Trust In The Devil


Conservatives, we are told, oppose big government and mistrust government in general. Liberals, on the other hand, love them some big government.

Given a sufficiently generic and uncritical definition of "conservative" and "liberal", that might be true — on some issues. "Conservatives" definitely tend to oppose government intrusion into the sphere of economic activity, whereas "liberals" urge and welcome it.

But here's the grotesque irony: when you stop talking about business — about money — and start talking about blowing shit up, putting people in jail, and executing them, the opposite seems to be true. The mainstream American voices generally identified as "conservative" tell us we must trust the government when it decides which enemies of the state to lock up (whether they are suspected terrorists or accused criminals), and tell us that insisting upon some semblance of due process for such people puts critics on the side of terrorists and criminals. People who are extremely skeptical about the government's right and competence to regulate, say, the amount of rat feces in breakfast cereal suddenly become the government's biggest boosters when the question becomes whether the government has the right and the competence to jail and execute a man accused of murder.

I submit that this is breathtakingly irrational (as is the belief of "liberals" that the government can't be trusted to run the criminal justice or military spheres, but can be trusted to regulate every element of our economic lives). Prosecutors, cops, and military commanders are not some different species than IRS agents and regulators and city councilmen. They are all human: broken, fallible, subject to the insidious lures of power and the immense pressures of the culture in which they find themselves. All of them – any person who comes to wield the authority of the state against us — should be viewed with a healthy skepticism.

But that's just not our culture. Ask anyone who has ever tried to have a conversation with the average citizen about the presumption of innocence. Ask any defense lawyer who, during voir dire, has ever asked prospective jurors whether they think that the guy probably did something if he's sitting there at the defense table.

Ask Anthony Graves.

Anthony Graves spent 18 years in prison in Texas because of prosecutorial misconduct. Mark Bennett has been documenting the story admirably; read his work and follow his links to the searing Texas Monthly story about the case.

Anthony Graves was accused of a horrific mass murder. He was accused despite an utter lack of physical evidence: rather, he was accused based on the uncorroborated word of a man who admitted to participating in the murder, and based upon an expert's opinion that Graves' knife, among many other knives, was "consistent" with the weapon used in the killings. Graves was tried and convicted despite the fact that the actual murderer — Robert Carter, Graves' accuser — recanted and admitted that Graves had nothing to do with it. You'd think that would matter to a jury. Perhaps it would have — but multiple courts found that prosecutor Charles Sebesta didn't disclose that his star witness, the only witness establishing that Graves had anything to do with the murder, had recanted and exonerated Graves, then flip-flopped again in time to testify against him. The actual murderer, Robert Carter, went to his execution declaring that Graves was innocent. Yet Texas courts rejected Graves' appeals. It took the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reverse the conviction. This week, the special prosecutor assigned to the matter dismissed charges against Graves, and he walked free after 18 years of incarceration.

Carter was patently a killer and a liar, uncorroborated by relevant evidence. But the jury bought his story — because the government told them to, and when the government wears the prosecutor's hat, people trust it. The proposition that the government's concealment of Carter's recantation was irrelevant is facially ridiculous — yet Texas courts bought it, because judges are people too, and when the government wears the prosecutor's hat, people trust it. Prosecutor Charles Sebesta — who took out an advertisement in the paper defending the conviction — still has his supporters, and many will say that this result is an example of clever lawyers getting criminals off on a "technicality" — because the government accused Graves of a crime, and when the government wears the prosecutor's hat, people trust it. I suspect that if you said to many of those people "when the government decides how much taxes you should pay, or how you should run your business, or what kind of health care plan you ought to have, you should trust the government," those people would react with disgust, seeing that statement as morally treasonous and displaying a canine level of devotion to the state. But tell them that defense lawyers spin bullshit to get the guilty off the hook, and they'll nod sagely and agree. It's a cultural thing. Some people identify more with folks who like to shoot dogs, and some people identify more with folks who like to tell you that you can't buy dogs.

Giving the government the power to do things we like tends to give the government the power to do things we don't like. In a perfect world, conservatives would see that reposing uncritical trust in prosecutors and cops ultimately promotes the government's power to regulate their businesses and their health care. Liberals would see that trusting regulators and bureaucrats increases the government's power to jail citizens upon flimsy evidence. Maybe one day more people will meet in the middle and recognize that the appropriate stance of an informed citizen towards all elements of the government is vigilance, skepticism, and firm support of individual rights against the state. Perhaps more people will agree that the correct response to any government attempt to control the individual is to question: "What evidence do you have to support this? Is it really believable? Can it be trusted? Is it enough?"

But I'm not holding my breath.

Last 5 posts by Ken White



  1. Matt Raft  •  Oct 28, 2010 @4:24 pm

    Just when I think you've peaked, you amaze me yet again.

  2. nrasmuss13  •  Oct 28, 2010 @8:49 pm

    Actually, I'm far more confounded that anyone with a straight face could equate the taking of money with the taking of life or liberty. I'm far more comfortable with the government taking my money than with the government taking anyone's life or liberty – and I have far less difficulty reconciling that position than I would ever have reconciling the notion that the government should take your life or liberty, but keep its filthy, corrupt hands out of my wallet.

    Nonetheless, a point fairly well made. (Also says boatloads about the mindless insanity that it is Texas/the Texas judiciary)..

  3. Bob  •  Oct 28, 2010 @9:29 pm

    It's called Libertarian, or anarchy to the ill-informed.

