In early March, ex-con David Potchen walked into a bank, robbed it, and then sat and waited for the police to pick him up. The Caucasian man wasn’t interested in the money; instead, he was looking forward to the prison sentence where he would receive a hot meal and a bed to sleep on. A welder by trade, Mr. Potchen recently found himself homeless, hungry, and desperate after his company laid him off. His situation led him to rob the Indiana bank so that he could return to a more stabilized environment. After hearing the man’s case, Judge Murray said out loud in court, “I hope to God someone reads about this and offers some help to you.” His story led to many tears within the courtroom and job offers outside of the courtroom.
When we analyze court cases, we often don’t consider Robert M. Cover’s investigation of the legal system. In Robert M. Cover’s article “Violence and the Word,” (which you can find online here) he posits, “legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death” (Cover 1986, 1601). In simpler words, the legal system is a legitimized system of violence. We can easily see violent actions reflected in the courtroom. First, a prisoner’s normative reality must be destroyed. Thus, the court system places these prisoners in a “shared world” where they are dominated by the authority figures around them, subjected to violence, and immersed daily in this new reality and role (Cover 1986, 1603). For example, a judge sits in an elevated position in order to demonstrate his authority and power. A bailiff controls the prisoner and atmosphere, ensuring that the court has control of the situation. The prisoner is not allowed to speak or act unless approved by the judge or lawyer. Finally, he is given a punishment if found guilty, which is seen as “just” in the eyes of society. All in all, we have a system that uses violence—in a way similar to the accused’s use of violence—and yet it is accepted.
Interestingly, in the case of Mr. Potchen, we see an obvious diversion from the “normal” court case. The judge, lawyers, and society have broken from their normal pattern of legitimized violence. For example, the judge steps out of his authoritative role to sympathize with the prisoner. In fact, he goes as far as to invoke help from outside the courtroom, demonstrating how he has refused to create a “shared world” with Mr. Potchen. Instead, he has given Mr. Potchen the idea that an external world exists, which allows Mr. Potchen to retain some of his reality. Other actors have also contributed to this lack of legitimized violence against Mr. Potchen. Car companies have offered to give Mr. Potchen a job as a welder in order to keep him out of jail. The very system of violence seems to have become destabilized due to the situations surrounding Mr. Potchen.
After hearing about this case, I asked myself a simple question: “Why?” Why did the court not use the same type of violence that Cover has observed? Did Mr. Potchen’s motive affect the court’s use of violence? Did his race have any factor in the decision? Would a man of color be given the same opportunity if he acted in the same way as Mr. Potchen? Did Mr. Potchen’s actions (or lack of direct violence) at the bank lead to a lack of violence within the courtroom? This case intrigued me and also made me question Cover’s argument.
You can read more about David Potchen’s case here.