The Usefulness of Trials, or Why Trials are Dangerous

I am increasingly alarmed at how few people receive trials. What happened to our society that, at times, proclaimed the right to a trial as a basic human right? Of course, this right mainly applied to those racialized as White; virtually never to enslaved Blacks; but it was a start.

As discussed in texts such as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the Bureau of Justice Statisticsand other places, less than 1 out of 20 people actually receive a trial these days. Most people are forced to take a plea-bargain – a system which has a variety of disastrous consequences and opportunities for corruption, as revealed in American Violet. Also, 2-5 percent of people in jail or prison are innocent but are stuck there. 

They say…trials are expensive and take time, lawyers and judges are expensive, there are not enough lawyers and judges, trials are unnecessary and ineffective, and many other things that are only further indictors and manifestations of systemic problems. 

The true “expense” of a trial relates to what we learn in trials. Trials produce a great deal of public records. In these trials there are opportunities to learn why and how people behaved as they did. Trials remind us that laws are always and only “imagined” – they are powerful social constructions – they are responses to hopes and fears – there are always gaps between the law and reality, especially in places like New York city where there are 10,000 laws on the books that police are in charge of enforcing.

In this way, trials are kind of dangerous, actually. They tend to make people more aware of what actually happens in society, and they are more aware of how bad systemic racism and classism really are, for example. Many people in jail are veterans. Our society doesn’t do anywhere near enough to take care of those who have served in the army. Trials would require us to learn more about PTSD. Trials would require more acknowledgment, even if superficially, that people are complex and changing products of their environments and society.

I am, of course, very deeply disturbed by all the people who have been killed this week. 

Of course, a person should avoid running from the police. But, police should never kill a person for running. Black people have said it is safer for them to run. Police should also never kill a person they have pinned on the ground. 

To elaborate on one of many possible examples:

I am shocked and very concerned that people across the Internet have been celebrating the robot that exploded Micah Johnson by saying “we know he did it” or “had prior records” or something similar. We cannot, as a society, accept such discourses. Johnson was Black and a Veteran, a citizen of the United States, a human. 

Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law by a jury of peers has to apply to all of us, if we are going to proclaim it as a core right.

Johnson never had that. And he’ll never get that. His “trial” and “execution” happened very quickly, so quickly no one had time to really think. It happened with a speed that parallels lynchings that occurred during the Culture of Segregation. 

We’ll never get to talk to him again. He’s dead. There had to have been some way to stop him by making him briefly unconscious or something, and if there isn’t, we have the technology to make ways. 

A trial for him would be very useful and “expensive” in that we would learn–from him–why he did what he did. Doctors and lawyers would talk with him. We’d likely learn more about PTSD and about how horribly our nation treats Veterans, especially Veterans with any kind of psychological distress. We’d learn, no doubt, about his experiences with racism and his frustrations with society. We’d learn if he was working with others to kill and injure those officers. 

Society would have to directly face him and accept some responsibility. 

Looking at it in another historical framework, even the Nazis got trials. The Nuremberg trials were a year and very costly-in ways far beyond economic calculations. And we learned a tremendous amount from them that revolutionized the World. 

Philando Castile, Micah Johnson, and Alton Sterling cannot be discussed without also acknowledging Black History and systemic, institutionalized racism. But, it’s very hard for people because, especially if they are White, they often can’t see it. It’s also hard because, especially for White people, moving around in our day-to-day life, everything seems fine.

Literature provides some possible insights, too. Langston Hughes says:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Andrew Joseph Pegoda