Science Marches On


Joseph Abbitt was wrongly convicted of raping two sisters.  He spent the past fourteen years in jail for a crime he did not commit.  Last week, results from Abbitt’s DNA test provided evidence to overturn his guilty verdict.  Abbitt is now one of 241 men in the United States who has been exonerated from a crime as a result of this particular DNA test.

While I was elated by the overturned verdict, I was nonplussed by comments made by David Hall, the Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney.  He told the judge there had been “no wrongdoing by any one person” in this case and that “science had marched on” since the original verdict had been rendered.  These comments broke two golden rules.

1. If you are complicit in wrongdoing, own up to your part. Accept your responsibility no matter how small. All of us who were free the past fourteen years are somehow complicit in this tragedy.

2. Avoid metaphors when engaged in difficult communication. Hall states science “marched on” since Abbitt’s original conviction, that somehow this terrible mistake would not have occurred in 2009.  In response, I say drop the metaphors and speak directly.  When bad things happen, don’t blame science. Don’t animate an inanimate word. Speak directly to Abbitt and to us.

Metaphors can be evocative, creative, and even useful.  When discussing an errant guilty verdict, metaphors only confuse.  Science is no drum major when a man has just been freed from an imperfect legal system. It is man who has dominion over science (mostly) and man who must apologize.

Difficult communication is best when it is direct. Save your similes and metaphors for sunny days when interpretations can be polysemic without turning lethal.  When justice has failed us, contrition and humility are more important than a science found marching.

1 Comment

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One response to “Science Marches On

  1. peter lynch

    i actually find the “no wrongdoing by any one person in this case” harder to swallow. science has indeed marched on, producing means to find and convict perpetrators not available at the time of trial. he really needs to say that the whole law enforcement team failed to find the perpetrator of the crime, found someone else instead, and the prosecutors convinced a jury to convict the wrong man. i would have thought “we screwed up, and apologize for our mistakes” far more acceptable. one can forgive human fallibility, under however grave circumstances, more easily than disingenuousness.

    on the other hand, you have it exactly right that figures of speech often deconstruct the very thing we mean to say by them. “we screwed up, and we’re sorry” admits of no such deconstruction.

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