A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The New Family Compact

In 1837, in what is now Ontario but was then called “Upper Canada”, there was a rebellion. The rebels were fighting for the cause of representative government in a province which, at the time, was largely ruled by a relatively small clique of Tory landholders called the “Family Compact”. The extent to which members of this compact were related to each other has perhaps been exaggerated, but they were certainly socially tight-knit, forming a quite exclusive ruling class.

The Whiggish interpretation of this history we learned in school was that although the rebellion was quickly put down, the cause for which the rebels fought eventually triumphed. It’s a comforting notion, but I’ve noticed of late that if it were ever true, it is becoming ever less so now. I was reminded of this by a bit of recent news.

According to a July 18, 2018 Toronto Star column, Blayne Lastman, the son of vulgar furniture salesman and former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman, was considering a run for his father’s old job (I should qualify by saying that Blayne is Mel’s legitimate son). As the Star columnist rightly noted, “Why else but the sheer fact of his surname does a guy like Blayne Lastman feel comfortable declaring an interest in running for mayor without first presenting to the public a single coherent idea about how he will make the city a better place?” Blayne Lastman’s qualifications for office consist exclusively of a) running his family’s furniture store, and b) being the (legitimate) son of a former mayor.

The last thing Torontonians, Ontarians, and Canadians need is another family dynasty. Our current family compact makes the old one seem quaint by comparison. Below is a sample of the familial rot in all three levels of government here in “Toronto the Good”. It is by no means an exhaustive list and could be significantly extended. It makes for sobering reading and goes far towards explaining the poor quality of governance in this city and province. One wonders whether representative government really did triumph after 1837, or whether perhaps it is once again time for torches and pitchforks.

City of Toronto

Michael Ford: Current Toronto councillor; nephew of Doug Ford, current Premier of Ontario and former Toronto councillor. Nephew of Rob Ford, former councillor and infamous crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto.

Josh Colle: Current Toronto councillor; son of former Ontario MPP Mike Colle.

Mike Layton: Current Toronto councillor; son of Jack Layton, former Toronto councillor, former federal MP, and Leader of the Opposition. Jack was himself the son of former federal MP and cabinet minister Bob Layton.

Stephen Holyday: Current Toronto councillor; son of Doug Holyday, former Toronto councillor.

Frances Nunziata: Current Toronto councillor; sister of former federal MP John Nunziata.

Michelle Holland: Current Toronto councillor; wife of former Toronto councillor and Ontario MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti.

Christin Carmichael Greb: Current Toronto councillor; daughter of former federal MP John Carmichael.

Mike McCormack: Current head of Toronto’s police union; son of former Toronto chief of police William McCormack. He has been the subject of several criminal charges during his career, including corruption, discreditable conduct, and insubordination. Untouchable criminal thug.

Province of Ontario

Doug Ford: Current Premier of Ontario and former Toronto councillor; uncle of current Toronto councillor Michael Ford; son of former Ontario MPP Doug Ford Sr.; brother of Rob Ford.

Christine Elliott: Current Ontario MPP and cabinet minister; widow of Jim Flaherty, former Ontario MPP and cabinet minister and former federal Minister of Finance.

Caroline Mulroney: Current Ontario MPP and cabinet minister; daughter of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Mike Harris Jr.: Current Ontario MPP; son of former Premier of Ontario Mike Harris.

Government of Canada

Justin Trudeau: Current Prime Minister of Canada; son of Pierre Trudeau, former Prime Minister of Canada.

Niki Ashton: Current federal MP; daughter of Manitoba provincial cabinet minister Steve Ashton.

Daniel Blaikie: Current federal MP; son of former federal MP Bill Blaikie. Serves in his father’s former riding.

Tony Clement: Current federal MP and former cabinet minister; adopted son of former Ontario MPP and cabinet minister John Clement.

Diane Finley: Current federal MP; widow of political operative and former Senator Doug Finley.

David McGuinty: Current federal MP; brother of former Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty; son of former Ontario MPP Dalton McGuinty Sr.

Geoff Regan: Current federal MP and Speaker of the House of Commons; son of former Nova Scotia Premier and accused sex offender Gerald Regan. His maternal grandfather was a federal MP.

Francesco Sorbara: Current federal MP; relative of Greg Sorbara, former Ontario MPP and Minister of Finance. In Ontario, the extended Sorbara clan are a “family” in much the same sense that the Sopranos or the Gambinos are families. I could tell stories, but it’s safest not to.

