Back in October, I wrote about the story of George Norris, a Texan convicted of conspiracy, smuggling, and false statements in connection with his importation of rare orchids. I suggested that the primary documents from the case — including Norris' own sentencing briefs — suggested that he was a poor fit for the frame that commentators had chosen for him as an innocent victim of a paperwork mishap and a symbol of over-criminalization run amok. In fact, I argued, the primary documents told a different story. Mr. Norris — or someone using his name, with an IP address in his home town — appeared to defend himself, made rather easily refutable claims about his case, called me an asshole, and described the United States as a third world nation run by a "darkie." But then, orchid fanciers have always been renowned for having foul mouths.
Narratives die a slow death, when they die at all. The narrative of "innocent man prosecuted for not successfully navigating red tape" is nearly irresistible — in part because it contains the kernel of truth that the criminal justice system is out of control and does routinely chew up innocent people and impose grotesquely disproportionate punishments for banal missteps.
So I can't say that I am surprised to see that The Economist has picked up George Norris' story and run with it, further promoting it as a symbol of a heartless and out-of-control system. From there, more blogs — including good ones I normally associate with critical thinking, like Point Of Law — have further promoted the story.
I find very little to disagree with in The Economist's companion-article critique of the American criminal justice system as a whole. Since Nixonian times, we've turned the "law and order" dial past 11, and no politician has the guts to suggest that perhaps it ought to be turned back. Why would any sane politician do so, when politics is choked with prison-guard-union money, exhortations to longer sentences and more crimes are always crowd-pleasers, and even the very rule of law is scorned if it fails to produce instant and reliable gratification in the form of quick convictions and long sentences? On the big picture, the Economist's article is well worth reading, and considering.
But I'm a bit disappointed with the Economist's hook, line, and sinker acceptance of Mr. Norris' self-serving narrative. Nothing in the article suggests to me that the authors read any of the primary documents in the case, or subjected any of the "orchid fancier as innocent victim" rhetoric to skepticism or critical thinking. It makes such a stirring story, you see.
Read the primary documents linked in my post when you make up your own mind. You may decide that they do, in fact, support The Economist's narrative, and Mr. Norrris'. (My co-blogger Patrick, whose judgment I hold in high esteem, strongly disagrees with me, for instance.) But at least you will come to that conclusion based on evidence. That, I strongly suspect, will distinguish you from the writers at The Economist.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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