Monday, December 10, 2012

A Disquisition Upon a Fallacy

Ophadell Williams: Not Guilty.

That's what the jury said on Friday. If the name isn't familiar, Winnie Hu and Nate Schweber lead with the plot in the Times.
A bus driver accused of being so tired that he caused one of the deadliest crashes in New York City’s history was found not guilty of manslaughter and negligent homicide on Friday, underscoring the difficulty of prosecuting drowsy driving despite successful efforts to use the courts to discourage other dangerous habits while at the wheel. 
I don't know squat about New York law, and I paid little attention to the case.  Not my state, not my stuff, didn't know any of the principals (or even the bit players).  I don't really know what the evidence was.  I've got enough shit to deal with in Ohio.

But I heard this news report where the anchor asked the reporter about the "broader implications" of the verdict.   Broader implications?  There are none.  The prosecutors (I think they call them DA's in NY) just didn't prove it.  The reporter of course pontificated about how these things are hard but there's some case in Virginia and the dangers of and blah, blah, blah.

To which I thought.
Ho hum.
And that was kind of the end.  Not my state, not my stuff, didn't know any of the principals (or even the bit players).  I've got enough shit to deal with in Ohio.

This morning, Paul Kennedy (who's been doing really good stuff over on his blawg and you should be reading it if you aren't) took off on Doug Berman over the death of Dallas Cowboy linebacker Jerry Brown as a passenger in his teammate Josh Brent's car. It seems that Brent, who was perhaps driving under the influence while he was allegedly speeding, was charged with a DUI in 2009 in Champaign County, Illinois and entered into a plea bargain.

Berman, Kennedy said, is "on the warpath."  That might be a bit hyperbolic.  Judge for yourself.  Here's what Doug wrote.
I cannot help but wonder if Jerry Brown would still be alive today if Josh Brent had gotten sentenced somewhat more severely for his first DUI. And, looking forward, I think NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would do more good for both his sport and society if, rather than worry too much about kickoffs, he were now to decree that any NFL player convicted of any DUI charge will be suspended for at least two years (and perhaps even for life).
I suppose it's true that if Brent had been banned from professional football after 2009, the odds go way down (way down) that Brown would have been in his car the other day and, therefore, killed in that accident.  (Frankly, the odds that Brent would have been in that location at that time go down, too, which means the accident probably wouldn't have happened.)  And if Brent was doing 10-15 in the slammer in Illinois, no accident, either.

Kennedy's point is partly about a rush to judgment.  (Brent is merely alleged to have been over the limit - whether he actually was will be revealed by the blood tests, assuming they're done right.)  The rest of Kennedy's point is that ramping up the penalties for a first time DUI will either result in more violations of constitutional rights or, oddly, more not guilty verdicts in DUI cases (which means fewer convictions, though not necessarily fewer drivers over the limit).

But there's another point, and it takes me back to bus driver Ophadell Williams and the not guilty verdict.

I don't know what the jurors thought the DA didn't prove.  (Neither do the Times reporters who say that the jurors wouldn't speak with the press except to say that the deliberations were tough.)  That driving while exhausted isn't that serious a thing? That Williams wasn't actually all that tired?

Or just maybe some third thing.

Here's another possibility.  Image that the jurors believed that  Williams was absolutely exhausted, and that it was just awful for him to be driving that way.  Worse even than if he were blind drunk.  But maybe, just maybe, they thought to themselves
Sure, but they didn't prove that caused the accident.
I spend a fair amount of time in my car.  I see lots and lots of terrible driving.  I'm quite certain that some of the awful drivers I see are stinking drunk.  I'm sure others are half asleep.  Mostly, they get home safely.

They shouldn't be driving, of course.  And prosecuted for driving drunk or for driving while sleeping (it that's a crime) they'd be properly and fairly convicted (assuming factual guilt for the moment).  But we take another step, and its seriously wrong.

We make it a crime for the accident to happen at a time when the driver was drunk. Ignoring the question of whether the one had anything to do with the other.  Because sometimes it doesn't.

I don't know what New York law required the state to prove.  I don't know what the jury struggled with.  I don't know how they decided.  And I don't know why Josh Brent was speeding, if he was.  But I know that just because two thing happen in sequence doesn't mean the first caused the second.

The logical fallacy is called post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).  Most drunk drivers get home alive.  And sometimes, when they don't, it has nothing to do with being drunk.

Which leads to a couple of other possibilities in Josh Brent's case.  Even if he was drunk, and even if he was speeding, those things may not have had anything to do with each other.  He may speed all the time.  He may just be a lousy driver who can never control his car well.  Or maybe he just had an accident.  One of those things.  Awful though it turned out to be.  But something that might have happened regardless.

The law may not allow that as a possibility, the law may not care.  The law may not give a shit about causation when someone dies.  But as Dicken said in Oliver Twist  (in a different context)
If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass- a idiot."

1 comment:

  1. There is a reason why Bill Otis is a regular commenter at Berman's blog. It's not an accident, but a group hug.