Adam Vaughan: Current federal MP and former Toronto councillor; son of Colin Vaughan, also a former Toronto councillor. It’s also worth noting that Adam succeeded his father as political reporter for a certain local television station back in 2000. A very famous mediocrity in Toronto politics.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Worthwhile Sacrifice?

In my previous post I narrated my experience with jury selection. I took especial care to emphasize the repeated attempts by judges and clerks alike to convince us that the sacrifice we were making as jurors and potential jurors was a noble one. I ended by proposing to reflect on whether it was a worthwhile one. I offer the fruits of my enquiry are below.

A Just-So Story

Once upon a time, long ago, the great majority of people lived on farms or in very small villages, where everyone knew everyone else. Back then, in this rural world, your neighbours didn’t just know your name. They knew your “business”. And there was a good chance you were related to most of them in some way.

In this old-timey world, everything was intimate, but intimacy didn’t mean that everything was peaceful. Disputes can sometimes be all the uglier for being between relatives. Often there was a local court to deal with things, but sometimes it fell under the jurisdiction of Crown courts. Indeed, over time, the Crown came to absorb more and more of this local legal business (the law dispensed in these courts has come to be called “the common law”), as manorial courts fell into disuse. However, the Crown’s judges usually didn’t live in the village or district where a case arose, but rather travelled on circuit from place to place.

Not being from the district, these judges could not be expected to know the local facts and details pertinent to a case, such as whether Blackacre farm had been in the possession of the Stiles family since the reign of King Richard I, or whether young John of Stiles had reached the age of majority. Perhaps a local old-timer remembers that young John was born during the great wind storm of – when was it? – at Blackacre, which his father owned at the time. Another old-timer remembers that the said storm occurred in the third year of Richard’s reign (1191), etc.

Perhaps no single person in the district would know these things. But at least some from among a group of a dozen or so of them probably would. The judge would be the expert on what the law was, but this group of a dozen locals would be the experts on what the relevant facts were. Once the facts were determined, it was the judge’s job to apply law to facts.

(Actually, the last statement is a mischaracterization. To be more precise, each party to the case would state their version of the relevant facts. Then the judge would instruct this group of locals on the law: if the jury finds the facts to be X, then the law says the jury must find for A. In this sense, the common law surprisingly has much in common with the old Roman formulary system.)

In this just-so story, an institution such as a jury makes sense. So here is one justification for the jury system: Juries possess the expertise to determine the facts of a case.

If this justification once held water, it doesn’t anymore. We live in a very urbanized society, what Friedrich Hayek referred to as a “Great Society”. In this society, my knowledge of my neighbor doesn’t extend much beyond her name. I know little about her “business”, and I know less about her personal history or circumstances. And I really know nothing about my fellow jurors.

Indeed, so far have we drifted from this original purpose of a jury, that now jurors are specifically excluded from serving if they have any relevant personal knowledge of a case or its parties. In other words, in order to avoid any apprehension of bias or conflict of interest, we now in part select jurors for their very ignorance of the facts of a case.

“But all is not lost,” the defender of the jury system might say. “We take a group of people selected at random, and together they ‘find’ the facts of a case. They decide which version of the facts presented seems most plausible to a group of people of average intelligence. And the randomness of their selection ensures that they embody the standards – moral and critical – of the average person. To use the famous legal expression, they embody the wisdom of ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’.”

There are at least two problems with this. First, the process of jury selection is far from random. The system of voir dires and peremptory challenges means that jurors are really selected for any number of traits and characteristics, among which are rarely if ever included intelligence or “reasonableness”. Second, unlike in our just-so story, in a modern “Great Society” neither the judge nor the juror has any special expertise with regard to the facts. Yet, we must have someone act as the arbiter of what is the case. Let us drop our first objection for the moment and assume that the jury is randomly selected and therefore of average intelligence and “reasonableness”. We therefore leave it to them to be our arbiters of fact. Now I ask, why should we settle for average? In what other sphere of public life is intellectual mediocrity regarded as a positive virtue, even a qualification for office? Would we not be better served by having the facts decided by someone of above-average intelligence? And if it is safe to assume that an educated and trained judge is of above average intelligence, why not have the judge decide both law and facts, thereby dispensing with juries altogether?

