"In a world where nothing is true, everything is permitted"
-- from The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Attorney Roy Black is billing us $710,000 in legal fees for representing City of Miami Police officer William Lozano, who, Black successfully argued in court last year, was "indigent" and couldn't afford his own counsel. Black actually presented the bill to the Miami city manager, but we know where the money comes from. Even notoriously indulgent subtropical taxpayers might rouse themselves to revolt on this issue. Roy Black is a hired gun, but we didn't hire him, and what's more, we didn't get any benefit from the way he handled the trial in Orlando last month.
Maybe Black feels he's entitled to this huge legal fee because he is a "masterful attorney," as he was repeatedly called in press reports. Please A call Roy Black shrewd, call him clever, call him tricky, call him a shameless manipulator, but don't call him "masterful." In pursuing his narrow, personal ends, he is contributing to the destruction of his own profession. Our justice system is based on a belief that the truth, although not absolute, is arrived at through the contention of opposing attorneys who present the best evidence for their respective positions. Black did not fight for his truth, he merely fought to blur the certainty of the truth presented by the Dade state attorney's team. The result: we were left with no truth. Deprived of closure, our community lost the opportunity to arrive at its own understanding of the tragic circumstances that gave rise to the trial, an understanding that could have been the basis for a catharsis, potentially a healing experience. "We'll never know the truth," people sigh, looking vaguely depressed and numbed to the sharp, pungent fact that a real act was committed, with real consequences in real life.
There is no doubt whatsoever that William Lozano killed Clement Anthony Lloyd as Lloyd rode his motorcycle northward along NW Third Avenue at about 6:00 p.m. on January 16, 1989, or that Lozano's actions also caused the death of Lloyd's passenger, Allan Blanchard. There is no doubt that this happened A that young bodies of flesh and blood were ruined, bloodied, crushed. Lozano admitted that he fired the bullet that pierced Lloyd's brain. The crucial issue at the trial was whether the killing was justified by Lozano's claim of self-defense.
Those of us who watched the trial unfold in miniature on our television screens became intimately familiar with visual and verbal representations of a tiny part of the world A specifically, the part of Overtown that lies along NW Third Avenue between Sixteenth and Twentieth streets. The prosecution spent hours, and sacrificed pounds of paper, in efforts to reconstruct a situation whose crucial, intersecting actions formed and dissolved in probably less than ten heartbeats of time. Evidence and testimony were amassed based on measurements of distance, the sight lines of eyewitnesses to the shooting, traces left by skid marks on the road surface, and the estimated speed of vehicles. The space in which the crucial actions occurred was diagrammed and photographed from many angles and these visual surrogates presented in the courtroom. The relationships between the apartment house in which several eyewitnesses lived, the street in front of it, the curb, the trees, parked cars, the Dumpsters, the fire hydrant A all were described from differing points of view. Those who watched the trial heard evidence based on laboratory examinations of the bullet hole and its trajectory through the helmet and skull of Mr. Lloyd, and slightly varying eyewitness accounts about the position of the motorcycle relative to Officer Lozano in the moments just before and after he fired his gun and at the moment he shot.
Along with thousands of others, I watched. When a new detail emerged from the testimony, I felt my mental mosaic shift and reconstitute itself in a slightly different configuration. Even a minuscule difference in this imaginary picture could affect William Lozano's claim that he shot in self-defense -- could send him to prison or save him.
Roy Black knew this. His strategy was to make it difficult for us to form any mental picture at all -- to blur or erase the possibilities, to make us uncertain about what happened -- even, in the end, to make us uncertain that anything really happened. His tactic of presenting no defense was perfectly consistent with such an aim. Why defend yourself against something that may not actually have occurred? It served Black's purpose, too, to keep his client off the stand, where he would reveal himself as a real person, a flesh-and-blood person with real weaknesses who could have made an error in judgment and could be held responsible for the two bodies dead at his hand. Black later stated that he wanted to prevent the prosecution from presenting additional expert testimony that would have supported the eyewitnesses who said Lozano was in no danger when he fired the fatal gunshot. Throughout the trial, his aim was to keep relevant information from reaching the jury -- and, ultimately, from reaching the community. In an age when information is power, Black's method robbed us of it.
More insidious was Black's questioning of the state's eyewitnesses. To take his strategy to its extreme, imagine him cross-examining a small group of Holocaust survivors. Using the same tactics to discredit their testimony as he used with the Lozano eyewitnesses, he would ask each person the same questions, over and over. He would minutely examine the minor inconsistencies that are bound to occur among an individual's numerous answers, which, he would imply, indicated untruth. He would also highlight the (equally inevitable) differences between the story told by one survivor and that of another. Finally, he would conclude that all the testimony was worthless and should be ignored or discounted, because the discrepancies cast a "reasonable doubt" on the truth value of the survivors' stories. The choice, in other words, is either absolute certainty or the denial of any certainty whatsoever. That this attitude toward history has been influential is demonstrable. In a recent New York Times poll, more than twenty percent of Americans surveyed believed that the Holocaust never took place.
