the wrong side of the law

What is the price we pay for law and order? Is it monetary? The cost of prisons must be considerable. The impact of the loss of man hours on the all important GDP is no doubt a notable agenda item for lawmakers. Certain freedoms must of course also be curved for the greater good. I certainly don’t feel that I need stop signs. I tend to stop as a matter of principle when huge chunks of metal are speeding in a direction that conflicts with my own.

These are all noteworthy costs, but in my opinion the biggest, most disturbing, most neglected cost is summarized by a well known term in US law: reasonable doubt. Thanks to an overabundance of soppy US law dramas, one could be tempted to say this term has become a cliché. Thing is I suspect it never had well defined meaning to start with. This is quite convenient and one could be forgiven for thinking that there may even be a conspiracy to that effect.

What I mean is: how much doubt is reasonable? It’s not like it implies a probability. An omniscient observer could go and count all the convictions, among those count all the wrongful convictions, and divide the latter by the formula to find a percentage. This percentage would be a point estimate for so called reasonable doubt. One in a thousand may sounds acceptable, until you consider the millions upon millions of convicts world wide.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of wrongful death sentences discovered posthumously through technological advances like DNA testsing, and while that particular variety of fuckup is the most harrowing and regrettable, less grave wrongful convictions by extension also occur…albeit reasonably infrequently.

These unlucky souls pay the true price for law and order. Just imagine being in that position: your friends and family could turn against you, you lose years of your life, your job, your ability to find a new job, traveling privileges, the trust of those around you to mention just a few. No amount of proclaiming your innocence is ever going to make the suspicion go away. Not to mention your disillusionment with society, the law and your Faith.

So there is implicitly this reasonable amount of lives destroyed every day. The good news is that a reasonable proportion of us will never experience the wrong side of this coin. Consequently we sit back, throw our hands in the air, shrug, and say that this is the only way. It’s the best system we’ve got. That’s what was said during any dubious social system, official or otherwise, used in the past. Many historical social constructs now seem inhuman or barbaric in hindsight, e.g. stonings, the exile of lepers, and lots of other stuff in the Bible. I suspect history will not look kindly upon current penal systems.

But what do those on the other side of the fence (or bars) have to say about the reasonableness of the situation? I wonder. The dilemma is that these victims of Justice have no voice. Would you believe a convict that claims he is innocent? I doubt these people even bother proclaiming their innocence. Notwithstanding the futility of it: rather a criminal than a victim.

People are seldom touched by something if it has no direct bearing on their lives. Innocents die every day all around the world, but blissfully ignorant I go on with my personal pursuit of happiness, which includes finding a pair of jeans that sits just right, owning a coffee table that really ties my living room together, and writing supposedly clever, idle messages on my blog. However, if I were to get the wrong end of the justice stick, I would probably fall on my knees like Charlton Heston and damn the whole system to hell. And it won’t be because I would learn anything I did not already know, I’d be more like the crusading cancer survivor. Only no-one would feel sorry for me.

Since childhood I’ve felt this vague discomfort when hearing this nebulous term “reasonable doubt” blurted out patriotically and unflinchingly by some American idiot: “Yep, proof must be given beyond a reasonable doubt. Them’s the rules, sonny”. I tried to picture this concept of reasonableness, but to no avail. I imagined instead that it’s just my obsessive compulsive thoughts getting trapped in some tricky but negotiable corner of reality again. When you’re young you assume the fundamentals had been sorted out long ago. As you get older you start to realize they never will be.

The conspiracy, then, is more insidious than most: we lie to ourselves to make things simpler, more acceptable. It just makes evolutionary sense. Reading this has put you an infinitesimal amount off the ideal track to oblivious happiness and the procreational benefits that tend to accompany it.

Now, next time you watch some David E. Kelly legal farce containing the inevitable smoking gun or verbal abuse induced confession, you too will feel a rational amount of discomfort. This is my gift to the voiceless.


Anonymous said...

I had a teacher in primary school, let's call him Sakkie P to protect his identity, who understood justice. We had a boy in our class called Lionel, who was ugly, snot-nosed, and stupid. He was also permanently fearful and cried a lot for he always found himself in trouble on account of his stupidity and bad handwriting.