A Bulwark against Tyranny

Here is another justification that has been offered for the jury system: It acts as a barrier to despotic or corrupt action by the Crown through its judges. Let us separate these two things, despotism and corruption, for we are really dealing with two different arguments.

Worries about judges acting despotically have not really been a thing for a long time. One does occasionally hear complaints about judges “making law”. Sometimes this is a valid criticism. For instance, I personally believe that Canada’s Supreme Court justices have been our unofficial legislators on constitutional matters since about 1982, issuing decisions which, over time, have mounted up to a body of jurisprudence that makes a mockery of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No sane person not blinded by leftist ideology can look upon the Court’s post-Charter thinking on collective bargaining or group rights and call it good. Indeed, it has got to the point that I now favour scraping the Charter altogether and bringing back a suitably amended version of Diefenbaker’s perfectly sensible Bill of Rights (1960). Though it would probably be only a matter of time until the justices made a mockery of that too.

But I digress. Yes, courts do occasionally overstep their bounds, often with public support. But judges do not throw people into dungeons indefinitely because they don’t like the tone of their voice or the look of their face. They don’t inflict savage punishments for minor infractions, nor impose penalties not provided for in law, and not without due process. Blatant malfeasance by judges is punished with removal from the bench. They are subject to high professional standards and scrutiny. As much as I sometimes disagree with their judgements, there are no judge-despots in this country. And since they no longer serve or are paid at the pleasure of the sovereign, and are only really removable for malfeasance or incapacity, judges in our system tend to make poor servants for potential despots. We have an independent judiciary.

Are there corrupt judges? That’s harder to say, since unlike despotism, corruption tends to avoid daylight. But again, they serve in a position that is relatively secure, well-remunerated, and commands great respect. A judge would have to be short-sighted and greedy indeed to potentially give all this up for a mere bribe. The question here really should be, is it easier to bribe a judge than a juror? I suspect the answer must be “no”.

Here it might be objected that although it may be easier to bribe a juror than a judge, bribing twelve jurors is another matter. Perhaps. But consider this: the requirement for jury unanimity means that an accused criminal really only needs to bribe one of them. In any case, if a panel of jurors is really a safeguard against corruption, then why not use a panel of judges, as is done in many European systems?

Of course, corruption doesn’t just come in the form of bribes. Instead of such carrots, a corruptor may employ sticks, i.e. intimidation. Here the question should be, is it easier to intimidate a judge or a juror? I think the answer is obvious. For reasons outlined above, a judge with social prestige and the full might of the state behind her will likely be harder to intimidate than a powerless nonentity like me picked from the street at random.

Between the arguments I have offered so far and the earlier description of my experience in jury selection, with all its lavish waste of time, money, and human resources, I flatter myself in thinking that you too, Dear Reader, are beginning to see the jury-as-pillar-of-democracy and jury-as-noble-sacrifice tropes for what they are — namely, pious bullshit. In any case, I’d like to end with a few additional observations on the jury system made by economist Gordon Tullock (1922-2014).

Tullock on Juries

Regarding the supposed randomness of jury selection, Tullock notes that most jurisdictions (including my own) draw their pool of names from voter registration lists. However, in the US only about 60% of eligible voters are registered. And the unregistered are disproportionately poor or visible minorities (Tullock 2005:427).

Then there are the excuses for not serving, which tend to be most used by “intelligent jurors with a significant opportunity cost of time” (p. 428). In other words, time is money and those whose time is worth more of it will find ways not to serve. On average the wealthy and more intelligent are more likely to avoid serving on a jury.

And then there are those voir dires and peremptory challenges, which, besides being costly, are “devastating for any notion of ‘a jury of one’s peers’” (ibid.).

The aggregate effect of all this on the resultant selection is that

“Juries typically consist… of individuals of below average intelligence, of below average income, and of below average productivity. They are made up disproportionately of the old, the lame, and the unemployed…. [They] tend to be extremely non-random, unusual representatives of the population at large.” (ibid.)

They will also tend to be ignorant of the law, less able to understand instructions, and are further kept in the dark by arcane rules of evidence.

