Sunday, April 19, 2009

Witch Hunt on MSNBC

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In a debate about capital punishment on this blog one Dudley Sharpe asserted - I hope I have his argument correct - that no innocent person has been executed in the United States since 1900. His argument was reversed, however, by putting the burden of proof on his opponents. "You prove that an innocent person has been executed in the U. S. since 1900" Since this kind of proof is virtually impossible in support or in opposition, the stunt was basically ignored by participants in the discussion. However, another of Mr. Sharpe's assertions - that there are so many fail-safe protections built into the legal process to keep innocent people from being executed, that there is no chance - at least very little chance - of an innocent person being killed (innocent of capital murder, that is).

An interesting show on MSNBC a few days ago might give pause even to Dudley Sharpe. The show, called "Witch Hunt" on MSNBC showed how 32 innocent people in Kern County - Bakersfield, California were swept up in a mass hysteria around satanism, witchcraft and child molestation and put into Jail for as long as 20 years. The hysteria was originally started by books and movies like Rosemary's Baby, The Damien Series and the Exorcist. It was fanned into political demonstrations from the pulpit. And it was supported by now-discredited social science fads like repressed memory where feminist psychologists argued that suggestive and leading questions could bring out facts about abuse that had been hidden from memory by fear and shame. In fact the interview techniques used by Kern County officials and psychologists intimidated innocent children into inventing monstrous stories of assault, sexual molestation even murder. Politically ambitious police and prosecutors allowed themselves to be swept up in the hysteria to the extent of concealing exculpatory evidence and ignoring the advice of state officials. Similar miscarriages of justice took place in South Carolina (The Little Rascals Case) and in Saskatchewan, Canada at the same time.

Hysteria generally develops around capital punishment cases like Sacco and Vanzetti and Leopold and Loeb but any murder is such a horrible crime that hysteria is generally and understandably present. It is precisely at these times that the state should remain unemotional and to do nothing that can't be reversed.

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