Thursday, January 26, 2006

Never Enough Court Philosophy Department

When I was in high school, we once read A Separate Peace by John Knowles (summary here) and, being intrigued by the mock trial at the end of the novel, our teacher had us conduct our own mock trial. Was Gene, who was responsible for Finny's leg-breaking fall, ultimately responsible for Finny's refracturing his leg, which led to his death? Was Gene guilty of manslaughter?

I took the challenging and unpopular role of defense attorney. It was quite difficult, given how most of the class was convinced of Gene's guilt prior to the mock trial. Members of the senior class were selected to form the jury; they too had read the book but were more detached, and therefore more impartial. There were times when I thought the classmate playing the judge was nearly disgusted with my role. There was a bit of tension, to be sure, between myself and much of the rest of the class. But in the end, the jury reached a verdict of Not Guilty.

The response of the class: It showed them how "flawed" the "court system" was. Excuse me? What court system? Our mock court was less sophisticated than any court drama on TV. There were no rules of evidence; the jury knew about the "case" in detail and in advance; the judge was hostile towards the defense; there was no concept of "innocent until proven guilty"; and we were all ignorant of even the basic precepts of law. So, what "flaw" in the system was exposed? The only similarities between our mock trial and the real thing was the basic structure: a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and a jury. Which was flawed? The presense of a defense attorney? A jury that could be convinced of the defense's case What, exactly, was the objection?!? Alas, none of my classmates could tell me what was wrong with this--a mock trial.

I really have to wonder how they would have reacted--or how they did react--to the real thing. Justice, like democracy, is messy, contentious, and highly frustrated. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it's the worst system possible--with the exception of all the others. But we've allowed horror stories of shyster lawyers and runaway civil cases to color our vision, and lead us to see more corruption and injustice than actually occurs. The best we can do is to remind ourselves that, for all the hassle and heartache that comes from judges, juries, and attorneys, we can only do our damnest to make sure justice is served with fairness and impartiality.

And yes, this has everything to do with the trial. It's over, and our verdict has been served. But more on that later--I'd rather digest things before posting.

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