Friday, August 28, 2009

Martyr Complex

Today, my LARC, moot court, and Practice Court partner accused me of being too easy on criminals. I told him he was too loosey goosey with the United States Constitution. Then he said, "You know, I don't have a passion for criminal defense like you, but I wouldn't mind doing a few cases now and then." I never thought of myself as having a passion for criminal defense, but I do get my hackles up when I read journalism like this:

At trial, public defender Sean Coleman tried to get his client off by asking jurors "what kind of moron robs one restaurant [more than once] within a little more than (a week)? It makes no sense."

Thus saith Justin Fenton of the Baltimore Sun in a recent article. You see, Sean Coleman wasn't fighting the good fight, standing up for human dignity, the Constitution, and all things American; he was just trying to get his client off. Didn't he learn in law school that the Sixth Amendment really only guarantees a suit beside you at the table? It doesn't say anything about zealous representation or forcing the State to prove its case. If what's good for the goose is good for the gander, let's take away the First Amendment. "Sure, you can print whatever you want, but we might throw you in jail if you print the wrong thing." I guaran-damn-tee you that Sean Coleman would zealously try to get Justin Fenton off in that case.

Then there's this by Slate's Tom Vanderbilt:

[A] recent Supreme Court ruling against "warrantless searches" may limit the number of cases in which such evidence is found[.]

Mr. Vanderbilt is talking about Arizona v. Gant, in which the Supreme Court reminded everybody that the Constitution trumps social policy. (Fo rilz. See Article VI.) Everybody can see Mr. Vanderbilt raise his fingers in air quotes like the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, rather than being inviolate, is merely a legal fiction used by the McVeighs, Bundys, Berkowitzes, and Attas of the world to run amok. Let's not forget that you and I are part of "the people." No air quotes.

Sigh. It's the friggin Constitution. There are no air quotes in the Constitution.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Zero to Sixty in 12.2

Here's what might have been:

At the intersection of Northern Parkway and York Avenue, I pulled up beside a Porsche Carrera. I confess---I coveted. His windows were down; my windows were down. I turned off the radio and leaned out my window. "Hey, man. I'll tradja." He looked at my freakishly amazing 1998 Plymouth Breeze Expresso, and that was all it took. He stepped out in traffic and walked over. He looked in my window like he was asking, "Are you serious?" We exchanged keys, and I got up to sixty miles per hour in less than four seconds.

Here's what was:

At the intersection of Northern Parkway and York Avenue, I pulled up beside a Porsche Carrera. I confess---I coveted. His windows were down; my windows were down. I turned up the radio and dreamed about driving a Porsche Carrera.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ego Te Provoco

I'm not sure what to think about this, from an article in Newsweek:
In a paper last month in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul finds that countries with the lowest rates of social dysfunction—based on 25 measures, including rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, unemployment, and poverty—have become the most secular. Those with the most dysfunction, such as Portugal and the U.S., are the most religious, as measured by self-professed belief, church attendance, habits of prayer, and the like.
Begley's article and Paul's paper are more about whether religion is hard-wired, genetic, and instinctive, but they raise an important issue for people like me, who grew up singing "Jesus is the answer for the world today." The question, I think, is one of cause and effect. Specifically, which is the cause, the functionality or the secularism, and which is the effect? Maybe more importantly, what is the causal relationship between religion and a dysfunctional society?

And, because I like Latin, let's not forget that great logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Tonight, we watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Let me begin by saying that the concept is interesting, the actors were great, and some of the shots were incredible. There are a few images from the movie that will haunt me.

But the writing was terrible. The locket thing tried so hard to work, but it didn't. I never thought it was a sign from God; I thought she was kinda strange to pick it up and put it on. And so much of the dialogue felt scripted. The actors said their lines with gusto, but you just can't say a bad line well enough. I thought about Michael Scott during Erin Bruner's (Laura Linney) closing argument when she asks the jury, "Are we all alone? Or are we not alone?" I would say "great concept, terrible execution," but it had both a great concept and great execution by the actors, etc. Something messed up between the concept and the execution.

The worst part of the writing was the egregious inaccuracy of the details of the trial. If you want to make a movie with a trial as the backdrop against which everything takes place, please consult a trial lawyer about how things work. You can keep those details straight without sacrificing too much drama. One example will show you exactly what I'm talking about.

Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is on the stand. He has just been cross-examined, rather effectively, by prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott). Bruner stands for re-direct examination and pulls out a tape that we know is a recording of the attempted exorcism of Emily Rose. Thomas jumps to his feet and objects strenuously. He tells the judge that the prosecution had only received a copy of the tape the night before. Bruner brilliantly parries his thrust by stating that she had only gotten a copy of the tape the night before as well and provided the prosecution with a copy as quickly as practicable. Names are called, accusations are made, and, eventually, Thomas embarrassingly loses the objection fight. He sits down humiliated.

