There's an interesting story in the NY Times about how what many call Big Brother public surveillance is actually working out for a couple of murder suspects. But there's a deeper issue that doesn't really get talked about in the article, and it goes back to those old bugaboos in our society when it comes to crime--race and economic class.

Here's the basic story. Two brothers are accused of murdering a person who had been a witness in federal drug and gun cases. When these men are picked up by the police, they say they had been far away from the scene when the shooting took place, and offer a timeline to prove it. The police ignore their story and take the word of an eyewitness instead, and the two men go to trial in federal court for murder, which carries a possible death sentence.

Notice I used the word "ignore," because according to the story, that's just what the police did. The lawyers for the defense hired a private investigator who was able to prove one defendant's story was accurate, based on his MetroCard use and a photo from the place where the defendant cashed his paycheck. That's the interesting part of the story from the technology side.

But the real question is "why didn't the police follow up on the defendant's story?" It didn't seem from the story like the private investigator did anything too out of the way--he simply followed the defendant's story and it checked out. In fact, the Times's story points out another case where the police used the same sort of information to help get a conviction.

In at least one instance, a MetroCard helped lead to a conviction. In 2002, on Staten Island, a man was found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend after the police used his MetroCard to prove that he was not on a bus when the killing occurred, as he claimed, but had in fact boarded it shortly afterward.
So this sort of action isn't unusual, at least when it can help the police prove their case. But it didn't happen this time. Why?
The Jones brothers already had a spotted past. Corey had convictions in two drug cases, Jason in a drug case and for stealing a car.
What do you suppose the chances are that the Jones brothers are from the economic underclass? Pretty good, based solely on that, but the story also points out that while Jason was working, he was working a temporary job as a forklift operator. This guy probably wasn't living high on the hog. Did that fact make it less likely that the police would ignore exculpatory evidence?

I'm not suggesting that the police here had it in for these two men. It seems more likely to me that they had a witness, a couple of suspects with a shady past, and what sounded at first hearing like a flimsy alibi. Why burn time chasing down something like that when you have other cases to work?

But if the suspects had been upper-middle-class professionals let's say, and they had a similar alibi, do you think that the police might have followed up a little more closely? After all, when Jason Jones pulled out his MetroCard and asked the police to track it, he was ignored. But why? It's easy to let your assumptions about people from certain strata of society get in the way when it comes to figuring out what happened in a situation. I do it myself (though I try to watch out for it) in the everyday judgments I make about people I ride the train with, or about students in my classes, for example. It's instinctive. It's second nature. But when I do it, the people I make those judgments about aren't likely to face the death penalty if I get it wrong. These guys did, and it was only a detective and technology that will likely keep him out of jail for a crime he doesn't seem to have committed.

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