Friday, January 7, 2011

The Juror Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton is one of those old famous writers we have all heard of but have never read. Though he is described as prolific and diverse, I couldn't name for you a single piece of his writing that you would recognize. The best I can do is tell you he was a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote Pygmalion which became My Fair Lady, and you have certainly heard of that.

Chesterton wrote an essay about his jury experience. He called it, cleverly enough, The Twelve Men. Humorous at first, it turns solemn by the end. I quote the end because I am presently in ill humor as I work on cases of wrongful conviction.
Now, it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop. Therefore, the instinct of Christian civilisation has most wisely declared that into their judgments there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets. Men shall come in who can see the court and the crowd, and coarse faces of the policemen and the professional criminals, the wasted faces of the wastrels, the unreal faces of the gesticulating counsel, and see it all as one sees a new picture or a ballet hitherto unvisited.

Our civilisation has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity. 
I believe I have proved Chesterton's suggestion that our untrained citizenry is better able than our highly educated judicial class to accurately assess the guilt or innocence of the accused among us. Unfortunately, I believe I have also proved that juries are but the better of a less-than-perfect, two-option lot.

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