Tullock makes much of this issue of intelligence, perhaps more than I would. I had suggested earlier that a jury selected at random will result in a jury of about average intelligence. Tullock’s view on this is much more pessimistic: not only is selection not truly random, but it perversely selects for below average intelligence and below average knowledge! As he notes,

“The average person is of average intelligence and average information. The jury process begins by removing from its sample anybody who is well informed with respect to whatever it is the jury is supposed to look into, thus ensuring ignorance. The jury has no strong economic motive to work hard and understand the material presented to it.” (pp. 349-350)

If you have any compelling arguments for preserving this archaic, onerous, ineffective, and expensive system, I’d love to hear them.

Works Cited

TULLOCK, Gordon. Law and Economics (Selected Works, Vol. 9). Charles K. Rowley (ed.). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005.

Friday, April 20, 2018

My Biggest Peacetime Sacrifice

Back in January, I received a summons to appear for jury selection. For certain reasons which I won’t elaborate on here (but which included beginning a new job while still doing the old one), the timing was extremely inconvenient. However, as my situation did not neatly fall under any of the exemption categories, I duly appeared at the courthouse at 8:30am one Monday in March.

According to the summons, jury selection could take a maximum of one week. If I were actually chosen to serve on a jury, that of course would be a different matter. My real hope was that I would not be chosen.

The Jury Room

At the beginning of the first day, there were about three hundred of us crowded into a large room that was very reminiscent of the boarding area of an airport in an underdeveloped country. We were all assigned to four different groups or panels, each identified by a colour (I was in the red panel). We then had an orientation, the first part of which consisted of being shown a film. The film was not very enlightening, and was mostly a propaganda piece consisting of repeated assertions of the importance of the jury system and one’s participation in it, and how it is “one of the pillars of our democracy”. This was followed by a lecture from a court officer, again explaining how important the jury system is and that it’s a pillar of our democracy. He also made it crystal clear that none of us would be paid for our time. Interestingly, he tried to disabuse us of the widely-held belief that once you receive a summons, you are on “The List” and will be repeatedly called to serve. This, he implied, is an urban legend and not to be believed. Here, a hundred or so chuckles rippled across the room. It turns out from my various conversations with my fellow panelists that most of them had served three or four times (it was the fifth time for one of them). This is very different from a sample take from among my acquaintances in the world at large, most of whom have never received a summons, or have been summoned only once (so far).

After orientation, we waited. And waited. The court officers spent most of this time processing all the people who had excuses not to serve. I thoroughly wished I was one of them. At around 11:30am, three of the four panel colours were called up to the courtroom. My red group was not called. So we waited. And waited. Eventually, we were released for our 1-hour lunch break. We were told there was a cafeteria downstairs, so that’s were most of us went. This was a mistake. The cafeteria did not have the capacity to serve a couple of hundred prospective jurors, along with the regular lunchtime influx of court staff and lawyers. Most of my lunch hour was spent in a lineup. The food was dismal, the seating area was far too small and without any natural light, and probably hadn’t seen any significant change in decor since the courthouse was built in 1967.

After lunch, I returned to the jury room. I waited. And waited. Mostly I read. I tried to do some work on my laptop, but the free wi-fi was so slow as to be non-existent for all practical purposes. (I later figured out that I could get some work done if I arrived early in the morning, though once others gradually trickled in, the wi-fi would slow down to a crawl.)

At the end of Day One, nothing had happened. On the bright side, I had read about a third of Pride and Prejudice.

On Day Two, I waited. And I waited. I managed to log onto the internet to check my work e-mail just long enough to see the problems piling up, but not long enough for me to do anything about them. This added to a certain inner panic I felt throughout the entire jury selection process. My previous day’s experience with the cafeteria was not to be borne again. Fortunately, I found a pub across the street and ate (and drank) there. Then it was back to the jury room, where my boredom was somewhat alleviated by the glow of the alcohol I had consumed at the pub. Reading Jane Austen with a mild buzz is something worth experiencing.

In the orientation the previous day, we had been led to believe that our day ended at 4:30pm. Hence, as 4:00pm approached on Day Two, I was naturally getting ready to go home. I even began to hope that I would not be selected at all. So you can imagine my dismay when we were all just then called up to the courtroom.

The Courtroom

I wasn’t quite sure what was to happen in the courtroom, but we were told that we couldn’t wear hats, possess electronic devices like phones (this latter rule was largely disregarded, from what I could see), or chew gum. We were to rise when the judge entered, and we were to address her as “Your Honour”. It was like being back in public school — back in the days when there was discipline and order in schools.

