If you tell me, how can I be sure?

I had a comment on my blog concerning the guilt or innocence of Rubin Carter, the former world boxing champion accused of murder and celebrated in a Bob Dylan song – ‘Hurricane’. Apparently there are stories circulating which contradict the Dylan sentiment that he was an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime – so which is right?

This dilemma reminded me of Myra Hyndley, one of the Moors murderers who abducted and tortured children in the Sixties along with Ian Brady. She had received a full life sentence and for decades had protested her innocence as a willing accomplice. Somehow she became a cause celebre and many high profile people began to argue her case. Eventually, after it became apparent that Hindley would never be released, she dropped the pretence and admitted her complicity in the crimes. Some of her supporters publicly admitted their shock and dismay at her duplicity and how easily they had been taken in.

The fact of the matter is, even with these interviews, I have no way of knowing whether she was guilty or not. If I pushed this argument to its logical conclusion, I can’t even be sure that she existed and that this was not some incredible sick hoax perpetrated by the media. I didn’t know her nor anyone who did and I cannot check the facts with them. I can look it up on the internet or research old newspapers but ultimately I am an open channel into which any stories can be dumped. I have to take all the stories on trust (some stories obviously engender more trust than others depending on their source) so just one contradictory story (fabricated or not) can skew the authenticity of all the others.

This is basically why I am an empiricist; I don’t fully believe it unless I experience it or someone I know and trust relates their experience to me personally. The only exception I allow is science. Science is special because it has a method which demands independent verification; if it can’t be reproduced by someone else using the same process, then it isn’t science. This kind of thinking produces technology, superstition does not.

So let’s go back to Rubin Carter and Bob Dylan. Why did Dylan write about him? Well firstly he had his career to think about; he needed a song and this story looked like a cause which he could hang his name on. I don’t think Dylan was there at the time of the shooting, although I believe he talked to Carter when he was in prison (How did that conversation go? – “Did you do it Rubin?” “No I didn’t Bob.”) Basically he was as much an open channel as any of us for the stuff the media and the police decided to dump out.

The reality of any such situation is probably more like this. The police have a catalogue of known suspects, or people they just don’t like, who commit the majority of the crime. Quite often a crime will be committed and the police will have a very good idea about who did it, sometimes not. The problem is getting the evidence. Sometimes the evidence is fabricated. Sometimes this gets the right person off the streets and sometimes this leads to a miscarriage of justice (all of this I have gleaned off the media by the way but to which I have overlaid my own knowledge of human nature). Sometimes we learn of these miscarriages, sometimes not.

My point is this. All history is suspect – ALL history. The older the historical records, the more suspect they become. Let’s face it, the author of any history has too big a motive to paint themselves in a good light and too big an opportunity to alter the ‘facts’. If you get two versions of the history from different angles then you can start to interpret what probably happened.

So the question of Rubin Carter being innocent or guilty is academic from the general publics point of view; we just don’t know. What it does do is however is put a spotlight on police methods for gathering evidence – why is it so unscientific?

One thing you can be certain of though, things are never as straight forward as they seem. As described earlier, many miscarriages of justice are caused by a multiple of factors including incompetent police work, evidence tampering, unreliable witnesses etc. and so we get stories of wrongly convicted murderers serving twenty years before new DNA evidence exonerates them.

This is why I tend to put my faith in science. The discovery of DNA has cast a giant shadow over the perpetrators of unsolved crimes. Forty years later the spectre of their past can still come back to haunt them. Then punish them.

That’s justice in my book.

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