We live in a world dominated by narrative — events stitched together in story form. Narratives can be especially useful in placing those events in a context that helps us to better understand their meaning and significance in our lives. A primary way in which narratives achieve this benefit is by taking the specific and generalizing it into a tale that allows people to apply one situation to similar situations that occur in the future, which, ideally, allows us to learn from the past and to improve the future.
The narratives of the Me Too movement, for example, have made clear that the abuse and discrimination suffered mostly by women at the hands of mostly men in powerful positions is endemic to many institutions, putting into context the alleged actions of media executives Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves. Similarly the stories told of the death of Freddie Gray and the Black Lives Matter movement have focused attention on the abhorrent behavior of the police in many minority communities, like the police officer in Chicago convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times as the 17-year-old was walking away.
But narratives can also be unproductive and even harmful in certain scenarios. Consider the approach we take to individual cases within the criminal justice system. When it comes to determining who committed a specific crime, a story — real or imagined — should not govern our approach. Rather, an assessment of the facts of the particular case, relying on factors such as the quality of the information and the credibility of witnesses, must guide the process in finding the offender. Too general an approach can sweep up innocent people. Put simply, in this regard, the “general” (the narrative) approach can be the enemy of the “specific” — as in identifying the guilty party.
While treating crimes as narratives can contribute significantly to our understanding of why some crimes happen, doing so can also lead to false assumptions and unfortunate reactions about the perpetrators.
The most recent illustration of this occurred in the tragic shooting death of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes, who is African American, in Houston while riding in her mother’s car. Initial descriptions of the shooter identified him as a white male, leading Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to label the shooting a “hate crime.” In this era of hate crimes — in Charleston, Pittsburgh and Orlando among many other areas — the incident would seem to fit neatly into a hate crime narrative. Forming such a conclusion prematurely, however, led to an understandable yet unnecessary fear of both additional hate crimes and the reactions to them.
Eventually, a tip led to an arrest of two African-American men in connection to Jazmine’s death. Assuming these two men are indeed responsible for the crime, how could such a misidentification occur? It’s actually not that unusual. The Innocence Project has reported that eyewitness misidentifications have played a role in 70 percent of the criminal convictions overturned by post-conviction DNA testing. Jumping to conclusions based on initial, questionable identifications is more likely to occur when such assumptions flow easily into narratives.
Contrast Ms. Lee’s assumption with that of former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke: “I could have told you it wasn’t a white guy who did this,” he declared, buying into a racist narrative of black-on-black crime.
Neither Ms. Lee’s knee-jerk reaction, nor Mr. Clarke’s aided the investigation. We should resist the temptation to use narratives as the primary determinant of how society approaches the question of who committed a certain crime, and we must prevent at all costs a narrative from becoming the basis for how a jury ultimately determines guilt or innocence.
Steven P. Grossman is the Dean Julius Isaacson Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law; his email is email@example.com.