Mistrial ruling text

Jurors, Rape, and #TheEmptyChair

  • Was an acquaintance or someone you know closely the victim of an unwanted sexual touching or assault?

In January 2015, jurors being impaneled for the rape trial of former Vanderbilt students Brandon Vandenburg and Corey Batey were asked this and similar questions. This turned out to be a pivotal issue because although the jury convicted both men of multiple counts of aggravated rape and sexual battery, the jury foreman’s impartiality was called into question based on his answer to this question. The foreman had had sex as a sixteen-year-old with an older man, who was prosecuted for statutory rape and did not mention this fact during jury selection. On June 23, Judge Monte Watkins found the juror ought to have disclosed his past and ruled that the juror’s “credibility had been tainted and brought a presumption of bias to the jury.” (His ruling did not imply that the juror intentionally withheld the facts or that he sought to influence the outcome.)

There’s experimental evidence that victims of a particular crime are more likely to convict defendants charged with that crime. This evidence backs up the common legal idea that such jurors must be probed for bias and may be removed by the defense. (On the other hand, withholding is very common practice: a study using follow-up interviews found that 25% of jurors in 31 trials were victims of a crime and 30% knew a law enforcement officer, but did not reveal these facts in voir dire.)

The sheer frequency of sexual assault and the stigma surrounding being its victim, however, raises a more complex problem. Being a survivor of sexual assault is very common: to take one data source, the CDC, 18.3% of US women and 1.7% of men report having been raped; between 5 and 6% of both men and women report having been sexually assaulted in some other way. If someone has just ten women they “know closely” there’s a 13% chance none of them have been raped. If someone knows twenty people, the chances of none of them being sexually assaulted are less than one in six. Even with these conservative ideas of people close to you, no conceivable jury would have fewer than two people saying yes.

With greater honesty (and bigger friend circles), the truth is there are only two answers to the jury question above:

  • Yes.
  • Yes, but they haven’t taken the initiative to tell me.

Empty chair next to title of NYMag article, "Cosby: The women. An unwelcome sisterhood."You certainly know someone who has survived rape. If you can answer “yes,” you probably know the emotional weight attached to the widespread impunity for rape. If you have to answer “yes, but…,” then it’s possible that this person is one of the many survivors who doesn’t come forward publicly. (There are plenty of good reasons.) New York Magazine recently symbolized the many “women who couldn’t come forward mostly (because) we, as a culture, wouldn’t believe them” with an empty chair. Social media has  made #TheEmptyChair a symbol of socially produced silence around rape and sexual assault.

But then again, maybe the problem is not just that “we, as a culture,” won’t believe them. Maybe its personal. And here’s the conundrum for jury selection. “Yes, but” isn’t a neutral category; it’s the sum of social and individual choices that mean no one came to you with one of our society’s most common traumas. One juror like that might be a coincidence. Twelve is a problem.

Lliquimuni drillsite arises out of a cleared area in a cloud-shrouded forest

Lliquimuni: The petroleum threat in Bolivia’s northern Amazon

The Lliquimuni oil block could be the beginning of oil extraction in the northern Bolivian Amazon. This video, circulated by Alerta Amazónica, surveys the environmental dangers that accompany the project:

That beginning could come sooner than expected. On June 22, the Bolivian–Venezuelan consortium Petroandina announced “encouraging results” partway through the exploratory drilling at well LQC-X1. Company representatives expect to deliver a full report on the test well, which is operated by in  September.

Seismic studies carried out from 2008 to 2010 provided an estimate of 50 million barrels of oil in the area. Already last December, President Evo Morales was naming the underground oil reserves as reason enough to develop a large-scale petroleum industry presence in the northern part of La Paz department, a forested and mountainous area that lies to the north of the capital city of the same name.
“One the study is done, then comes the exploitation. I have said, if we find oil in La Paz, it will be our obligation to install a refinery here in the north of La Paz. Una vez hecho el estudio, perforación, vendrá la explotación. Yo lo decía, si encontramos petróleo en La Paz, será nuestra obligación instalar una refinería acá en el Norte de La Paz.
LQC-X1, the current center of exploration is near the community of Inicua, in Alto Beni municipality, part of Caranavi province (the municipality of Teoponte, in Larecaja province is nearby, and a border conflict driven by possible royalties was already active in 2014). Creating even this bit of petroleum infrastructure required something of an epic effort, perhaps inspiring the cinematic soundtrack for a promotional video from Petroandina. (You can see the government-owned oil company’s rather more heroic view of the project in the first two videos shown here.) Building either a refinery or oil pipelines out of the region would be a far greater challenge, which is perhaps the greatest factor holding back the transformation of the northern Bolivia rainforest into an oil-producing region.

Storming the Bastille, and what makes an event revolutionary

Etching depicting the assault of the Bastille

Historian William Sewell makes a striking claim about how the taking of the Bastille, 226 years ago today, marked not just the key moment in the French revolution, but an originary point for the very concept of revolution in the Western world. “It was by this process,” Sewell claims, “that the modern concept of revolution definitively entered French political cuiture, effecting a hitherto undreamed of but henceforth enduring articulation of popular violence to popular sovereignty.” The argument takes up a whole chapter in his book Logics of History (2005), and it’s worth your time, but here are three excerpts on the Bastille and its place.Read More »

Cropped cover of Eduardo Gudynas' book _Extractivismos_

Bolivia in the age of extractivism (a field report)

This is Bolivia 2015.

Unprecedented ambition is transforming the landscape into a source of new exports, an ambition that is measured more in dizzying numbers than individual projects. A feasibility study begins for a dam, El Bala, that would submerge the heart of Madidi National Park to produce 1600 to 4800 MW of electricity, but in announcing the contract, President Evo Morales speaks of a potential 48,000 MW of new projects across the country. Government aspirations for energy production also include setting aside US$2 billion for a nuclear power plant in Viacha, a still-hypothetical prospect that would place the vast El Alto–La Paz metropolis at risk in the event of a major accident. When exploratory drilling in the Lliquimuni petroleum block in the northern Bolivian Amazon is inaugurated, Morales proposes building an improbable but possible oil refinery to commoditize oil from a cluster of oil fields underneath the rainforest. At an agricultural policy forum, co-hosted by the government, the peasant confederation CSUTCB, and big agribusiness (the Chamber of Agriculture of the East), the government proposes quintupling the land under cultivation in the next decades, mostly by expanding mechanized monoculture. While the peasants are partners in the summit, it is the Chamber who drafts the legislation that follows. Speaking to the European Union, the president vows that global South governments “will not be park rangers” on behalf of the global North. He returns home to sign a decree authorizing oil and gas extraction in National Parks as a national strategic priority. In public speeches, Morales has also pledged that NGOs and foundations that stand in the way of using Bolivia’s natural resources face expulsion from the country.

This was the country I visited for the past three weeks. I’m at a point of inflection in my research agenda from studying how movements build power and exert pressure to looking at the how conflicts between indigenous peoples and extractive industries will evolve under the Plurinational State. In part because of the power built by indigenous movements, Bolivia is a place where indigenous territories and rights have some of the most extensive protections in written law. Those legal commitments contradict equally formal commitments by the government to fulfill oil, mining, and logging contracts, and the government’s drive for new revenues to fund its anti-poverty social agenda. Conceptualized from afar, this should be a complex story of uncertainty and contradiction, of the indigenous state official who is pulled in two directions, of hard choices and ambivalences. But as the list of extractivist plans makes clear, the government of the Plurinational State is anything but ambivalent on this issue.Read More »