This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What are the different varieties of miscarriages of justice? How do they arise? Is there anything we as a society, and you as an individual, can do to prevent miscarriages of justice?
We’ll cover three very different cases of miscarriage of justice–those of Patrick Dale Walker, Amanda Knox, and the Penn State leadership team. Through these cases, we’ll see the variety of ways in which a judge or jury can misread a situation, and we’ll explore possible ways to solve the problem.
Miscarriage of Justice, Case #1: Patrick Dale Walker
The bail hearings described in the section Judges vs. Artificial Intelligence are another exercise in transparency. Judges who look at their defendants make more mistakes in judging character than a computer that never sees the defendants at all. Watching someone’s facial expressions is not a fail-proof way to see how that person is feeling. Someone who is surprised might not show it, and someone who is dangerous might come across as stereotypically demure. This can lead to a miscarriage of justice.
Patrick Dale Walker
A man named Patrick Dale Walker was arrested in Texas for trying to kill his girlfriend. The only reason he didn’t succeed in murdering her was that the gun jammed when he pulled the trigger. The judge presiding over the case set bail at $1 million, and Walker went to prison. But four days later, the judge lowered the bail to $25,000 and Walker was released.
The judge reasoned that four days in jail would be enough for Walker to “cool off.” He saw Walker as a polite young man with a clean record. Most important, he saw that Walker was remorseful for what he had done. But could he really see something like remorse in a stranger? Apparently not. Walker shot his girlfriend to death four months later.
In this case, seeing Walker made the judge worse at interpreting his intentions. The information the judge thought he gleaned from observing Walker’s seemingly remorseful behavior was actually misinformation, because Walker was not transparent. Clearly, this was a miscarriage of justice.
Miscarriage of Justice, Case #2: Amanda Knox
On November 1, 2007, an American college student named Meredith Kercher was murdered in the small, Italian town of Perugia. Kercher’s body was found by her roommate, Amanda Knox. Knox called the police to the scene of the gruesome crime. Almost immediately, Amanda Knox was added to the list of subjects—she was ultimately convicted of murder and put in prison.
The arrest and conviction of Amanda Knox was a sensation in the media and tabloids. But it doesn’t make sense that Amanda Knox was implicated in the murder. There was no physical evidence that put Knox at the scene of the crime. Nor was there any motive that explained why she would have murdered her roommate. The police botched the investigation of evidence and DNA, and the prosecution relied on fantasy to make the case. But, somehow, eight years went by before the Italian Supreme Court declared Knox innocent. The first decision was a clear miscarriage of justice. How did it happen?
There are plenty of articles and books that detail all of the mistakes made by the investigators and prosecutors in Amanda Knox’s case. But the simplest theory of what went wrong with Amanda Knox’s case is this: the police expected Knox to be transparent and she wasn’t. Her case is an example of the consequences of assuming that the way a stranger looks is a reliable indicator of how she feels.
Amanda Knox and Mismatching
Amanda Knox was innocent. But in the months following the crime, the way she acted made her seem guilty. She was mismatched, like Nervous Nelly. The investigators on the case drew wild conclusions about Amanda’s role in Kercher’s murder based on the way she behaved.
Lead investigator Edgardo Giobbi said that he didn’t even need to rely on any other kinds of investigation because he had observed Knox’s guilt through her psychological and behavioral reactions to the murder. And the prosecutor on the case said that although the physical evidence collected had been very unclear, what was clear was that Amanda’s behavior was irrational.
Amanda Knox (like most strangers) was a mystery to the people who didn’t know her closely. She was the kind of outcast kid in high school who sang in the hallways and pretended to be an elephant in front of her classmates. Like most misfits, Amanda Knox had learned to be herself even when the people around her couldn’t understand her. So, in the days following Meredith Kercher’s murder, Knox didn’t adjust her behavior to conform to peoples’ expectations. This was a huge factor in the miscarriage of justice.
Here are a few examples of how Amanda Knox behaved after Meredith Kercher’s murder:
- The police told Amanda to put on protective booties before walking through the crime scene. She did so, and then struck a pose and said “ta-dah.”
- When Kercher’s friend Sophie attempted to hug Amanda and express sympathies, Knox just stood with her arms at her sides and remained expressionless.