When the judge had entered and we were all seated again, we were treated to another speech that by this point was becoming far too familiar: the jury system is the pillar of our democracy, blah, blah, blah… If the jury system is so wonderful, why the regular necessity to remind us of how wonderful it is? Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

To this familiar refrain the judge added a new and more inflated claim:

“Jury duty is the probably the most important peacetime sacrifice any of you will be asked to make”.

This I frankly found insulting to my intelligence. As I whispered to the gentleman sitting next to me, I would have thought that handing over a third of my earnings every year to the tax man at the gunpoint of the state’s coercive apparatus was arguably a bigger sacrifice. At least once I’ve served on a jury they can’t call me back for three years; the taxman always cometh, and his taxes must be paid — in seemingly ever increasing amounts — each and every year until I die.

Then came the arraignment. The charges were read and the accused pled not guilty (he was up for peddling heroin). It was at this point that the jury selection began. Juror numbers were drawn from a drum and called out, along with the juror’s occupation and the borough they resided in. This latter was strange and, in the context of Toronto, very archaic. The various parts of Toronto had not been called boroughs since I was a child. Again, it was a little like being back in school. Up until about grade three (around 1983, if you must know) I went to a public school where all the pencils, erasers, and notebooks were stamped “Borough of York Board of Education”. From then until the mid-1990s it was called “The City of York”, after which, amalgamation happened, and all the former boroughs/cities were simply swallowed up into the City of Toronto.

The jurors were drawn in groups of 25. Two such groups were selected before the judge ended proceedings for the day.

On Day Three we were back in the courtroom, where jury selection continued. My name was one of the last to be drawn, so I was in the final group of 25. I took this to be a good omen, signifying that I would not be selected for this trial. So it was…

Back to the Jury Room, Where

I waited. And I waited. I went for lunch at the pub, then came back and sat in the jury room, enjoying the buzz from my lunchtime potations. I finished Pride and Prejudice. Nothing further happened that day and I was sent home.

On Day Four I was back in the jury room, where I waited. And I waited…

Back to the Courtroom

At about 11:00am we were called up to the courtroom for another trial. The good news was that this was the last trial on the docket, so if we weren’t selected, we could go home and not return for at least three years. It was a different judge this time, but we were again treated to exactly the same speech about the jury system being the pillar of our democracy and jury duty being the biggest peacetime sacrifice, etc. Here I though to myself, “If the jury system is so integral to our democracy, why is it that so many perfectly good democracies, some of them arguably better than ours, do not have a jury system at all?” The thought seemed heretical somehow, and yet I couldn’t refute it. Since I had to assume that the judge was an intelligent and well-educated man, I wondered whether he really believed in the snake oil he peddled in his boilerplate sales pitch.

This trial involved two accused whose last names ended in vowels, and who were arraigned for activities typically associated with a certain kind of Italian “social club”. The older and more portly of the two gentleman required the services of a translator (though at a subsequent lunch hour downstairs from the courtroom, I overheard him speaking perfectly serviceable English with his lawyer). He looked a bit like this guy, but with whiter hair:

Fat Tony

The younger of the two gentlemen had the requisite broken nose and single eyebrow. To put it bluntly, they both looked their respective parts.

As I said, I had no desire to be selected for jury duty. I was also given to understand that during the “challenge” part of the process, I would have to stand eye-to-eye in front of these two violent goombahs. I also ruminated on how easy the odds must be of paying off just one of the army of officers and clerks working at the courthouse, in order to extract information about jurors if one wanted. Hence, I was even less eager to serve on this particular jury.

In fact, I had worked out a nice little spiel I would launch into if questioned by the judge or a lawyer about whether I could serve impartially:

JUDGE: “Are there any reasons you feel you could not serve on this jury in an impartial manner, and without bias?”

ME [with a slightly indignant air]: “Yes, your Honour. My grandparents immigrated to this country from Italy. They were hard-working and law-abiding people, and because of the prejudices they faced, they instilled in me a deep dislike of criminal-types such as the accused.”

JUDGE: “Thank you, juror number 12345. You are excused.”

My spiel would have been true, incidentally, though rather precious and self-serving under the circumstances.

