any good answer that I can see to the question of whether the two players should have been suspended. People of good sense and good faith can be found on either side of the issue. If nothing else, they can be suspended for breaking curfew, but if that were all that had happened, it is likely they wouldn't have been.

Then there is that notoriously tricky form of evidence, eye witness testimony. The victim is sure that JJ is the one who kicked him, but was he really in a position to tell? He was down on the ground with someone kicking at him, it may have been hard to tell just who. He may be convinced that the most identifiable person in the group was the one that kicked him, even though he couldn't really know. His girlfriend's memory of events may be completely independent of his, or it may not. It may have been shaped by hearing him say, "Remember how JJ kicked me next?" or some such.

The memory of the accused may be equally fuzzy. JJ insists that he didn't kick anybody. That may be true. That may be a conscious lie. That may also be his memory of the truth. It's not impossible that alcohol and adrenalin interfered with his memory of events, and that what he remembers is what he presumed he would or would not have done in such circumstances or what he wanted to think he did in such circumstances.

It is sad to think that a guilty person may go free because reasonable doubt of his guilt can be raised or that an innocent person may go free but with an acrid cloud over his head because he can never be completely exonerated. That's the reality of our justice system. We more often than not have to deal with cases that are not open and shut. Often we deal with them by pretending that in fact they are open and shut, and that the people who can't see it just have smoke in their eyes.

Update, September 2: A tropical storm-in-the-making is now headed toward us. It could put the fire out, along with our power.

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