As a race, we have certainly tried some very unorthodox ways of going about justice. When confronted with something impossible to know, whether the origin of the universe or a man’s guilt, we tend to drift into rituals, mysticism and speculation.
Take for example the medieval trial by ordeal. One common way to determine whether someone was guilty of a crime was to make them retrieve an object from a pot of boiling water. If their wounds healed, they were considered innocent. Common moral sensibility and actual biblical doctrine aside, people believed God would miraculously spare the wrongly accused from the pain of an unjust trial.
Good thing we’ve moved to a higher plane of cultural enlightenment, right? Well, we still seem to hold people, even presidents, to a very strict form of oathtaking. Also, the black gowns of judges and the mortarboards and golden tassels of college graduates can be traced all the way back to pagan mysticism. If you asked most people, they would probably point to England, only the most immediate parent in a long succession of cultural forefathers. If you ask me, nothing has really changed. We apparently just have shorter memories.
Our new modern paragons have made us forget. They’re especially effective this time around. Sixty years ago, some questioned whether they would need a phone in their household at all. Today, we buy Lady Gaga ringtones by the thousands just to get our gizmos to make different sounds. Each one costs an entire day’s worth of pay according to the world’s median income. And the immaculate force that has likewise transformed the world hasn’t failed to make an appearance in the courtroom. It descends from on high to render judgment, just like the reigning force did in medieval times with trials by ordeal.
From the OJ Simpson trial on down, almighty science is called upon to answer the unanswerable. Instead of clergymen with golden crosses prepping their tongs, scientists in white lab coats go about scrubbing crime scenes for hair follicles, ballistics clues and DNA evidence. When something like DNA, for example, is argued to show something, no juror with any technology in their pocket seems capable of denying its scientific soundness. I mean, what could be more scientific than DNA? The focus seems to be on the magic of the science itself, not the logic of what the evidence actually shows. Once someone’s blood shows up in a crime scene, for example, there is little attention left over for the question of whether or not the blood evidence actually means that the accused did the crime. Bleeding is still not a crime in the U.S., but experiment and reason don’t always go hand in hand.
Furthermore, the experiments themselves aren’t always sound. Specific crime labs across the country are famous for their bogus and doctored results. But when the experts show up in court, it’s always with an easily digested conclusion for us common folk sitting in the jury. Under the tutelage of our appointed seers, countless verdicts are rendered that are just as unjust as an innocent man dipping his arm in scalding water. Some estimate that when the oracles of science deign to testify, they overstep their bounds as often as 60% of the time.
If that’s true, trial by ordeal may have even been a superior method. According to a recent article that has been a matter of some controversy, it had an interesting way of producing a correct result. The theory is that the accused, believing in the ordeal was reliable, would be less willing to submit to it if they were guilty. And since only an innocent man would subject himself to it instead of confessing, priests would know to lighten the test when it actually needed to be performed. The key, therefore, was the commonly held belief that the system actually worked. So whether our illumination comes from science or religion, people are prompted to voluntarily divulge their story when they personally believe in an unfailing eye of truth.
At least, that’s how it worked ages ago. The most important ingredients of faith-based justice are conspicuously lacking from what’s considered the most evolved legal system in the world. First, the plea bargaining system is viewed as a game of risk minimization rather than a way for the guilty to gain some measure of moral absolution. Thus, even the innocent sometimes plead out while on the other hand the guilty often just try to get the best lawyers. While the masses in the jury are certainly just as enthralled with science, it is simply not as good at inspiring remorse in the heart of the wrongdoer.
More importantly, science seems to operate differently on the higher tiers of society. The effectiveness of trial by ordeal depended on those administering the trial realizing that most who submitted were innocent. They would then soften the test, which showed that on some level they didn’t share the belief with the common man that divine force itself was what made it fair. In our society, the adversarial system prevents those who perpetuate the system from ever showing the same sort of restraint. They are actually the most ardent in the belief that two opposing sides clashing at full force is the best route to truth. Instead of revealing the smoke and mirrors to juries, judges are clamoring to remain updated on the latest methods. The highest in the land even seem to suggest that when jurors contradict the science presented, it’s an incorrect verdict that they’re nevertheless entitled to because of that pesky Constitution.
So, it’s starting to look a lot like the Dark Ages. Even belief systems prided on objectivity and rationale have an irrational side. Only now our master is an unfeeling one that makes no claim whatsoever to questions of right and wrong. The only force thought sufficient to reveal the truth at trial is human sophistry. I sometimes wonder how we’re going to look a thousand years from now. Like trial by ordeal, people may be scoffing at the irony that our system actually worked.