Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sci Fi is Dangerous - Part II

In December, I posted about Peter Watts, a Canadian science fiction writer who got arrested crossing the border. His contention was that he wasn't doing anything, but he was beaten, maced, and maltreated for no reason at all. Here's my post.

The trial is over and he was convicted. He posted his response online, essentially saying that his lawyer demolished the prosecution's case, but that the jury was narrowly interpreting the letter of the law, which is just wrong.

There are folks who are going to believe that an innocent, mild-mannered sci fi writer was beset by low-brow thugs for no reason and beaten and thumped into submission and ain't it awful? And if that was the case, yeah, how terrible --

-- but wait ... hold on a second ...

Buried in the news reports of the trial is a small point that nobody seems to have brought up before: Watts was arrested and convicted in 1991 for obstructing a police officer in Guelph, Ontario.

My, my. Puts a whole 'nother spin on things, doesn't it?


James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loki said...

Not really.
Without knowing anything about his prior case, I can still say that it shouldn't necessarily be held against him. A charge of obstruction of a police officer is usually a "I can't get you for anything else, so I'll charge you with obstruction". You also don't know if he perhaps chose to plea to a lesser charge of obstruction as part of a plea deal - it is very common to plea to a minor charge, even when you are innocent, instead of risking trial.

Steve Perry said...

Oh, really, "Loki?"

You have stats to show that obstruction charges are usually because the police can't get somebody for something else? And that innocent people plea guilty to lesser charges to avoid a trial is very common?

How common is "very?"

This is one of those rest-of-the-story deals for me. When I first heard it, I was ready to be irate that a writer was nailed, him being one of us. Then I did some basic research and came away convinced that Watts's account was somewhat less than convincing.

Jury thought so, too, apparently.

And to find out he was busted and convicted of a similar event could, of course, just be a coincidence, but it smells fishy to me.

Your scents may vary ...

Travis said...

"You also don't know if he perhaps chose to plea to a lesser charge of obstruction as part of a plea deal -"

uhhmm, he was convicted in a jury trial. Not a plea bargain.

jks9199 said...

Obstruction of Justice isn't necessarily a catch-all charge; a lot depends on how the code reads. I've used it about 3 times in my career; typically in my state, it means that the person did something that actively interfered with an investigation, but may not have risen to aiding and abetting the original offense. Federally, I'm not sure exactly what the statute reads, and I don't 100% trust Watt's interpretation in his blog.

What his record suggests to me is that he's got a history of not being exactly cooperative with the police, and maybe being a bit of a hothead when he's dealing with them. But that doesn't mean he automatically was wrong in this case. The fact that the jury convicted him says he screwed up, though he could still appeal.

There's more to the story. I don't know what it is; I wasn't there. But I'm sure there's more.

jks9199 said...

One more thought... based on what Watts has written.

It's not at all uncommon for a written report and testimony in court to differ. I can't say how far these differed, having neither read the report nor heard the testimony. But it's not uncommon because testimony is done from memory, in response to questions. The written report is done in relative leisure, without questioning. The written report is done very close to the event; the testimony can be literally years afterwards. And the report includes the facts and elements that you believe are necessary at the time, and to satisfy the bosses... but not necessarily everything. The two should be recognizably close -- but it's not a surprise if there's a little bit of difference.

Master Plan said...

Haven't seen it referenced here but apparently several of the jurors (ok...maybe it was 1 or 2) opined that they didn't think HE (Watts) did anything wrong and that in fact the border agents had behaved inappropriately BUT that that was NOT the case in front of them and that, per the letter\word of the law, Watts had clearly been guilty of what he was accused. I believe one of them said if he'd voted his conscience it would have been not-guilty but that wasn't what he was supposed to do.

The thread on about this was pretty informative (a rare thing for slashdot ;-) ).