Questions for Jim and Nancy Petro

What questions do you all have for the Petros?  They are visiting us in class on Monday, and while they are here sort of as a book tour, they are also here because they are Denison alums.  So it seems to me like we might want to think of our questions for them in three categories:

  1. What questions do you have for them as Denison alums?  That is, they are a unique resource for you as people who are from and are still connected to Denison.  What would you like to know about post-Denison life that they may be able to share with you?
  2. What questions do you have for Mr. Petro as a former elected law enforcement official?  Again, Mr. Petro has a unique position to answer questions about the criminal justice system.  He has prosecuted many many cases, but also has a clear sense that the justice system should pursue actual justice.  What would you like to ask him?  What about the legal system would you like his insight into?
  3. What questions do you have for them regarding what we’ve read thus far?  While Mr. Petro has a fascinating perch from which to view the legal system, how might he view it differently than we in our short 6 weeks have come to?

Remember: if you are asking the Petros about texts we’ve read or discussions we’ve had in class, it would be helpful to provide them with context (whether that is a summary of the claims of an article or a quick review of what we discussed in class).  It might also be helpful to offer some options in terms of an answer.  For example, this isn’t a terribly fun question to get as a class visitor: “How can you participate in a criminal justice system that is structurally racist?”  How might we ask a substantively direct question that points in that direction without accusing our visitors of being racists or perpetuating a system built on racial injustice?

Please post comments and questions for the Petros below!

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24 thoughts on “Questions for Jim and Nancy Petro

  1. As the CIA torture report showed us in December of 2014, the CIA had used gross violations of human rights when interrogating prisoners of war during the 2000s. Obviously the torture report shows much worse forms of interrogation than being used on prisoners in U.S. jails, but at the same time, are the forms of interrogation used in war comparable to that of our prison system? Detainees are exposed to intense psychological and physical trauma, which can result in innocent people confessing to crimes they did not commit. Though on a lesser level, are prisoners in U.S. jails just prisoners of a war within our own country? I’m interested to know if Mr. Petros thinks that the tactics used in war interrogations and prison interrogations are similar, albeit different levels of severity?

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  2. Alex’s question is interesting, and I would definitely like to know the answer to it. I have two questions for Mr. Petro. One is more broad and personal (1) As someone who is attending law school next year, do you believe that Denison prepared you for law school and do you have any advice regarding law school? and (2) In your article “Dispelling Eight Myths,” you state twice “This happened in contemporary America” when talking about false confessions. In our class, we talked about how certain people get privileges (OJ Simpson Case [celebrity status, first time black man had the privileges of a white man, etc], Ferguson case [child, police officer, ect]). In contemporary America, television shows and the media seem to have an enormous opportunity to influence certain cases. Do you believe that the media and/or television shows are making it harder for justice to occur in court cases? Do you think media coverage is a privilege or a hinderance?

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    1. Nice, Allison! I think the ‘how do I thrive in law school coming from Denison’ is a great question – he is well-positioned to offer advice and you should totally ask what he thinks.

      Second, I think the media is a great entry-point into a conversation about the role of law in a democracy. So, as I think Jessica will be pointing out when she posts her question, the book highlights that we get the law we, as a people, deserve. That suggests some kind of connection between politics and law that isn’t just the ‘law above everything’/traditional view, but a social science view that law impacts society and society impacts law. Asking about the role the media plays in *telling* us what law is, who criminals are, what prosecutors seek, etc. is a great way to start unpacking the social embeddedness of law. Why, for example, are there SO MANY POLICE SHOWS, and not nearly as many shows about happy families (or even unhappy families)?! Why are we so drawn to completely implausible plots (so if the number serial killers suggested by shows like Criminal Minds existed, we would be in deep deep trouble)? Nice question.

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  3. While reading the Petros article I couldn’t help but continually apply it to a recent podcast that’s actually become pretty popular: it’s called Serial. This became its own show when This American Life stumbled across a fifteen year old crime and Sarah Koenig decided to dig into it a little bit through this twelve (or so) episode long series. Here’s a link with a summary of the case and the show as well: http://serialpodcast.org. Also the victim (wrongfully convicted 18 year old) is Muslim so we can also bring race into the conversation as well. I also just personally recommend listening to it because it’s so addictive and interesting.

    Anyway, I would be curious to talk to the Petros’ not just about Serial specifically but the media portrayal of cases as a whole. Should the media be more informed? How do these eight myths remain prevalent in societal thought? Has the interest peaked by Serial actually affected Adnan’s case?

    Let me know what you guys think!

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  4. Yay! This is a great question, too, Leah. My comments to Allison apply here, too. What might the media need to do to portray the legal system responsibly? Given our recent readings of Bell and Wacquant (particularly the final section of Wacquant) does the media harden our already pretty firm convictions about the propriety of punishment? Good question!

