Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cultures of Impunity

Photo supplied to the Toronto Star

In most of our postings, we delve into representations and constructions of law through popular cultural mediums and the connections that might be drawn between the two. Every now and again however, it helps to consider the practices and norms of state actors in their enforcement of the law and what it tells us about certain facets of legal culture.

Based on several legal errors that transpired at trial, a panel of the British Columbia Court of Appeal recently acquitted Ivan Henry of having raped or sexually assaulted eight women in the early 1980s. Henry has served 26 years in jail. One of these errors involved the admission of a photograph where Henry resisted participation in a police line up and was seen restrained by the guards. The trial judge instructed the jury that this could be taken as "consciousness of guilt."

The image (provided above although a larger image can be seen by clicking on it) itself is striking in the way that at least two of the cops appear to be smiling as they are forcibly restraining Henry and in the way that several individuals in the line up appear to be smiling along with what is transpiring (perhaps plain-clothed policemen). Given all the smiling faces, one might mistake the scene for something out of a comedy sketch or film, rather than a true moment that transpired amidst a criminal investigation.

The image itself presents a snapshot in time of the permissive culture of police aggression that existed (at the very least) at that time and in that place where it was taken. It was one where police officers could be so brazen as to laugh so mockingly - as though the exercise were one big joke. This impunity was indeed legitimized by the trial court by allowing it into evidence and indicating that it was evidence of a consciousness of guilt. The purpose of a line up is to allow witnesses to properly identify a suspect amidst a number of individuals who may have some resemblance to the suspect. As one can imagine, much of that is lost when uniformed police officers, as part of this line up, restrain an individual and thus clearly signal who the main suspect is.

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