On Word Choice and Eric Garner

I posted the following a few minutes ago on Facebook, but figure I may as well post it here, too.

A quick note on terminology:

I suspect that FB feeds will fill up with folks commenting on the lack of indictment in the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. I can’t presume to judge the case — I don’t have the evidence. However, I’ve already noticed a couple of folks claiming that the coroner’s ruling that Mr. Garner died by homicide should be sufficient grounds for indictment. This implies a misunderstanding of terminology.

Homicide is merely a term for one person killing another. It is not necessarily a crime per se, and in fact is legal under certain circumstances (self-defense, some cases of the “castle doctrine”, a soldier acting under lawful orders, legal executions, a guard shooting an escaping prisoner in some jurisdictions, and certain police actions). While these are in fact homicide, they fall under the heading of “justifiable homicide,” and the killer is legally blameless.

So Mr. Garner’s death was certainly a homicide. It may have also been unlawful, and the grand jury could have been wrong — again, I don’t know. But the first does not necessitate the other. Don’t let that term throw you off track.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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One Response to On Word Choice and Eric Garner

  1. Andrew Stevens says:

    A prosecutor who wants an indictment will nearly always get one from a grand jury (though sometimes a grand jury does decide the prosecutor is overreaching). But a prosecutor who doesn’t want an indictment will never get one. All a grand jury decision ever tells you is what the prosecutor wanted.

    However, unlike in Ferguson, where Bob McCulloch immediately gave a press conference defending the grand jury decision (which should strike anyone as odd – after all they supposedly had just repudiated him), making it crystal clear to everyone that he did not go to the grand jury in order to get an indictment, Dan Donovan did not do that. So I suppose it is possible that Donovan went in actually seeking an indictment and was rejected by the grand jury. But you and I both know that he probably presented the evidence in a way that was beneficial to the police. And, of course, in both states, if a prosecutor really has the goods and really wants an indictment, he doesn’t faff about with a grand jury. He just brings it to a judge. I have no real doubt a judge would have ordered a trial in both cases.

    The system is corrupt. If a police officer or a member of the DA’s office is being charged with a crime, a special prosecutor should routinely be called in. It is silly to expect the local prosecutor, who works closely with the local police, to prosecute one of his own, barring very obvious corruption.

    If Garner’s death is legally a justifiable homicide – and perhaps it was – then this doesn’t prove that it was actually a justifiable homicide. It plainly wasn’t. So even if it was legally a justifiable homicide, that would only indicate that there is a problem with the law and with police procedure.

    For the record, I don’t really care about the lack of indictments in either case. I am uninterested in punishing the police officers. I am interested in changing how the police do their jobs and restoring courage and honor to the profession. If Garner’s death was morally justifiable, then I am Czar of all the Russias.

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