- When Kercher’s friend Natalie said, “I hope she didn’t suffer,” Amanda yelled, “She fucking bled to death!”
- While most people were crying and speaking in hushed tones around Meredith Kercher’s family, Amanda Knox and her boyfriend were cuddling up with each other, kissing, and even laughing.
- In custody, Amanda did yoga and showed off her splits to the guard on duty.
As Diane Sawyer would later say in an interview with Amanda Knox (after she had been declared innocent), that kind of behavior didn’t look like grief to most people. Many people found Knox’s demeanor to be cold and calculating.
So Amanda Knox spent four years in prison (and another four years waiting to be declared officially innocent) for the crime of behaving unpredictably—for being mismatched. But being weird is not a crime. This was a miscarriage of justice.
Miscarriage of Justice, Case #3: Penn State’s Leadership Team
One day in 2001, Michael McQueary entered the locker room of the Lasch Football Building at Pennsylvania State University. He expected the building to be empty, so he was surprised when he heard slapping sounds coming from the showers. Looking around, McQueary saw Jerry Sandusky, retired defensive coordinator of the Penn State football team, showering (naked) with a “minor individual.” McQueary later said that the boy looked to be about ten to twelve years old. Sandusky and the boy were standing close enough to be touching.
McQueary didn’t know what to do. He ran upstairs and called his parents to tell them what he had seen. Some days later, McQueary went to Penn State football’s head coach, Joe Paterno, to tell him about what he saw. Eventually, Paterno took McQueary’s story to the university’s athletic director Tim Curley, senior administrator Gary Schultz, and president Graham Spanier.
A full decade later, in 2011, Jerry Sandusky was finally arrested and convicted of 45 counts of child molestation. Eight young men accused Sandusky of sexual abuse. Once Sandusky was behind bars, heat began to fall on Penn State’s leadership team. Tim Curley and Gary Schultz were charged with conspiracy, failure to report child abuse, and obstruction of justice. Previously beloved university president Graham Spanier was fired. Six years later, Spanier was convicted of child endangerment. (Shortform note: A federal judge has since thrown out Spanier’s conviction.)
It might seem easy to point the finger at these men and say that they allowed Jerry Sandusky to roam free and abuse young boys. You might think that they were putting their own self-interests or the success of the university above the law. But taking into account all the evidence we’ve seen of Truth Default Theory, here’s the real question: If you had been president of Penn State at that time, would you have done anything differently? This case isn’t as clear-cut as the others, but it might have been a miscarriage of justice.
Imagine how Curley, Schultz, and Spanier must have felt when Joe Paterno came to them with this disturbing and complicated story. What was more likely: That Jerry was being his goofy self with one of the kids he knew well or that he was engaging in some sort of inappropriate behavior that wasn’t even distinct enough to make Mike McQueary step in and stop it?
The three men sat around and contemplated the best way to handle the situation. They even reached out to the university’s attorney, Wendell Courtney. Courtney thought he just needed to have a word with Sandusky—to warn him to be careful so he wouldn’t be called a pedophile.
Curley, Schultz, and Spanier made a human error by defaulting to truth, but does that deserve to be judged as a criminal offense? This was a miscarriage of justice. No one tried to put the parents of Larry Nassar’s victims in jail for failing to see the abuse that was going on right in front of them. It was assumed that those parents simply trusted the community around their children.
The same level of trust should be given to the communities around every child. If everyone defaulted to assuming that every football coach was a pedophile, there would be no more sports. We default to truth because we have to for peace of mind. Sometimes, that trust is ruined by betrayal. In those instances, the people whose trust was broken deserve to be sympathized with, not blamed. Blaming them is a miscarriage of justice.
Of course, if someone like Harry Markopolos had been president of Penn State at the time, he would never have defaulted to trusting Sandusky’s intentions. He would have immediately leaped to the worst possible conclusion. But it’s important to remember that isn’t the most natural human reaction.
People with a high threshold for belief, those that default to truth, make the best kind of leaders because they have a capacity for loyalty. Sending people like Curley, Schultz, and Spanier to jail sends the message that we want leaders like Harry Markopolos, who are always on the lookout for conspiracy. But there would be consequences.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Talking to Strangers summary :
- Why we don't understand strangers
- How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
- How Hitler deceived so many world leaders