  4. anonymouse  •  Oct 29, 2010 @6:07 am

    Sadly, that summary of the evidence reminds me that the resolution in Twelve Angry Men hinged on the SPOILER ALERT*, fact that the defendant's distinctive knife was not so unique after all. Even though it's fiction, I have to think that the expectation of "beyond a reasonable doubt" depicted in the movie is closer to the reality we'd prefer than the criteria used in this case.

    * not sure that anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet is ever going to, but hey.

  5. Richard Hershberger  •  Oct 29, 2010 @8:49 am

    "(as is the belief of “liberals” that the government can’t be trusted to run the criminal justice or military spheres, but can be trusted to regulate every element of our economic lives)"

    Do "liberals" believe this? I have hung out with an awful lot of people who self-identify as "liberal", and while I don't self-identify this way, many people who self-identify as "conservative" have been eager to identify me as "liberal". Yet I don't know anyone who doesn't want the government running criminal justice or military matters. This isn't to say that there isn't criticism of the government's specific conduct in these spheres, but that is an entirely different discussion. The common liberal critique is of letting *corporations* run the show in these areas. Not that this is a peculiarly liberal critique, unless you want to classify Eisenhower and a lefty. Some have done this, but only at the risk of having people point at them and laugh.

  6. bw  •  Oct 29, 2010 @9:46 am

    "when you stop talking about business — about money — and start talking about blowing shit up, putting people in jail, and executing them, the opposite seems to be true"

    There's really not any bright conservative/liberal line on this. Liberals have controlled Congress for 4 years and the White House for 2. They haven't so much as lifted a finger to slow/stop the wiretapping, torture, and general gestapo-like behavior of Homeland Security. How's that repeal of the Patriot Act coming?

    Both sides of the aisle tend to increase government's hold on our lives. One side gives lip service to the contrary, but in the end, anyone who truly believes in liberty isn't going to want to run for office in the first place, because the will to power is incompatible with a libertarian mindset. With precious few exceptions, everyone running for office has an innate desire to boss around large numbers of people, and once elected, tries to expand their ability to do so. Power doesn't corrupt, it merely attracts the latently corrupt.

  7. Al  •  Oct 29, 2010 @10:32 am

    I would disagree with you, bw. Both liberals and conservatives (Republicans and Democrats or whatever label you'd like) tend to ignore the principals once they're in charge. We saw it with worries about civil liberties and before that fiscal conservatism. We'll see it again, I'm sure.

  8. Ezra  •  Oct 29, 2010 @10:34 am

    Just to echo what Richard said (and I am a liberal) I think the military and justice are firmly in the Government's purview. I also think they need to be strongly regulated. A view I think is pretty consistent with what I believe needs to happen economically. Deregulation has been responsible for many of the woes we are currently suffering through, and yet the Right wants to further emasculate regulation (and the Dems only half heartedly push for regulation of most industries.)

  9. bw  •  Oct 29, 2010 @3:15 pm

    "I would disagree with you, bw. "

    That's great, Al, but if you meant to actually do so in your comment, then you need to read my comment more carefully, because you pretty much echoed what I said.

  10. The Californian  •  Oct 29, 2010 @4:08 pm

    bw, lack of a Democrat/Republican bright line does not equal lack of a conservative/liberal bright line. I doubt very many of the Democrats in Congress call themselves liberals.

  11. bw  •  Oct 29, 2010 @7:48 pm

    Their leadership certainly embrace the label, and they set control what makes it to the floor. The president also embraces it. Both sides of the left/right, dem/rep line seek the same thing – to increase their own power. The only difference is, one side is honest about it.

  12. MadRocketScientist  •  Nov 1, 2010 @7:42 am

    Ezra – So you also believe that all government regulatory agencies should also be tightly regulated & controlled?

  13. TimG  •  Nov 15, 2010 @9:07 pm

    I am not by any means in touch with politics. What I do know leads me to believe that bw was correct in saying that "… everyone running for office has an innate desire to boss around large numbers of people, and once elected, tries to expand their ability to do so. Power doesn’t corrupt, it merely attracts the latently corrupt."

    Common sense would tell us that killing someone is a huge decision to make and that all available resources to make this decision should be exhausted before determining if someone should be killed or not. I am not saying that I am against the death penalty, quite the contrary, I am a supporter… when the person being executed has actually committed a crime worthy of death being the punishment. Being hasty is stupid, we must remember that the purpose of convicting someone of a crime is to bring them to justice. If we inadvertently commit a crime in the process then we have failed to provide justice. Simply don’t be hasty, and don’t attempt outsmart your common sense. Proof is essential, your common sense will show you how to find proof if you actually look for it and if it is actually there to find.

    Furthermore, The problem isn’t the death penalty as a whole, its bullshit lawyers and prosecutors with outside influences conflicting with their ability to make a morally correct decision. The same holds true with the "hand in my wallet" comment. Despite that its probably true that the majority of people that hold office don’t actually give a shit about the public or that they hold money and power in higher regard than they do integrity, honesty or nobility, it is also true that anyone who holds office in the government anywhere did something to earn that position, therefore, the people in government obviously know more about it than we do, otherwise we would be the ones in charge of government, not them. What we must do respect their expertise while obligating them to uphold a high level of moral rectitude.

    The alternative to “helping them help themselves” is to attempt to overthrow them. In order to do this we would have to find a way to inconspicuously control those who are in control, gain their trust, and destroy them from within, which will never happen because in order to be that conniving and manipulative we would have to become what we hate. Which would not only be hypocritical, but will never happen on a big enough scale to make a difference. So bitching about it is pointless. The real solution is to just uphold high moral standards. That’s really the best solution to everything.

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