To return to the proceedings. Our numbers were drawn at random into panels of 20. This time my number came up somewhere in the middle of the pack, so I had an actual chance of being selected. I began mentally practicing “the spiel”. When I walked up to the bench, the counsel for the accused — a sort of blond lawyer-Barbie — smiled at me. I immediately knew this was a test, so I scowled back at her. I was aiming for a peremptory challenge, my sort of get-out-of-jail-free card, releasing me from this whole ordeal. I would give no encouragement for her to select me.

Our panel of 20 was taken to a different, much smaller courtroom. We weren’t there for very long before about half of us were skimmed off and taken to a sort of lounge area. Shortly after that, half of us were skimmed off again and taken into a tiny meeting room. It was an intimate group, so we talked a lot, mostly comparing noted about our experiences over the course of the week.

Then, a court officer came in and took three of us out into the hallway, where we sat in chairs in our assigned order, just outside the courtroom door. I was the middle person of the three. The person before me was taken into the courtroom. Meanwhile, while I engaged in some nervous banter with the person after me. In about five minutes, the officer returned and led us back into the tiny meeting room, where we waited some more.

Finally, the court officer came back and said he had some good news and some bad news. Good news: we could all go home, and we could take tomorrow (Friday) off. Bad news: we were required to return on Monday.

At this point I frankly lost my cool. Keep in mind that the wording of my summons seemed to imply that I would only be there for the week. Unless selected for jury duty, I was expecting to return to my normal life the following week. I had come to the end of my patience with being dragged from room to room, having my valuable time wasted in endless waiting, and being told next to nothing about what was going on. I have little talent for being treated like a child, and so I angrily demanded answers from the court officer about what was going on and why we had to return. It seems that anger is the best way to be treated like an adult, for it produced answers (however unsatisfactory).

What I was told was that they had selected their jury of 12 people plus two alternates. However, they wanted us back in case any of them died, disappeared, or failed to show up for trial on Monday. Given the dubious vocations of the accused, and having watched The Sopranos more than once, this seemed like a distinct possibility. However, I asked how often such a thing happens, and he said “almost never”. He said we could expect to be there on Monday only until 11:00am “at the very latest”.

So with that, I returned home, went to work on Friday to clean up some of the dumpster fires that had been burning in my absence, and tried to enjoy my weekend. On Monday, Day Five, I returned to

The Lounge Area

that I had experience briefly the day before. Those of us from my panel of 20 were seated in our order at the front of the room, waiting to be called. Since I had been led to believe that the call wouldn’t come, I was really waiting to be dismissed. And I was led to expect dismissal sooner rather than later.

Well, it turns out that the “almost never” had happened: One of the jurors was a no-show. So we waited. And waited…

Many of us were getting very impatient, the mood perhaps edging close to mutiny. 11:00am became 11:30am. Some demanded answers. We were told that the lawyers were busying themselves in arguing over whether or not they could proceed with the 12 jurors plus one alternate, or whether they needed to select a second alternate. 11:30am became 12:00pm. It was nerve-wracking for me, as I was next-but-one to be summoned into the courtroom, should they decide to seek another alternate. The great majority of the other prospective jurors in the room must have been experiencing a different kind of frustration: since there was effectively no chance that they would be summoned to the courtroom, they were there for literally no good reason.

At 12:30pm they finally told us we could all go home. I went to work, to put out more dumpster fires.

I am now done, Dear Reader, trying your patience with this long narrative of my experience with the hallowed institution we call “the jury system”. The tale has been a Seinfeldian one, in that it ended up being about nothing.

From the personal view of the jury system, I will turn in the next post to a critique of the system from a more objective viewpoint to address the following question: “If, as the judges told me, this was my biggest peacetime sacrifice, was it a worthwhile one?”

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Pseudoscience and Serial Killing

We now know that, for many years, there was a serial killer operating in Toronto, preying on men in an area locally known as the “gay village”. The perpetrator has, it seems, now been caught. There is much debate on whether or not the police conducted a competent investigation, or whether the killer could have been caught earlier had Toronto’s finest taken the killings seriously. I will not enter that debate.

Instead, I’d like to comment on a rather sensational Toronto Star article headlined “Ph.D candidate profiled potential serial killer in gay village in July 2016”. In reality, it is the story of pseudoscience and a poor grasp of logic on the part of many practitioners of the journalist’s “profession”.

