Brief Notes On Crime And Punishment.

National Museum of Crime and Punishment. Photo:

Nothing good comes of a criminal trial. The best we can hope for is that justice runs the course it should take and so rebalances the wrong. “The law is a Luna Park of suffering; the poor man who let’s himself be caught in it will scream for centuries,” wrote Louis-Ferdinand Céline. I saw it in a man who stood accused of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl; a psychiatric patient at the hospital where he was a security guard.

Céline overlooked the slow moving bureaucracy surrounding an accused. The politeness of the courtroom is a kind of torture. To write several thousand words on why one’s liberty should not be violated and hand it up to a man in costume seems preternatural.

Everyone waits their turn to speak. Except for the accused, who doesn’t have to say a word.

I was helping to cover the trial for a regional newspaper. My job was to sit and wait for the verdict. The jury’s deliberations had unexpectedly spilled over into Monday from late Friday night. The paper’s experienced court reporter couldn’t get there. All I had to do was file the decision on each charge.

“Please stand now, Mr F — . The jury will return shortly and they won’t take a moment to deliver the verdict.”

So the man stood, not knowing where to put his hands. He settled clasping them loosely in front, as though he was standing in a church and listening to scipture he couldn’t comprehend. The foreman stood and the counts were read.

“Guilty,” she said to four of them. “Not guilty,” she said to three of them. And is that the verdict of all the jury. “Yes.”

And in that moment a man passes from accused to convicted, like a stone is thrown and disappears beneath the water. I did everything I could to feel compassion for him; his teenage victim was not in court, so the reality and consequence of his crimes were a step removed. The face he put on of not guilty — even after the verdict was delivered — was more confident without her there. It was not that the girl was restored by the finding of guilty, but the glare settled on the punishment looming over him now the law judged her ordeal complete. The word guilty broke the nexus between her and the convict. If there was compassion to be felt at that moment, right there in the courtroom, it was for his helplessness. It was not that he deserved to lose his liberty, which he did, but that he couldn’t help it. He was already gone. He was already far below the surface, and didn’t even know it.

The courtroom seems too far removed from what lawyers and witnesses describe in it. Everything was happening to someone else, some other third person in a framed narrative. Someone not there.

The man had sat in the dock, accused, while I did my best to imagine being him. If he imagined being me, he didn’t let on; as a journalist my job would sharpen the point of his suffering. He would hate my guts.

But no matter what I imagined, the accused, convicted man was still someone else, someone different from the man touching the child. Someone not overly concerned with his predicament, as though there were no consequences to the judge’s casual professionalism.

The judge, with his trained emphasis on important words and his eyes shrunken from reading small print.

The man managed a shake of the head when bail was refused, then a look sideways at his fiancee, which was half a sorry shrug and half helpless horror. It seemed feigned and disingenuous, like his testimony. He had not touched the 15-year-old girl, he had said. She was angry he had spurned her advances, even though she could describe the photograph he showed her of his phallus — which he denied ever taking. But then forensic investigators recovered it from his cell phone. He forgot about it, he said. He took it for his fiancee. The girl must have seen it when she asked to borrow his phone.

Had it come over him at that moment standing in the dock that all he had sown that night with the girl was to be reaped a hundred times over in ways he never foresaw? The first night in prison was still ahead of him, 10 hours trapped between cold, sweating walls and all the nights to come after, the ones he would try to count but forget because the number was so vast.

He was convicted of the indecent dealing and penetration of a child. His job as a security guard was to protect her. He stood in the box, and if he was torn up, he did well to keep it contained in that one look, the merest ripple of the brow. But I think he knew he had it coming.

Yet, I still felt for the man. I made myself feel for the man. Of course, I felt for the girl, also. I hoped she would be set free exactly at the moment the man was taken beneath the surface, removed from the world. Gone from accused to convicted.

In some countries men are shot to death or poisoned for their crimes. This trial, with its relatively humane outcome, was an amateur play in comparison; the lawyers in robes, the jury dressed in black, the jowls of the judge doused in claret-red stage makeup. The part they played so easily washed off them all, even from the accused. Not that he was aware he was painted up like a bit-part actor for his week in the dock. But the judge was polite, the best actor of all. That awful bureaucratic politeness, so practiced in the delivery of lines.

Then he was gone, somewhere below. Guards had flooded the courtroom for the verdict, one counselled the man’s handful of supporters to refrain from outbursts.


Then he was gone.

The accused, carried up into the lights for a few days, then returned to the dark to resume the empty business of being no one. A fallen stone somewhere with the fish swimming in their prison green, somewhere below.

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