Selling Prosecutorial Overreach to the Masses (with pre-order bonuses)
Warning: There are some middlin’ spoilers for the game LA Noire that follow. There is also a question about the societal costs and benefits of putting people in prison for crimes they didn’t commit because they are likely to commit different crimes. So it’s got that going for it.
LA Noire, if you hadn’t heard, is a recently released game from Rockstar Games (yes, the Grand Theft Auto folks) that puts you in the role of lawman rather than criminal. Instead of the chaotic and rampant violence you may be used to in these games, you’re stuck investigating the crimescenes left behind by the stupid, the greedy, the violent. It’s a much more depressing game than previous Rockstar games… After all, there’s a joy to be found in rolling a tank down the street and firing its cannon at the cars you see around you. It’s much less fun to investigate a homicide and find a driver’s license with an address on it in the purse found near the body and then, a few moments later, walk up to the house and see a tricycle on the sidewalk. (Seriously, I had to turn the game off for a bit when I saw that.)
Now, as you progess through the game, you have various conversations with the more seasoned cop(s) you have been partnered up with. Many of these are character development or plot exposition, but there was one conversation with my partner Finbarr (no, you’re not allowed to call him that) that stuck in my craw. I’m still working at it like a seed caught between my teeth.
Here’s the setup: you’re investigating the murder of a young woman and there are two suspects. One suspect is the husband. The other suspect is a man who has occasionally molested children at the local high school. He gets thrown in jail from time to time but gets let out, the justice system being what it is. There is evidence that both men did it, but, halfway through the case (before all of the evidence is found) there are also questions hanging leading you to reasonable doubts… an uncertainty of means here, a lack of motive there. Something that just doesn’t sit right. Well, you and Rusty have a conversation immediately after collaring the molester.
Rusty points out that they should charge the molester guy. He’s unsympathetic to the point where it hard to imagine a jury acquitting him for pretty much anything. When you point out that the evidence is somewhat light and that the husband has evidence against him too, Rusty asks a tough question: so what? Assuming the Husband did it, Rusty points out, he’s not an immediate danger to anybody. The molester, on the other hand, is. They can always come back and hit the Husband with something else before he’s likely to kill anybody (and that’s *IF* he’s likely to kill anybody. Most murders are one-offs, he points out). The molester, on the other hand, *IS* likely to harm others before he can be put away and this is an opportunity to put him away for a good, long time.
(Now, of course, in the real world, we know that everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and, goodness knows, there are more cases where there are no suspects than where there are two equally good ones by three or four orders of magnitude. In the real world, the problem is not having enough evidence. The problem is looking at the crime scene and not having a single lead rather than an embarassment of evidence.)
In the game, the question that came up about whether the point of the police department was more to punish the guilty than it was to protect society was one that (shudder) made sense to ask in the first place and discuss casually as you drove down the street.
(For the record, I’m playing Duke Nukem 3D at this point. Aliens stealing my babes is a less stressful situation to be thrust into.)
Rockstar did do a good job setting up a handful of quandaries:
Given prosecutorial discretion, isn’t it good that they can indict ham sandwiches given the number of bad folks out there that, for whatever reason, get paroled or otherwise walk? Wouldn’t it be better for serial molesters to be put in prison even if it means that one-time murderers go free? (Ironically, they even ask the Captain the question about the people who may be innocent who may have gone to prison… and the Captain says we’ll lose paperwork here, have an abberation in the appeal there, the DA knows how to do this.) When they know they caught the wrong guy, isn’t it good enough that they lose the paperwork and let him go free in the search to find a killer?
And, of course, the most important question: Wouldn’t it be awesome if justice worked like it does in the video games?