Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Norwich Witch Trial

Most have probably heard of the teacher convicted of "harming minors" because she couldn't figure out how to stop the constant porn popups on the classroom computer. Many are outraged because of what they see as an injustice caused by the court's inability to understand basic computer concepts (in much the same way witches were tried and convicted in Salem, MA, in the 1600s).

The recently published transcripts (http://tinyurl.com/34rxbr) paint a different picture. The person most to blame is the defense's "expert witness", Mr. Horner. While he understood the technical content, he understood nothing about the law. In other words, the computer people shouldn't be mocking the stupidity of lawyers, lawyers should be mocking the stupidity of computer people. I'm frankly astonished by Horner's lack of understanding of basic courtroom concepts. Take this exchange, for example:

Q: (a question)
A: (an answer)... to the best of my knowledge.
Q: Why do you qualify your answer to the jury?
A: Because you're talking about two years ago.
Q: So you don't know?
A: I'm pretty sure.
Q: Pretty sure, but you don't know, correct? You don't know for sure.
A: Correct.

When you are an "expert witness", it's your job to know your subject matter. You can be "pretty sure" about the weather, but you are supposed to be "absolutely sure" about computers. Otherwise, you are not an expert.

He fell into the same trap that all computer geeks fall into: trying to explain things, especially during cross-examination. Under cross-examination by the opponent, your job is give the minimum information necessary to answer the question. You aren't supposed to obstruct his examination, but you aren't there to help him, either. For example, if they ask "did you have a job in college", a bad answer is "yes, at McDonalds for six months". A good answer is just "yes". If the opposing lawyer wants to know where and when, he'll ask.

At one point, Horner answered "I don't know where you are going with that question". You aren't supposed to care where they are going. You are not there to plan ahead an outwit them., you are there to truthfully answer his questions. Most of the time, they really aren't going anywhere: they are just waiting for you to say too much then pounce upon it. (In contrast to Horner, the prosecution's wittnesses seemed to have been taught this basic concept).

Horner was there to show that the technical analysis proves the popups came from innocently surfing a hairstyle site, and not willfully accessed by the teacher. It was his incompetence (and possibly his lawyer's) that made him unable to prove this.

However, even that may not have mattered. She was found guilty of "willfully causing or permitting the victims to be placed in a situation that was likely to impair their morals". While we debate whether she intentionally "caused" the situation, it's certain that she "permitted" the situation to continue. She didn't turn off the computer, cover it up, or remove the kids from the classroom.

Of course, the people we get to most laugh at are the people of Norwich, Connecticut, who think that such popups harm their kids, and that their kids haven't already seen them anyway. People: the Internet has already corrupted your kid's morals, get used to it.


Ryan Russell said...

I'm disappointed to see you repeating some of the same misinformation the prosecution foisted on the jury.

The computer was turned away from the students. She had been ordered not to turn it off. You must have read her testimony that she didn't know you could turn off the monitor. She went for help, and was told to leave it in that state. The kids who saw anything intentionally came around hoping to see something salacious.

Certainly there were some procedural errors by the defense team. But Herb wasn't allowed to present the vast majority of what he had. Things like the fact that the popups were caused with the help of adware.

Robert David Graham said...

It's not "misinformation", it's their side of the story. The point of a court room trial is to give both sides a fair chance to tell their sides of the story. Her side is no less "misinformation" than the prosecution's side.

For example, your story is that "Herb wasn't allowed to present what he had". My story is that he tried to break the rules by sneaking surprise evidence on the prosecution in a manner that would not give them a fair chance to rebut it. In other words, it's neither the courts fault nor the prosecution's fault that he was not allowed to present the evidence, it's his own fault for trying to break the rules.

You say "She went for help, and was told to leave it [the computer] in that state". That's just your side of the story. What the prosecution showed is that she went for help about POPUPS, not PORN. The other teachers testified by that she never mentioned that the popups contained porn.

But the essentials of the case were that the jury found that she should have done something, anything. For example, during lunch she should have gone to found something to cover up the computer. The prosecution also made a good case that a reasonable teacher would have still turned off a computer (or TV) containing porn, even if told not to.

As one student testified, when he got up to throw away some paper in the trash on the other side of the computer (where it would be visible), the teacher looked at him but did nothing to stop him from viewing the content on the screen. Nothing Herb had to say would change that: the teacher knew there were porn images on the screen, and did nothing to stop that one student from seeing them.

Ryan Russell said...

To be fair, I have access to more information than is available only in the court transcript, and obviously my opinion has been informed by that.

But having read the transcript, and even acknowledging the defense attorney's screwup in not presenting his evidence during discovery (not Herb's mistake, Cocheo's mistake.)

Do you think she got her shot at reasonable doubt, or did the judge just want it off her docket?