A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Mumia Abu-Jamal (cont'd); Hairballs (cont'd); Pythagorean maxim (cont'd)

August 11, 1995

Certain death

You write that "Amnesty International has rightly protested that [Mumia Abu-Jamal] is being killed for his political views. The guy maybe deserves prison but probably not the fatal dose [July 21]." Cecil, think about your use of the words "maybe" and "probably" in that last sentence. If you're uncertain that Abu- Jamal deserves prison, maybe you should probably conclude that he certainly should not be killed.

Cecil replies:

Certainly not. You think if I have a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, he definitely doesn't deserve to die. That's not how it works. One of the bedrock assumptions of the law is that only the jury (or in a bench trial, the judge) is qualified to make a finding of fact — that is, to weigh the evidence and decide if the guy is guilty. All an appellate court or a kibitzer like me can do is decide whether the trial court erred in matters of law — that is, screwed up the procedures so much that the jury's judgment was improperly skewed. If that sounds like I'm hiding behind procedure, too bad. Fact is, I didn't hear the witnesses or get a chance to assess their credibility. The jury did.

What's more, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Having been convicted, he's presumed guilty. It isn't enough for him to sow doubts or point to a few errors; he must persuade the appellate court that the errors were so serious they affected the outcome of the trial. Since it's not my dime, I'll cheerfully concede a new trial may be the best way to clear up the case's ambiguities. But I wouldn't be surprised if the verdict were the same.

The penalty hearing was something else. Even to a nonlawyer it's apparent that introducing inflammatory statements that the defendant made as a teenager twelve years previously was way out of line. The judge was fed up with Abu-Jamal but that's no excuse for letting the prosecution walk all over the guy. If the penalty hearing had been conducted fairly (and if A-J had kept his big mouth shut) he probably would have avoided the death penalty. This maybe/probably stuff may strike you as wussy but it was done that way for a reason. [UPDATE: Mumia Abu-Jamal's execution has now been indefinitely postponed.]

Things I didn't nead to hear, part 1

Recently one of my surgeons was in San Antonio and picked up a copy of the Current in which you discussed bezoars [solidified intestinal hairballs, May 5]. One month ago I operated on an 18- year-old woman who was having intestinal problems. She would become full after eating only small amounts. I operated on her and removed the large bezoar seen in the enclosed photo. It measured eight to nine inches. This young girl would chew her hair. I thought you would find this interesting.

Saints preserve us. The thing is roughly the size and shape of a turkey leg. And how nicely the Polaroid brings out those vivid post-operative colors! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go the bathroom so I can barf.

Things I didn't nead to hear, part 2

Your recent discussion of farts and beans is somewhat misleading [July 28]. I would like to call your attention to a paragraph from my monograph, "A Metaphysical and Anecdotal Consideration of the Fart" (Alphabeta Press). "Little did we know as children about the power and symbolism of beans. If we had read The White Goddess by Robert Graves, we would have known that beans were filled with wondrous powers and ought not be mocked. Graves tells us in his book that the Pythagorean mystics were bound by a strong taboo against eating beans. To eat beans was to eat one's parents' heads. This superstition was similar to the views held by the Platonists. They excluded beans on the rationalistic ground that they caused flatulence. Life, they argued, was breath, and to break wind after eating beans was proof one had eaten a living soul." The point here is that the soul is associated with breath, you know, "pneuma," pneumonia, etc, and that a fart was a kind of breath, so a soul was created and escaped, etc. Thus the connection with reincarnation. If you are going to consider this subject in your column, why won't you answer the many letters I have sent you in the past about fish farts? If you recall, I wanted to know if in fact fish fart. As a woman who has spent much time at sea, I still have no answer to this question. Your attention to this matter will help me finish my monograph on the subject.

Gloria, I'm not sure which is the more troubling thought: (1) This letter is a joke, or (2) it isn't.

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