One day Sakkie said, "Lionel, kom hier en buk!" It was the good old days of corporal punishment.
"Maar Meneer, ek het dan niks gedoen nie!" And this was true, for once Lionel was innocent.
Sakkie P: "Maak nie saak nie. Jy gaan wel binnekort opfok." Six of the best.

Justice (and the accompanying rewards like peace and obedience) comes at a price. We were all very good for the rest of the year, felt kinda bad for Lionel, but hell, it is true: He would have done something stupid sooner or later.

Could I find myself in Lionel's position one day? No, for I am not stupid and my handwriting is pretty damn good. Not only do I stay out of trouble, I also stay far away from trouble. I do not mix with the likes of Lionel. Everyone knew that if you made friends with him, then sooner or later you are going to get in trouble over something he did.

Wonder wat van die arme drommel geword het.


M said...

Very dark and disturbing.
My 8th favourite form of entertainment, and quite possibly the meaning of blog.

Liezl gets 50 points for saying the same thing in half the words.


b said...

Does that mean I get 25 points or a 100?

I don't think we're saying exactly the same thing though. Lionel had it coming.

Anonymous said...

I was trying to explain the complacency that so disturbs b. To feel empathy (with Lionel and other innocent victims of the law) we have to be able to imagine a similar thing happening to us. And my guess is the average complacent person find it difficult to do so. They (we?) simply don't identify with these victims. That's no excuse though, which is why the memory of that day still haunts me. I should have said something.


Anonymous said...

Also, b, how can you say Lionel had it coming? Or are you being ironic? Remember that intelligence is a blessing - you don't deserve it, and neither do stupid people deserve to be stupid. I love your writing but I don't like your attitude towards idiots. They are, for the most part, innocent. Reserve your judgement for those who choose to be idiots. You won't find many of those around. I deal with idiots every day. Many of them are decent and thoroughly likable people.


b said...

I'm saying there is a difference between Lionel and someone who is completely innocent.

If you don't distinguish between Lionel and someone who is completely wrongfully convicted, the you should not distinguish between them and an actual criminal. If you trace the cause of any crime back far enough you'll end up with something the individual had no control over, e.g. bad parents, genes, poverty, apartheid, bad luck etc.

I don't ultimately judge anyone, but some have it coming more than others.

M said...

I need to meditate on whether I think there IS a material difference between Lionel and other Casualties of Justice.
*Do* some have it coming more than others?

"Innocence" doesn't appear to absolutely exist, and neither does "guilt".

Where the line is drawn throught the gray-scale is ultimately academic.

Does this absolve me of the empathy?

Anonymous said...

'Innocent' here means did not in fact commit the crime for which he is convicted. And guilt means the opposite. Let's not make it too complicated. In this sense Lionel was innocent.

What I was getting to is that some people are more likely to be convicted for a crime they did not commit, simply because of the lives they live. They might be involved with 'the wrong crowd', guilty of other crimes, or just hang out at the wrong spots, and so when they get into trouble we think "they had it coming", even though they might be innocent of the particular crime.

I think this is a method of distancing ourselves from these victims of reasonable doubt, allowing us to be safe in the thought that it couldn't happen to us.

But yes, if you think of it, nearly all of us have it coming, so we need to draw the distinction between those who are guilty and innocent in the above sense, otherwise b's point is lost.

Sorry for judging you, b. I was being a hypocrite.


M said...

Hypocrisy and bigotry is only a matter of time.
You can quote me on that.
Seriously - we will all, given sufficient time, think, feel or utter some hypocritical or bigoted view.
This isn't absolution, but mitigation.

That digression aside... Let's get back to the issue of guilt and reasonable doubt.

I think the following settles it.
(It borrows from the religion/faith vs science debate).

If you believe an "objective reality" exists (absolute guilt or innocence being examples), then Lionel and criminal "victims" of Justice are DISTINCT.

If you do not, then they are not.

Lionel was also a victim of a total prick (oh look, judgemental bigotry!), whose idea of Justice would make the Marquis de Sade blush...


Anonymous said...

Very pretty design! Keep up the good work. Thanks.