I don't mean to compare Lozano's shooting of a black motorcyclist with vast and cataclysmic events in twentieth-century history. But I am a historian by trade and I observe that Black's attitude toward one event in the recent past has much in common with the approach of many post-World War II deconstructionist thinkers toward the whole of history. Their aim is no less than to insist that nothing in the past is accessible to imaginations in the present and that because no single interpretation of a past event can possibly be agreed upon, all interpretations are equally possible and equally valid. Some supporters of this approach argue that its challenge to the traditional notions of history opens up possibilities for new interpretations that redistribute the privilege traditionally given to European white males. This is an attractive potential that has already begun to be realized. But the downside of deconstructionism is dangerous. Uncertainty regarding the complete validity of any reconstruction of a past event has drained energy from the process of doing responsible research, evaluating and consulting original sources, comparing different kinds of evidence, discounting prejudice, and arriving at the most plausible account, the one that is most inclusive of all the credible testimony and therefore closest to what we call the truth.
So Roy Black turns out to be a postmodernist lawyer, an unwitting Derrida of the deposition. There are plenty of postmodernist politicians out there, too; although there's a long tradition of negative campaigning and filibustering, these techniques have been especially popular lately. The postmodernist press seems at present to be sidestepping its traditional rigorous reporting of the facts, as well. Much of the "news" now takes the lazy low road and presents a variety of opinions, mostly negative, ranging widely from informed to uninformed, and speculation about what might happen in the future (usually something dreadful). The broader media aren't immune, either: witness "infotainment," "faction," "docudrama." Are we going collectively insane? We tend to hospitalize people, after all, who are unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between the actual and the imaginary.
It's an indicator of present-day values that so many observers seem not only to accept Roy Black's methods as admirable A because they are effective A but as what the law is all about. Looking at the bigger picture, Black is just a single case of an epidemic disease A the loss of faith in our ability to agree on the collective truth of our own history and to build on it a vision for the future. This is truly depressing. Individuals who suffer this loss become cranky and stay in bed under the covers. We may soon need to put Prozac in the water supply. The Lozano trial had the unexpected result of showing us how the postmodernist attitude toward history works itself out in real life, and what its practical consequences can be. If we have no motivation to sharpen our skills at separating good and truthful information from false information and the flawed judgments that must stem from it, what will our criteria for action be? You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours? You lie for me and I'll lie for you? Let's beat up everybody who's not in our gang? These are the tribal morals of the Mafia. No wonder we're depressed.
The Lozano case has always shimmered with layers of meaning. It offered itself as a metaphor for the complex dynamic of Miami. The human beings involved and the institutions within which they acted are caught up in a system of larger forces and phenomena, political, social, and psychological: the relationship between police and the people; guns and their uses; acceptable motives for murder; the values the community wants enforced; the justice system from top to bottom, from cop to courthouse. Perhaps the largest issue is the nature of authority itself A from where does it derive its right to be obeyed? In whom is it rightfully vested? Who monitors it and demands that it be fair? Are we obliged to obey authority if it has demonstrated its unfairness? Are we obliged to sign on to the social contract if it doesn't work? I agree to stop at the red light because I trust that the other guy will, too, and our agreement benefits both of us. If enough people disregard the traffic light to shake our trust in its authority, the social contract breaks down and anarchy and chaos follow. If enough people in our community lose faith in the justice system, then law and order will break down, no matter how many police cars are on the streets.
In his final argument, prosecutor John Hogan asked the jury to "see through" Roy Black's techniques and attend to the words on the wall behind the judge: "Equal Justice Before the Law." He was making a difficult request A that jurors recognize their responsibility to evaluate the evidence on its own merits and respect the value of the concept of justice, that they not submit to their personal feelings of loyalty and gratitude to law enforcers. That the jury chose the second alternative should not come as a surprise; they were led down the path so seductively by Black, who shamelessly appealed to their emotions, their prejudices, their alliances. Black's appeal was not to Justice A that cardinal virtue allegorized with a blindfold to symbolize the absence of bias and holding scales to symbolize the precise and fair weighing of evidence. Black's was an appeal to the principles of Vengeance and Vendetta A the kinds of tribal emotions that have produced ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It's not in the community's long-term interest to foster such emotions and divisions here.
"We'll never know the truth. We'll never know whether William Lozano shot in self-defense," many people say, searching for an easy way out of the ethical dilemma created by the implications of the Orlando verdict. But if Lozano didn't shoot in self-defense, as the prosecution convincingly but unsuccessfully argued, why did he shoot? The jury must have thought about this. Did they think he was he stopping a fleeing suspect? Punishing a disobedient citizen? If so, is this kind of action permitted by the community? Encouraged by the community? Is any of us safe from such an action if we allow it? The jury, as representatives of the general public A us A voted in favor of what they perceived as our self-interest; they voted to support the police. But in the long run, and from a broader perspective, it may have been the better choice to support the concept of "Equal Justice Before the Law," from which we may all benefit one day. Hogan, in his summation, allowed as how Roy Black was doing his best for his client. "But don't forget my client," he implored, "the people of the State of Florida." That's us -- the community. We lost.
Roy Black did the community no service. The community owes him nothing. Or perhaps he should be paid at the same rate as any public defender currently assigned to represent an indigent black man accused of a crime in Dade County. That would be the kind of justice he understands.