Sasha Reid is a University of Toronto PhD candidate. The article seems to imply that she has been a PhD candidate for 11 years, but that can’t be right. In any case, as a sort of side project to take her mind off her primary doctoral research (she studies serial murder), she has built a database of over 8,000 missing persons in Canada. The data she collected seemed to point to connections between some missing persons cases in the gay village. She profiled the suspected killer and brought it to police in July 2017. They seem to have done little with it, and probably for good reason, as we’ll see.

According to the article, the killer Reid profiled would possess the following seven characteristics, which we might treat as predictions

       1. Man.
       2. Blue collar job.
       3. “Somebody with a history of violence, at least a criminal record.”
       4. No college or university degree.
       5. “They’d be burying the bodies outside or somewhere in the home, like in their home, where they have access to it”.
       6. A little over 30.
       7. Person of colour.

The Toronto Star article tried to spin this story to portray Ms. Reid as a neglected genius who got it all right, if only the police had listened. This narrative is consistent with that newspaper’s overall critical attitude toward the way police conducted their investigation. As I said, I am not informed enough to judge — though I am tempted to grant a certain amount of deference to detectives, who after all know much more about such matters than do armchair critics like me. My point, as I hope to show, is that Ms. Reid is no such genius, and she got much less right than the article implies.

Let us take Reid’s predictions in turn.

Regarding prediction #1, that the killer is a man, I am unimpressed. There was, a priori, a roughly 50/50 chance of getting that one right whatever she guessed. (Perhaps there is a hermaphroditic serial killer somewhere in Toronto, but I’ll wager not.) The chance that the culprit is a man increases dramatically when that probability is conditionalized to reflect the fact that around 85% of known serial killers are male.

Regarding #2 and #4, given the common Hollywood portrayal of serial killers as highly cerebral and intelligent (think Hannibal Lector), Reid’s guesses here seem fairly prescient and informative. However, fictional ones aside, most serial killers are not particularly well-educated, nor are they generally high achievers. Even Ted Bundy, often given as a counter-example to this trend, although technically well-educated, was academically rather underwhelming: he acquired a bachelor’s degree after some seven years or so of study, and barely got into law school with a mediocre LSAT score (he eventually dropped out). The average IQ of a serial killer is just that – average. John Wayne Gacy was a contractor, Jeffrey Dahmer worked in a chocolate factory, and Willy Pickton was ostensibly a pig farmer. With these facts in mind,  #2 and #4 fall rather short of clairvoyance. In the present case, it turns out the actual killer is a landscaper who was hiding bodies in planters. He has no post-secondary education.

Technically, #3 is a tautology. Someone who has killed only once is not a serial killer. He is simply a killer, of the non-serial variety. Accepting the usual definition of a serial killer as someone who has killed three or more people, then by the time a killer earns the “serial” modifier, he must by definition “have a history of violence”. QED. Again, this “prediction” is not very illuminating.

Regarding #5, I’m not sure I even understand what Reid’s words mean. However, I will note the following: First, if I am to bury someone, I must necessarily do so either outside or inside. And if I am to bury someone inside, again, it must necessarily be in a space I have access to; I cannot bury a body using telekinesis. It could be my home, or it could be “like” my home, in the sense that, like my home, I have access to it.

#6 and #7 are important predictions, perhaps the most important of the seven (along with #1, though again, serial killers are almost always men, so that prediction is trivial). If you had to canvass the neighbourhood for witnesses who might have seen the criminal in question, physical characteristics such as age, sex, and race are crucial in identification. Imagine showing a potential witness a police sketch of a black man and asking them if they saw this person at such-and-such a place and time. If the suspect is actually white and a woman, you simply will not catch her on the basis of the sketch. If police are told to look for a black man under 30, and the suspect is actually white and over 65 years old, they will have been led quite far off the scent. They would fail to identify the real culprit as a viable suspect if they were to blindly follow this description.

Unfortunately for Ms. Reid, far off the scent is precisely where she would have led police, had they listened to her, because as it turns out, the killer is a man named Bruce McArthur. Bruce McArthur is not a person of colour around 30 years old. Bruce McArthur is white and a senior citizen. Ironically, since most serial killers are white, if she had been correct about the suspect’s race, these two would have been the more informative of her predictions. Instead, she was spectacularly wrong on both counts.

I would advise Ms. Reid to put aside her amateur detective work and instead concentrate on completing her actual doctoral work, for which she hopefully displays more aptitude. And I would advise the Toronto Star to require more critical thought from its reporters — and not just directed at the police.