May 18, 2008

Scarface idolatry: Evidence of violence?

I was driving past an abandoned gas station where vendors usually sell fresh strawberries and oranges from the back of a pickup truck. This day, the vendors were selling Scarface posters instead. Framed ones, all different poses of the cultural icon.

The sight harkened me back to a young drug trafficker I evaluated. Although he had no known history of violence, federal agents found a Scarface poster along with a loaded handgun in his home. The poster, argued federal prosecutors, showed a propensity for violence.

I don't know how many young drug traffickers hang Scarface posters on their walls, but after last month's appellate decision in U.S. v. Marin I can say that it is not a good idea. Antonio Marin of Massachusetts was caught under very similar circumstances to the young man I evaluated. Charged with possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, he said no, he simply had a "casual," innocent interest in guns. At trial, the government rebutted that defense by presenting a Scarface shadow box found in Marin's apartment. The display case contained (among other items) a picture of Al Pacino aiming a machine gun, a replica gun, and a cigar.

An appellate court upheld the use of the Scarface memorabilia against Marin, saying its probative value outweighed its potentially prejudicial impact.

That's where expert testimony might have proven helpful. As I wrote in my report in the similar case, research has established certain factors as correlated with violence. Scarface idolatry, no matter its intuitive appeal, is not one of them. If it was, the crime rate would be much higher: Scarface is one of the most popular DVD's on Amazon, and the Internet has dozens of Scarface-related sites and hundreds of spin-off products, including music tapes, posters, and T-shirts.

Researchers have studied the effects of violent media on aggression for decades, generating hundreds of studies on this topic. Although the debate continues to rage, there is general consensus that no direct link exists between violent cinematic imagery and real-life violence. Watching large amounts of violent movies or TV shows might encourage violence in those already so inclined, but fantasy violence is neither necessary nor sufficient to trigger real-life violence.

Interestingly, the potentially unfair prejudice of Scarface memorabilia was acknowledged in a second case last month, this time when the defense tried to introduce it at a trial.

High school students Jean Pierre Orlewicz and Alexander Letkemann of Michigan were on trial for a gruesome beheading-murder of a 26-year-old man named Daniel Sorensen. To bolster their claim of self defense, the teenagers sought to introduce images from Sorensen's MySpace page of - you guessed it - Scarface.

No can do, the judge ruled. The photos "would tend to move the jury to decide the matter on an improper basis such as inflamed passions and emotions."

Sorensen is not the only murder victim whose MySpace site was scoured for the low-down on his personality and proclivities. Indeed, that is one of the first places police (as well as people like me) will look for uncensored (if sometimes exaggerated) self portrayals when someone gets caught up in a crime. That potential reality is far from the minds of young people as they immerse themselves in the semi-public world of social networking.

Take the case of University of California Berkeley fraternity member Christopher Wootton. He was killed this month in a drunken, late-night brawl. His loyal friends and family insist he was a peaceable guy who must have been trying to defuse the combatants. On his MySpace site just a week earlier, however, he had bragged about grinding another man's face into the pavement during an unrelated drunken fight.

Will this admission be allowed in court, to bolster the 20-year-old murder defendant's contention that he acted in self defense? Only time will tell.

One thing is certain: If either of these young men had a Scarface poster on their wall, we will hear about it on the local news. And then those street-corner vendors might have to go back to selling fruit. So far, no one has tried to link strawberries to violence.

Hat tip: Colin Miller at EvidenceProf

1 comment:

Seamus Sweeney said...

Fascinating - I have been curating an online museum of Montaniana at this site - for reasons I explain here -

I hope this is not seen as evidence of violent tendencies on my part.