As a student, I loved Syllabus Day.

I appreciated the professors who embraced the practice of easing into the semester; dipping a toe rather than plunging into the deep-end. It eased anxiety, reduced stress, and, let’s be honest, ensured that one-fifteenth of the semester would be easy.

Now, as a professor, I find that these benefits still apply to some degree, but I’ve come to enjoy Syllabus Day for another reason. That is, by giving the intense intellectual pursuits time to breathe, I am able to work on building personal connections with my students.

The first day in my classes usually involves some fairly typical course-overview fare; highlights of the syllabus, grading requirements and expectations, class policies, and the like. Pretty standard stuff. I also talk more broadly about suggestions for succeeding as a college student, including the proper ways to communicate with faculty members (such as ensuring you use “Professor” or “Dr.” unless told otherwise). …


During the first week of my classes, I always talk about frames of reference.

I share with my students elements of my own background. My own history. This typically includes personal characteristics; that I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgender man. But I also tell them that my life has been split between New York and North Carolina (making me both a pizza and BBQ snob); that I studied sociology and history in college before focusing on criminology in graduate school. I share with them my love of books and music and video games and craft beer (yet another snobbery of mine).

Why, you might ask, in an academic setting — where the goal is the sharing and expansion of knowledge — would I share such personal and seemingly-unimportant aspects of my own life? …


Yesterday, Missouri executed Walter Barton via lethal injection for the 1991 killing of his former landlord, 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler.

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An execution in the Midwest would not typically be newsworthy on a broad scale, but Barton’s execution has captured the national consciousness. Of course, these are not normal times. Barton was the first person to be executed since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic and that, in itself, is newsworthy.


*Note: This essay contains major spoilers for Joker. Read at your own risk

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In the climactic scene from Joker, the classic villain finally makes his long-awaited appearance on Murray Franklin’s television show.

For the titular character, it was a long time coming.

See, for most of the film, Joaquin Phoenix portrays Arthur Fleck — down on his luck, living with his aging mother, and suffering from mental illness. He’s stigmatized and marginalized by a society with little time to take an interest in his struggles.

He’s also failed to hack it as a stand-up comedian, and Franklin (Robert de Niro) once used a clip of Fleck’s fledgling performance for laughs. …


*Note: These impressions are mostly spoiler-free. Most of them are broad. However, I do discuss some specific imagery that was shown in the film’s trailers.

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A man sits, watching the painted white face staring back at him in the mirror. He reaches one index finger into each corner of his mouth and aggressively, painfully, pulls up the edges of his lips, contorting his mouth into a strange, uncomfortable smile. The man is clearly troubled, indicated not by a murderous rampage or by the word “Damaged” tattooed across his forehead. It’s given away by his face. …


After a sixteen-year hiatus, the Trump Administration announced that the Federal government will resume executions in late 2019 and early 2020, reinvigorating the public and political discourse around capital punishment. Support for the decision is mixed, but a few things are clear.

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Source: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flickr

First, in the democratized world, the death penalty is as American as apple pie. Modern trends regarding the practice “are unmistakably toward abolition,” as nearly three-fourths of the world has abolished capital punishment.

“The U.S. remains an outlier among its close allies and other democracies in its continued application of the death penalty.” — Death Penalty Information Center

Even within the United States, the practice is far from ubiquitous.


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On May 31, Netflix premiered a new show called When They See Us, a four-episode series depicting the injustice of the Central Park Jogger case. The show became an overnight cultural phenomenon. Since its debut, it has become the most-watched show on Netflix and has sparked a social conversation about race, police misconduct, the faults in our criminal legal system, the politics of law, and the fundamental meaning of justice.

When They See Us is ‘true crime’ done right. The source material is inherently interesting, and the series features strong direction and captivating performances from all of its core actors, many of whom are relatively unknown. It’s an important show, one that Emily Nussbaum wrote makes something “that might easily be unwatchable not merely watchable but mesmerizing.” As with other dramatic tellings of real events, the show has the power to not only entertain, but to educate and inspire. Despite the crime and trials occurring three decades ago, there are still many lessons to learn from it. The criminal legal system provides a unique and telling window into who we are as a culture and as a society, and deconstructing injustices such as those experienced by the Central Park Five presents an even starker portrait. …


Donald Trump was back at it again, releasing a fury of tweets denouncing an illegal and expensive “witch hunt” carried out by Democrats.

This, of course, is nothing new for the President, whose claims to victimhood in this “witch hunt” have been a common refrain.

My focus here is not on whether Trump can or should be impeached, or whether he or his team violated any specific rules or regulations. Instead, I hope to make a specific but important point about the language used by the President, the White House, and supporters of this administration. History-both in the United States and abroad-is littered with actual witch hunts, and this is not a witch hunt. As Stacy Schiff has written, “historical literacy is not for everyone,” so I wouldn’t expect this sort of argument to be persuasive for many people, including supporters of the President. …


Compensation for the wrongly convicted has been in the news recently. Just over a week ago, Indiana became the 34th state to pass a compensation law for exonerees — those found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

That’s great — it really is. For a state to have a compensation statute is certainly better than not having one. But it begs the question:

How can the government possibly provide redress in the wake of a wrongful conviction?

Archie Williams was released from a Louisiana prison in March 2019 with the help of the Innocence Project New Orleans. It must have felt like a triumphant day for him and his supporters, when prosecutors joined a motion to vacate his convictions and he was exonerated. …


A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story about the case of Sedley Alley, who convicted and sentenced to death for a 1985 rape and murder in Tennessee. Alley was executed in 2006 and now his daughter, April, has petitioned the court to test DNA evidence from the crime scene.

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I know not whether Sedley Alley was innocent; right now, nobody does. But we do know a few things. First, we know that Alley’s conviction was questionable, based on limited physical evidence and a shaky confession that Alley says was coerced. Second, we know he was executed. And third, we know that there is DNA evidence that has never been tested, but which might give us a clearer understanding of Alley’s guilt or innocence. …

About

Robert J. Norris, PhD

Author, professor. Writing about law, justice, politics, culture. Books: Exonerated (tinyurl.com/y4jfqsaj) & When Justice Fails (tinyurl.com/yyen4ggf).

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