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I haven't been writing very much lately; just haven't felt like it. But I've been doing a lot of reading and I have a few things to say about some of what I've been reading. I've broken it into two posts. This post is about some very troubling criminal justice issues.

CW: Rape, rape culture, abuse of police authority. (But also: competent, dedicated police officers doing their jobs.)



I've been thinking of this story, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," since I first read about the case a couple of years ago. This story, published in December of last year by the Marshall Project and Pro Publica, has brought the case wider attention.

There's also an audio adaptation of the story, which aired last week, by This American Life.

The text and audio versions tell essentially the same story, often in the same words, but of course the impact is different. Also, the emphases are somewhat different, and there are details in each version not included in the other. So it's worth reading/listening to both if you can stomach it.

To summarize: A young woman, Marie, was raped at knifepoint by a stranger who broke into her apartment. She reported it to the police, but nobody believed her story. The police charged her with false reporting, and she was humiliated and shunned by many of the people who were closest to her. Two and a half years later, police in a different part of the country caught a serial rapist who made a practice of photographing his crimes. Among these photographs was a picture of Marie, and the police were able to track her down and prove conclusively that her original story was true.

That's the bare bones. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, so if you really want to understand what happened, and why the comments from readers and listeners on Twitter and Facebook have been along the lines of "I have never screamed at my radio before today," "every police department should be required to study this case," and "after reading this, I want to Hulk smash everything," then it's worth reading and/or listening to the story.

A lot of people react to the story by saying "these people who didn't believe her are awful and should be ashamed of themselves," and of course I agree. One of the main messages of this story is that victims of trauma do not necessarily act they way people think they should. You cannot assume that someone is lying because their behavior seems weird or incongruous. This is especially true when someone has a history of trauma and has developed coping mechanisms.

But one thing this story also brings out for me is how most of us overestimate our ability to tell when someone is lying. This seems to be particularly true for police, and it's not surprising, because some methods of police training encourage police to believe that they can tell when someone is lying. If you look at the police interrogation of Marie, it follows in many ways the largely discredited Reid method of interrogation. Here's a good article from the New Yorker about the technique and what's wrong with it, and a brief discussion by the California Innocence Project. Something like a third of the cases of exoneration by the Innocence Project involve false confession. But even without a false confession, once they have identified a suspect, police and prosecutors often seem to discount evidence that challenges their conclusion, sometimes to a ridiculous degree.

These interrogation techniques have been so widely used that they have become part of police culture, even if these particular cops were never trained in the technique. If you watch cop shows, you'll see elements of it constantly. I was thinking of this recently when watching Elementary. When they started talking about how they could tell when someone was lying because of their body language, I yelled "No, you can't!" This isn't to say that there's no place for intuition and gut feelings, but they should never trump evidence.

And this is why both the rights of victims and the rights of accused are intertwined: because the same police who decide based on nothing but gut feelings that a suspect is lying may decide based on nothing but gut feelings that a victim is lying. As one of the Denver cops says in the article, the issue isn't believe or disbelieve; it's listen, collect evidence, and see where the evidence leads. Too often, police seem to work the other way around: decide what's true and then seek out (or if necessary create) evidence that supports their theory.

You can find a lot of great reporting at The Marshall Project, which focuses on criminal justice, and Pro Publica, which is more broadly about public interest issues.

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