A precise account of a shocking injustice…

The first half of this book is a personal story of a science professor’s wife’s disastrous experience with the criminal justice system, the remainder of the book is her husband’s discussion of how all aspects of that system should change.

It’s less authoritative than similar indictments of the system such as “Licensed to Lie” and less directly useful to individuals as guides like James Duane’s “You Have the Right to Remain Innocent” (if the author of this book had read both of those before his ordeal, he and his wife likely would have fared much better, unfortunately neither book was available at the time). The advantage of this book compared to the lawyer’s insider accounts are that it comes with more personal force and a scientist’s logical analysis–which differ somewhat from a lawyer’s logic.

The basic conflict began as a classic he-said/she-said disagreement between unruly neighborhood children and an older couple without children at home. That could be anything from Miss Almira Gulch in The Wizard of Oz to Isaac in Children of the Corn or (more likely) something in between. There are neglectful, clueless and even evil parents in the world, and seriously delinquent children; but also intolerant and dangerous adults who can make very unpleasant neighbors to couples with young children. With only one side of the story presented in the book, the reader has to consider indirect clues.

In one sense, this doesn’t matter. The case is clearly a travesty whether Carol Brakke were completely innocent, or if she were mentally unbalanced, or if she were a dangerous felon. Neither truth nor justice played any role in the outcome, and many people behaved badly. The author’s careful analysis of the flaws in the system remains valid whatever the facts of his case.

Where the facts to matter is in deciding whether the couple’s misfortunes could happen to anyone. If this account were written by a black couple moving into a formerly segregated neighborhood or a the first open gay couple in a hostile neighborhood, most people would find it credible and ascribe the motivation to prejudice. If the victims were not well educated and without representation, it’s easier for injustice to occur. It’s more surprising to read that this happened to a quiet late-middle-age medical science university professor and his technical professional wife, who had a lawyer. Judicial abuse is an obvious major problem for locally unpopular minorities and vulnerable people, you rarely hear about it being directed at conventional employed middle-class homeowners.

It’s a terrible thing to have a justice system that fails the people who most need its help, but it’s even worse if we have a justice system that fails everyone.

The author is painstaking and precise with regard to the facts of the case, sometimes at the expense of readability. His accounts are consistent and include plenty of material that goes against his case. So I have no real doubts about those facts. But interpretation matters as well. Were the neighbor’s children’s mocking Nazi salutes merely unpleasant childish fun, or serious harassment (the author assumes these were directed at his wife’s German accent, but it would be even worse if they were done in belief the couple was Jewish)?  Were the couple’s complaints to authorities about the children’s dangerous play really motivated by concern for the children’s welfare, or were they unjustified meddling?  Were the instances of minor vandalism–the BB-gun shot into the couple’s window or the damage to the neighboring black family’s stone wall–the random collateral damage that happens wherever high-spirited kids are found, or evidence of dangerous violence?  Did the neighbors initiate the legal actions out of vindictiveness, and in denial about their children’s behavior, or were they genuinely–even if unjustifiably–frightened for their children’s safety?

On that score, there is some evidence in the book that the authors may not be the most cheerfully tolerant people on earth. Before any of the troubles began, the author tells us that he changed jobs, in part, because his new department chairman was, “one of the most disagreeable individuals I have ever known.” This has nothing at all to do with the story, there is no reason to mention it, and particularly inappropriate in a pseudonymous book. It seems to be score settling for the author’s catharsis. If that’s also true of the rest of his account, the reader might apportion responsibility for the feud less completely on the neighbors and officials.

Another indirect clue is the author consistently fails to distinguish between the neighbors’ actions that caused harm–a parent blocking his wife on the sidewalk, screaming abuse and threatening, the neighborhood children going onto his property for dangerous play–and things he didn’t like but people had a perfect right to do–children not obeying his wife, parents failing to supervise or discipline according to his standards. An essential step in deescalating these kinds of disputes is for both sides to give up trying to make the other behave properly, and settle for having their own actual rights protected. You don’t make friends in order to get peace, you get peace and maybe friendship can follow some day, and if it doesn’t, you still have peace.

Of course, all of this is just guesswork, reading between the lines. However, I think most readers will conclude that the affair might have been avoided, or at least diminished, if the author were less censorious and more inclined to mind his own business. I also think this will be a slight reaction, the fault still seems to be mainly on the other side. The neighbors in general seemed to have unfairly turned against the couple, two of the neighbors in particular seem to have been vindictive and dishonest and the justice system went awry (I don’t judge the children one way or the other). My overall impression is that this kind of thing is unlikely to happen to just anyone, but that it only takes a little contributory bickering, or an unscrupulous vindictive enemy, to push justice off the rails.

The one thing I have to say in favor of the legal system is these kinds of disputes are nearly impossible to solve by adjudication. That’s for the same reason parents nearly always say, “I don’t care who started it, I’m punishing both of you.” The system is unpleasant, inconvenient and expensive enough that most people either work things out on their own or somebody moves. I do have sympathy for police officers, judges and city officials who don’t want to sort out laundry lists of complaints (I am reminded of the great line from The Marrying Kind, “there are three sides to every story: yours, his and the truth”). There was no way this affair was going to end with everyone happy. But in this case the system went far beyond irritating everyone into a tolerable disgruntled peace, it ordered grave and deeply hurtful actions on slim evidence in unfair proceedings.

It’s pretty clear that no one at any time thought there were serious mental or safety issues, the system was allowed to by hijacked by people who mainly wanted the author and his wife to go somewhere else (which obviously would not do anything to solve mental or safety issues if they existed, just to move them). Police, prosecutors, judges and administrators all seemed to get on board the program, choosing the simplest solution for community peace over the legal rights and happiness of the author and his wife.

Overall I would call this a useful addition to the literature on problems in the legal system. It’s not as horrifying as tales of innocent people in prison for life, or invidious discrimination, or systemic prejudice; in the end nobody died. On the other hand, it does make the point that everyone is vulnerable to these abuses. The methodical and precise account is sometimes boring to read, but in its way it is more convincing than more vivid narratives. The suggested reforms are similar to those recommended by many other authors, but no less right for that.

Aaron C. Brown

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June 2021