The Tuesday: Criminal-Justice-System Error

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about language and politics, and sometimes about how they relate to one another. To subscribe to the Tuesday, which I hope you will do, please follow this link ...

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BY KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON October 12, 2021
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WITH KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON October 12, 2021
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Criminal-Justice-System Error

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about language and politics, and sometimes about how they relate to one another. To subscribe to the Tuesday, which I hope you will do, please follow this link.

What Happened in St. Paul

The late Mike Quinn knew something about killers with three names — you can see his Dallas Morning News coverage of the Kennedy assassination at the Smithsonian. But Quinn, who later in life became that most unusual of creatures — a useful professor of journalism — had some less-famous stories about three-named criminals.

Some notorious criminals used their middle names habitually — Lee Harvey Oswald was one, and John Wilkes Booth was another. Also James Earl Ray and Sara Jane Moore, the failed assassin of Gerald Ford. But mostly, we know infamous criminals by three names because of a newspaper convention. There are lots of John Smiths in the world, and even people with unusual names often have name-twins and name-triplets out there. Sometimes, that's because the name is only locally uncommon: If there is a Muhammad al-Muhammad in Muleshoe, Texas, he's probably the only one, but there are lots of Muhammad al-Muhammads in the world. And if one of them does something awful, you want to be as clear as possible about which one it was. Hence the old print-journalism formula: "Police arrested 55-year-old Michael Ray Collins of the 4300 block of 75th Street in Mulberry, Ala." You want to do that in order to spare the innocent: I just made up the name "Michael Ray Collins," but Google it and I guarantee you will find dozens of people with that name.

(There is no 4300 block of 75th Street in Mulberry, Ala.)

Quinn liked to tell two stories about double names, both involving college newspapers. In the 1950s, the Daily Texan at the University of Texas reported that a socially prominent young woman on campus with the memorable name Barbara Booze was in some minor trouble with the Austin police (unpaid parking tickets or something like that) and made a gentle joke about it. Wrong Barbara Booze, as it turned out — and Papa Booze, a politically connected lawyer, was not amused. In a less funny story, another college newspaper at a different school learned that a convicted sex offender with an unusual foreign name had been hired to work in a women's dormitory, and its editors ran with the story. They had the wrong guy: The dorm worker had the same unusual name as the sex offender, but wasn't him. Imagine being that man seeing the newspaper first thing in the morning, and having to explain to your family and friends that what's in the newspaper, identifying you by your unusual name, is not true. This was back when people mostly believed what was in the newspaper. The lawyer's advice in that case: "If he asks for anything less than $1 million, just give it to him." There followed the issuance of a sincere apology and the cutting of a large check.

With that in mind, I was not at all surprised to find that two out of the three men named as suspects in that horrible Minnesota bar shooting had exact three-name matches for men convicted in prior violent crimes. I don't imagine that I am the only person whose first reaction to a story like this is to Google the suspects. At the time of this writing, the St. Paul police have not shared any specifics about their cases, but the department did confirm to me that the suspects have "extensive criminal histories."

(But these are not necessarily the crimes that turn up on Google: Thanks to National Review's news desk, I can pass on that one of the St. Paul suspects shares three names with a man charged in a violent crime in Florida but is not the same man — the two were born about a decade apart. First, middle, and last name sometimes isn't enough.)

The journalistic language in the coverage of the St. Paul shooting was tediously familiar: "Gunfire broke out," reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "This is an issue of gun violence," declared local do-gooder Molly Jalma. They write and speak as though those triggers just pulled themselves.

But we know that isn't the case.

A New York Times survey of police records found that the vast majority — and here I mean more than 90 percent — of the homicides in New York were committed by people with prior criminal records. In Baltimore, the ...   READ MORE

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