Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Black and Blue in Baltimore

By Professor Eric Miller
Originally appeared on Prawfsblawg

Was it worth it? A judge, after a bench trial, just acquitted the third and highest ranking of the Baltimore police officers charged with killing Freddie Gray. So far there have been no convictions. Should the Baltimore District Attorney prosecute the others? More generally, is there a duty to prosecute public officials, even if there is only a remote chance of success on the merits?

I think the work of Antony Duff might prove helpful here. He believes wrongdoers are a specific category of people identified by a duty that they are under: to answer to those they have wronged for their unjustified and harmful act. The duty to answer is, so Duff thinks, a feature of responsibility: wronging someone puts the wrongdoer in a relationship with their victim. The victim has the duty (not just the right, but—Duff believes—the duty) to call the wrongdoer to account; and the wrongdoer owes the victim a response: the wrongdoer has a duty to account for her wrongdoing by giving reasons to justify, excuse, or accept the blame for her wrongdoing, and then take action to expiate her wrong. Owing a response places the onus on the wrongdoer to come forward with her account; morally, she cannot just stand pat and hope no-one notices the wrong, or her responsibility for it.

Duff draws a line between ordinary moral wrongs and extraordinary criminal wrongs. What makes criminal wrongs so extraordinary, he thinks, is that they are wrongs that the public ought to take an interest in. Failing to buy a beer when it is your round is a wrong, but unless I’m one of the folks you are drinking beer with, it’s none of my business that you are stingy and selfish. Engaging in an act of domestic violence is a wrong, but even though it may occur in a private place, it is a wrong that affects the community as a whole, and which the public has an interest in seeing prosecuted. Moreover, the community enacts criminal laws to express the fact that it is the public’s business. People whose wrongs affect the community are not just ordinary wrongdoers; they are criminal offenders and have a duty to come forward to answer the community, to whom they are accountable, in a public forum, such as a trial.

Duff’s special significance as a theorist of punishment and criminal responsibility is (as Malcolm Thorburn points out) in identifying the trial (rather than the punishment) as the focal point of the criminal justice system. The trial is centerpiece of the accountability because it is a communicative forum. It is there, in public, that the offender answers to the community and (if the law provides) suffers public censure. Responsibility for wrongdoing demands (for Duff) that the offender answer to someone; responsibility for criminal activity requires an offender answer to the public through the trial process. The result of the trial (conviction or acquittal) is secondary to calling the offender to account.

Duff’s view suggests that whenever the community plausibly suspects that someone is a wrongdoer, then both the community and the wrongdoer have a positive duty discuss it: to demand and provide a rational accounting of the wrong. Where the wrong is one that touches the community as a whole, then the proper forum for such an accounting is the criminal trial.

Duff’s argument about communities and the criminal law is quite compelling. At the very least, it provides an important moral basis for criminal law: that it is the moral law of the public, the community; not just a set of wrongs that the politicians decide to sanction with an especially harsh or significant punishment. The wrongs of the criminal law are extraordinary ones which affect the community as a community. And when the wrongs are those engaged in by public officials, then the community and the state has an especial interest in ensuring that the official publicly accounting for those wrongs. (Duff has some radical and interesting things to say on this, which would take too much time here. See his Punishment, Communication, and Community at 183-17; see also Ekow Yankah, Legal Vices and Civic Virtues). [As a side note, Duff, Yankah, and Thorburn are not just theorists of criminal law; what they have to say about criminal procedure, and in particular its relation to political theory, deserves much more attention in the world of mainstream American criminal procedure than they are currently receiving).

So trying the other Baltimore officers involved in the Freddie Gray killing is not a waste of time: it is an important way to treat the community as wronged and the officers as responsible—as individuals who are capable of being held responsible and so have a duty to answer in a public forum. It is not enough: if there was a wrong, then the officers in addition deserve public censure and should make some form of reconciliatory act to the public and the victims—the Freddie Gray family. If the court fails to acknowledge the officers’ wrong, they still remain on the hook as wrongdoers if not as offenders. But now the legal system too is on the hook, for failing to provide an adequate forum, not only for accountability, but also for censure and expiation. Without these further possibilities, the community—the public, the people—are inadequately valued by the state, and will continue to feel that they have been denied the justice they deserve as equal members of the polity.

One final thought: in her excellent book, Prosecuting Domestic Violence, Michelle Madden Dempsey also discusses the role of the prosecutor in constituting the community. While she and Duff have important differences, Dempsey's discussion of the ways in which the prosecutor constitutes the community on behalf of the state, and so the prosecutor's duties to the community as a public official, is essential reading for anyone interested in this topic. I hope to say a little more about Dempsey's work in a later post.

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