In order to observe and reflect upon the relationship between law and society in America, this course usually requires you to observe an American courtroom and write a roughly 10-page paper about what you see there. If you have already done so, go ahead and write the original paper! But if you were unable to get your observation in before social distancing protocols went into effect, here is a completely different assignment for a roughly 10-page paper that I will accept in its place.
Read the magazine article attached to this assignment, which is an account on effort to exonerate two men who had been convicted of a mid-1980s murder in New York City. Do you best to explain, in your own words, what happened, both in the 1980s and more recently. Then analyze this story in the context of this particular class and what we have learned in here so far.
Specifically, ask yourself why there might be a disjuncture between a just resolution of this case, as the author of the article would understand it, and the decision that the court ultimately makes. Try to use as much of what you have learned about U.S. legal institutions so far in this course to explain what is going on. What sort of courtroom is this? What kind of trial? What is the burden of proof in the U.S. legal system, and how does it function differently when Smokes and Warren seek their exoneration than it did in their original criminal trial? How do we conduct trials in the common law legal system, and how is that reflected in this particular case? Is it possible that this decision is simultaneously legally correct and unjust—and how might that be possible?
You might also use what you have learned about the history of race and crime in America in recent decades from Alexander and our class discussion of her book. What social conditions helped shape the original investigation of this case? What social conditions made it more likely that this case would be revisited more recently? Should we understand the case as an example of “New Jim Crow,” of the “have-nots” struggling in court, or in some other way? What, ultimately, does the Smokes-Warren journey say about law and U.S. society over recent decades?
Got it! Good! Though some further advice and suggestions follow….
A Note on Bias
Be careful about attributing different people’s actions or story-telling to “bias,” a highly pejorative term that suggests that they are clearly being unfair. Sure, the author of the article finds the plaintiffs in this case to be sympathetic and seems to believe their story. But she does not as far as I can tell exclude defenses from the other side or twist facts to suit her needs. Likewise, the judge in this case has to make a decision about burdens of proof that might be different than the standards of narrative journalism. Focus on what happened, rather than trying to impeach the motivations of the various protagonists.
Outside Sources and a Note on Citation
Other than the assigned article, I do not expect you to do outside research for this paper. But you do need to quote and/or refer to some of the assigned readings and to cite direct quotations and assertions of fact to specific page numbers. No references/quotes/citations = no chance of a good grade.
Some professors want you to use a specific citation system. I don’t particularly care, so long as the reference leads me to the source and page number. For our sake, a simple parenthetical citation with get the job done, and a simple footnote is also fine. Since all your sources should be class readings/lectures, you need not tell me anything more than the author(s) and page number. I don’t need a works-cited page and I don’t need publisher information.
Some students get disproportionately nervous about citation formatting and rules, in part because they worry about being busted for cheating or plagiarism on account of some sort of honest mix-up about citation format. In reality, accidental plagiarism is very rare. And those rare cases usually happen because students do not know what they are supposed to footnote, not because they got the format wrong. So, as a reminder: You need to cite any direct quotation from a text or proceeding; any assertions of specific fact (for example, how many African-Americans are currently in prison, even if you don’t put the figure in quotations); and any arguments/analysis you got from other sources (for example, the theory that the war on drugs resembles Jim Crow as a form of racialized social control needs to be sourced to Michelle Alexander). As a general rule, you do not need to cite common knowledge (President Trump was elected in 2016 and took office in 2017) or your own independent analysis of facts and evidence. Nor, for this particular paper, do you need to use footnotes for your own personal observations of your visit to the courthouse, so long as it’s clear from the text where that information comes from. If you have any questions about this, any questions at all, see the university’s Academic Integrity guidelines or come and see me.