But if Mr. Thomas had gone to law school, he would have known that the scope of re-direct examination is generally limited to the scope of the immediately preceding cross-examination. If he had known that, he would have stood and simply said, "Objection---beyond the scope of cross." The judge probably would have sustained the scope objection, the tape would not be in evidence, and Mr. Thomas would have accomplished his goal without embarrassing himself. (Of course, a good trial lawyer could beat that objection, but it's much stronger than his crybaby one. Especially because the judge could properly sustain the scope objection, but couldn't properly sustain the unfair surprise objection.) But apparently, Mr. Thomas did not go to law school, or else he went to one that didn't teach the rules of evidence.

They say in the Federal Republic of Germany that the devil is in the details. There was so much to like about this movie, and I can swallow a lot of inaccuracies in the name of story. But some brilliant science fiction writer once said that, if you tell the truth about the little things---the details---then your audience will believe even the biggest lies you throw their way. The writers ignored so many trees, that I could hardly focus on the forest.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ordinarily, Hyde Carried a Rabid Dog This Way

A friend of mine recently asked me to name five books that changed the way I view the world. I'm curious what other people think, so I'll share my five here. Please share your five in the comments.

1. Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes: This is the first book I enjoyed trying to figure out. Some of the images from that book still haunt me, and I love it.

2. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: I read all the fine print on the copyright page three times, trying to figure out if this was fiction or nonfiction. O'Brien's brilliance made me realize the distinction between truth and Truth. I like to say he taught me how to read.

3. Scott Turow's Ordinary Heroes: The impact of this book on my life can be summarized by this question, asked of the protagonist: "Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?"

4. Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: I first read this in eighth grade, but only a flicker of it stuck with me. When I read it again last year, the Truth of the story rang deep within me. This is one of the subtlest, most terrifying horror stories ever written. And one of the Truest.

5. Stephen King's Cujo: This novel has some of the most beautiful writing I've ever read. The takeaway point is this: true beauty can hide anywhere, even in the ugliest thing imaginable, like a story about a possibly demon-possessed rabid dog written by a guy too high to remember writing any of it.

So those are my five. What are yours?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Vexillology for Dummies

Since I've come to Maryland, I've come to appreciate the beauty of the Maryland flag:

You'll note the distinctive coloring. No other state features black so prominently, and only three other states use yellow. The first I remembered from a ski trip to Santa Fe in high school:

The second I recognized because it just says "Arizona":

But the third yellow flag I don't recall ever having seen before taking the bar:

Two points if you guessed you were looking at the Great Seal of the State of New Jersey on a buff field. I struck up an interesting conversation with a security guard at the Baltimore Convention Center trying to guess which state was cool enough to use a buff field. We actually used that word, too: "buff." Thankfully, he remembered that, during the American Revolution, George Washington ordered the uniforms of the New Jersey Continental Guard to be dark blue with buff facings. And then it was all clear.

But, of course, nothing compares to the Texians' flag at the Battle of Gonzales, where they dared the Mexican Regulars to take back the lone cannon defending the Mexican Constitution of 1824:

Unbiased historians on the payroll of the State of Texas tell us the Texians fired one cannon shot, and the Mexican Regulars went running back to San Antonio.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

My Pebble

My junior year in college, I lived in an old duplex. One night, I walked into the kitchen and noticed a metal plate on the wall, painted the same yellow as the rest of the wall. I had never seen the plate before, so I was curious. I took out three of the screws and let the plate swing down. I looked into the gaping black hole in my wall, wondering why there wasn't any insulation. Suddenly, the most awful, cacophonous, Dantean screaming cackle exploded from the gaping black hole. It cut off as suddenly as it exploded, and an eerie, husky chuckle bubbled up from just below the hole. I squinted at the gaping black hole, willing my pupils to open wider. At the bottom edge of the gaping black hole, an even blacker shape floated up. I leaned closer. I stared. I blinked. And when my eyes opened, I was looking at the popcorn ceiling of my bedroom.

Was it a dream? Or was it a doorway to Hell expertly hidden in the middle of the night like in some Orwellian fantasy?

The evidence of my roommate, his fiancee, and my fiancee all supported the dream theory. They had never seen a yellow plate or heard any scary laughter. My own examination of the kitchen also supported the dream theory. But my eyes and my ears refused to believe they could be misled. If you can't trust your own eyes and ears, what can you trust?

I teetered at the peak of two slippery slopes. On my right hand, if I believe my eyes and ears, then I open myself up to a scary, scary world where devils hide in the walls and nobody knows it.

On my left hand, if I believe the other witnesses, I admit the fallibility of my senses. And if I didn't really hear that cacophonous cackle, how could I be sure I had heard them right? Worse---how could I be sure that the same devil who took the yellow plate away didn't make my friends lie in an effort to keep us all from knowing the truth?

And that, my friends, is where we all stand. When we're not teetering on the edge of insanity, we wander through a miasma of uncertainty, tripping on rocks hidden in the fog of misperception and lies. Sometimes, we pick up a pebble. We stare at it, contemplate it, dissect it, and digest it. Then, we hold up the pebble for all our friends and proclaim, "This! This, my friends, is truth!"

Maybe it is. But it's only one pebble: 2 or 3 grams of matter on a planet with 5,974,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 other grams of matter.