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    1. I would second Allison’s question concerning law school and ask, what benefits do you think we, as Denison political science thinkers who’ve had a more holistic and critical education when it comes to criminal justice and law in general, have to offer this world in the realm of policy making? Is it hard to navigate the world of politics as a critical thinker? Is that looked down upon once you leave Denison and try to pursue justice in the work field and if so, how do you suggest overcoming these obstacles?

      In relation to the class material, my question is broad and I think would give them great opportunity to show us their thought process about race in law:
      In our class, we are learning that while racial hatred in law was once expressed overtly through slavery, (Jim crow, education policy, etc), the way in which racial discrimination in law often manifests itself now is in a covert manner through institutional structures (I.e prison, taxation, labor relations, etc). Do you agree with this idea ? And what have you witnessed in your work experience that speaks to, or against, this notion of covert racism.

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  5. In the text assigned, Mr. Petros argues the disparities in our political system is due to 8 myths. He and Mrs. Petros argue the myths hinder justice in the U.S.. In order to stop these myths from their destructive powers our system must “replace” them with “truth and commitment to the work of perfecting our criminal justice system”. Mr. Petros also argues that the people of the U.S. are in full control of this because law is an expression of social values and norms. We, as a community, are in the best position to change the system because we elect the judges and prosecutors as well as set the expectations the justice system must uphold. So, if we are in control to elect those who will be committed, what qualities do we look for? What makes one leader better than another and how are we to know just by a platform? Being familiar with the system, I would be curious to know what Mr. Petros thinks makes one leader stand out above the rest. And further, what we as citizens should do to hold our system accountable.

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    1. My question goes along with what you are asking. As I was reading the text, I agree with you in that it seemed Mr. and Mrs. Petros were arguing the control of law and therefore the justice systems lies within the hands of the people. Democracy works to elect the correct people for representation in the court system. I was wondering in what other ways, not just electing a better judge, can the justice system be changed to ensure innocent people are not being convicted? Even if we get the right person elected, is there actually a way to stop the myths? I remember a psych class I took in high school and learning how distorted our memory becomes with certain events. Often times we leave out critical information without even meaning to because our memory can be influenced by others. Therefore, if trials utilize eyewitnesses for trials and the prosecutors and judges elected to make the correct accusation based on the trail, wouldn’t those elected still be presented only part of the reality?

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      1. Good point, Kelsey – you’re basically suggesting that there is something about the *process* rather than just the *people.* nice!

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  6. My question is (I think) in the same field as Allison’s and Leah’s, in that it deals with the duty of the structures which contribute to disparate outcomes dependent on implicit and explicit public intuition. In Mr. and Mrs. Petro’s book they discuss that our courts “[take] it cues from the conventional wisdom of the broad society”. They believe that “the American people … [are] responsible for understanding out justice system and demanding improved outcomes” even if the “criminal justice system may not … be receptive to … alternative methods” (238). But, when discussing the politics of information and opinions, there are correlations between being less knowledgeable and giving more opinions: Those who are more generally knowledgeable tend to give less opinions on subjects that they do not feel equipped to answer than those who are less generally knowledgeable (What Americans Know About Politics And Why It Matters). So, I extrapolate this to indicate that those who are more susceptible to mostly baseless cues (how someone looks, sounds, their religion, their party identification, etc.) are more likely to be outwardly opinionated about issues that they aren’t very knowledgeable about. These conglomerate of opinions become their world view, and there are likely many misconceptions. These individuals are taking cues from political, religious, community, media figures, so it seems to me that opinions for at least a plurality of the people are shaped very much from from the top-down, that individuals understanding comes from what they perceive are the understandings of respectable institutions. In which case, it is not only the people’s job to shape the opinions of the courts but the courts job (as a respectable institution) to give a proper perception of the justice system. A very long build-up to the question (sorry): how responsible are the courts to instruct the public on the problems of the courts? The average person seems to have little understanding of judicial procedures, and whereas the courts may not be able to see all of their flaws, they seem to have far deeper understanding of their workings and their shortcomings than the public would. And, if you could make the public understand one thing about the court system, what would it be?

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    1. Also, what would be an effective method for us as citizens to go about “demanding improved outcomes” (238)? Should this occur during the court proceedings in emotionally charged cases or in response to seemingly emotionally charged verdicts?

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      1. Great question, Gabe – perhaps even broader: where/how should we demand these improved outcomes? At the ballot box? In the midst of court proceedings via disrupting the performance of justice? By protesting? Given that the court remains one of the more ‘legitimate’/respected institutions, if it draws back to the curtain on the often complex procedures that make up justice, could we envision the court losing some of its legitimacy?

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  7. I always go back to Omi and Winant, but I want to know their opinion on race being a focal point in our society today. As people in law enforcement, they dealt with all types of races, but I really want to know if they felt most of the cases they were a part of were ruled in a just way, or do they believe that even in our modern era race still plays a major role within the court room? If so, how much of a role does it play?

