Posted By Roger Stritmatter on February 9, 2011
“Do the right thing” — Spike Lee
This is going to be perhaps the most important post I’ve made to Shake-Speares-Bible.com. I put a lot of effort into the two detailed posts on James Shapiro’s hyphen error, and several other posts may be of some long term interest as well. Certainly its worthwhile to find a larger audience for articles originally published in somewhat obscure professional venues.
But the truth is that when I read Shapiro’s book — and especially when I read all the claptrap of the fawning reviewers — I got depressed.
Here’s the good news: I’m not depressed any more.
One reason I’ve given it up is that this evening I watched an impressive documentary, After Innocence, which chronicles the experiences of several wrongfully convicted men through the process of their exoneration, often achieved through the recent intervention of The Innocence Project, a program affiliated with the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. The Innocence Project has successfully fought for the freedom of at least 214 men (and women?) convicted in the United States for crimes they did not commit, including rape and murder.
There is nothing like the sobering realization that some of your fellow citizens have spent 6, 10, or twenty years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit to remind you that your own life isn’t as bad as it could be.
The key to the freedom of these wrongfully convicted men and women isn’t moral indignation — although moral indignation, passion, and intelligence were all necessary. It’s DNA testing.
As Innocence Project activist Eddie Joe Lloyd used to say, “DNA is God’s signature. God’s signature is never a forgery, and His checks never bounce.”
There are a lot of ways to try to wrap your mind around how it could happen that several thousand English literary professionals could be so blinking wrong about something so important as Shakespeare as they, by all appearances, are. But one of the most natural metaphors for the condition of these sad folks is that of the Prosecuting Attorney who put someone away for twenty years based on eyewitness evidence.
For well over a century, eyewitness identification has been recognized, by anyone who knows anything about forensic methods, as one of the least reliable forms of evidence on the planet. What is the prosecutor who is suddenly confronted with DNA evidence proving by an overwhelming preponderance of evidence not only that the convicted party may be innocent, but can’t possibly by any stretch of the imagination be guilty, supposed to do? I mean, some of these cases are so far beyond “reasonable doubt” that you have to wonder what kind of drugs the prosecution is still on.
What are you supposed to do?
When you put the proposition in that way its easy to feel sorry for the Stratfordians. They’ve had the wrong guy in jail for more than four hundred years, and it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it might be to just “do the right thing” and say “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Still, when one reads the sort of, um, creative rearrangements with the truth that James Shapiro published about me and my PhD dissertation in his Contested Will, it’s easy to recover from feeling depressed by getting hopping mad. Trust me. A self-righteous prosecutor who spends taxpayer money fighting against any attempt for an evidential hearing using the kind of smart-ass deceptions Shapiro brings to bear in his book is not someone for whom it’s easy to feel sorry.
Now, you may be wondering, dear reader, why I’m only putting this out on the internet more than a year after the publication of Shapiro’s book. Well, there are several valid answers.
One is that when Shapiro’s book came out I was so dumbfounded by the lies mistakes he repeated about my PhD dissertation that it rendered me speechless for eighteen months. Then again, I already admitted that I wasn’t just speechless. I was also depressed.
As anyone who has been falsely convicted of a capital crime can (I’m sure) attest, its not easy to have your name dragged through the mud by a guy who works for “the law” but has only half of the ethics gene in his DNA makeup.
So it was easier to write about Shapiro’s more public mistakes, like his inability to open a facsimile of Venus and Adonis to check whether his memory about hyphens was correct. In that case no one could accuse me of being partisan. I like it when Shapiro makes those kinds of mistakes — it only shows the world how little the emperor is really wearing.
The truth is, though, I’ve known about how bad eyewitness identification is since about 1966, when I was eight years old. That’s because my Dad, who was a special education teacher, kept a book, Edwin M. Borchard’s Convicting the Innocent, which attracted my attention at an early age. The book documents the conviction and imprisonment (and, in some cases, execution) of sixty-five men who were undeniably innocent.
My father had read the book and understood very well not only its implications for criminal law and justice, but its larger lessons about the fallibility of human cognition and the dangers of placing too much arbitrary trust in authority, which tends when institutionalized to take on a life of its own and to defend its erroneous presuppositions against any challenge, even — as in the case of criminal law — when it means keeping innocent men and women in jail indefinitely just to avoid admitting that you may have been wrong.
I was glad to see, just tonight, that the University of Albany library recognizes the importance of this classic work, first published in 1932, and has made it freely available on the internet.
The most shocking thing about Borchard’s book, however, is that after more than twenty five years of DNA identification as a forensic tool, prosecuting attorneys are still fighting the reopening of cases, for which significant DNA evidence is available, by citing eyewitness testimony and delivering the kind of sarcastic temper tantrums documented on film in After Innocence.
As Lenin asked, “what is to be done?” (No, I’m not a Marxist — I just think its a good quote — and even if what Lenin did was the wrong thing, he did ask the right question). Well, the good people at the Innocence Project aren’t sitting around — when it comes to reforming the US criminal justice system, they have a plan, and they’re implementing it, one person at a time (it’s a start, and it has the advantage of being the right thing even if larger strategic reforms are slow to implement). So if you haven’t seen the documentary, I highly recommend, as a first step, doing so. Its an educational experience.
My dilemma is perhaps more difficult. For some time I wondered if should write to Shapiro’s publishers, laying out in excruciating detail the astounding lapses of scholarly method that led him to publish the things he did about me. I may still do so — and if I do, you can be sure I’ll release a copy of the letter on the site. Meanwhile, you’ll just have to take my word for it that almost the only true things on the page Shapiro devotes to to discussing my dissertation are the commas and the periods.
Meanwhile, the beat does go on even if Shapiro has no sense of rhythm:
Politicians have a phrase, apropos of the dilemma faced not by the Oxfordians, but by the guardians of public morality about Shakespeare who are so adamant that it would be a betrayal of professional ethics to even admit that the authorship question exists: they like to talk, when it gets really necessary to do so, about “getting out in front of the story.”
You’ve really got to wonder how much longer institutions like the Folger or Harvard are going to sit idly by while the story escapes them entirely and they begin to take on the air of irrelevancy that the Catholic Church knows so much about from the days when its inquisitors refused to look into Galileo’s “looking glass.” At what point in the elaborate charade game known in modern parlance as “Shakespeare scholarship” are those responsible for protecting the public image of the academic institutions going to realize that its time to….
“Get out in front of the story”?
Your guess, dear reader, is as good as mine.