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  8. I found the Petros’ second myth’s relation to cases of rape and murder-rape, and the significant number of exonerations relating to rape cases, to be fascinating. I understand that the applicability of sexual assault cases and their judiciary process to a college campus is less than perfect, but I couldn’t help but notice my mind wandering to Denison’s own handling of sexual assault cases, and our campus judiciary system in general. Sexual assault is obviously very prominent on college campuses across the United States, and is also certainly not something we can ignore at Denison; but the handling of sexual assault cases on college campuses veers more in a direction of responsible/not responsible, rather than guilty/innocent. Are there benefits to the access of DNA, and the subsequent legal-system-ization of campus conduct, especially within cases of sexual assault? Or would creating campus conduct systems into judiciary systems be harmful to college campuses? Given the prominence of sexual assault on college campuses, and the high number of incorrect conviction of reported assailants nationally, should we look to use more DNA evidence in campus sexual assault cases?

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  9. The stakes of the cases examined by Mr. and Mrs. Petros are admittedly very different from those faced by assailants on college campuses, but I found consideration of the prominence of exonerations of reported sexual assailants to potentially have some applicability to he said/she said college campus cases which are without “legal-system-ization”.

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  10. Within the text written by Mr. and Mrs. Petros, Mr. Petros states how having been a former prosecutor, he believes that a large portion of the responsibility of the effectiveness and accuracy of our criminal justice system lies on the shoulders of the prosecutors. He explains that it is the prosecutors job to seek out further information and evidence to be able to prove that a suspect was the right person who committed the crime. However, couldn’t you say that some prosecutors do not care who they are putting away for the crime as long as it is somebody. Therefore shouldn’t it be the defense attorney who is actively seeking more information and evidence that would prove that the defendant is innocent? This would also make the defense attorney the person who needs to help in correction the course of the case in critical moments instead of the prosecutor.

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  11. Knowing that Jim Petro was in the running for the Governor of Ohio as a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 2006 Ohio Primaries, I would ask him about his experience as the Republican nomination and also ask what made him want to run for the governor position?
    As some of my other classmates have pointed about Petro points out that ‘we’ the general American public have the power to elect our judges and prosecutors in order to set ‘our’ expectations about the justice system that serves. Although we do have the power to elect our judges and prosecutors, how influential is the ’traditional view of law’ have on these individuals that causes them to be less receptive to changes such as the DNA testing evidence? This is especially important since the judges and prosecutors were all law students who were taught to view law in the traditional way that is “a self-contained system of logic” as Steven Barkan suggests in his first chapter of Law and Society: An Introduction.

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  12. My question goes along with the issue of covert racism that we have been talking about lately. How does the issue of wrongful convictions connect with race? Since law has manifested itself in a way that makes racism covert through structures and institutions, do we see this in wrongful convictions? And going off of the Bell article, in which Bell states that a disproportionate number of minorities are incarcerated (42 percent and 38 percent of which are black), how does race correlate into wrongful convictions? Have you ever witnessed racial disparities like this in your work experience? Also, when you say that opportunities to reverse a verdict are limited, do these limitations vary according to wealth, status, or race?

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  13. My question for Mr. and Mrs. Petros concerns the lack of sentiment inherent to the function of the United States court system. Is it possible that the extent of wrongful convictions is related to the fact that prosecutors are more often than not concerned with their individual conviction rates opposed to the actual facts of the case? In this regard, can it in fact be argued that the lack of sentiment inherent to the judge and district attorneys are actually the cause of their “careerist based perspectives’’ in which they seek harsh punishments for either innocent and/or minor offenders? My other question is more fundamental in that it concerns perspective on the penitentiary system. Why is what can be considered a perilous atmosphere (in the context of prisons) accepted as a norm? is it the lack of sentiment encouraged throughout the court system that seems to leave prosecutors uncaring as to the sentences they give to defendants (some of whom are innocent or minor offenders)?

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  14. Posting this for Jessica!

    In False Justice, you discuss 8 myths and the last one talks about how “everyday Americans” can change the justice system- what are some ways to do that beyond judges that are elected? In other words, how do people outside of the justice system (ordinary citizens) have (if at all) an effect on the judicial system?

    The Petros admit that prosecutors are error prone but they are responsible for the “effectiveness and accuracy of our criminal justice system.” How can the justice system change in such a way that prosecutors are incentivized to “do better” in working towards justice?

    In our class, we’ve seen that the traditional view of learning about law involves less looking at “justice” as a normative principle and more focus on being objective. In the context of the US’s racial and legal history, in what ways do see the intersection of decades of racial discrimination and enforcement of the law? Do you think the US believes that there is such a thing as “too much justice”?

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