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- Courts and Criminals - 2/40 -


until shown to be guilty by the verdict of a jury. No one's premises may be entered or searched without a warrant which the law renders it difficult to obtain. Every accused has the right to testify in his own behalf, like any other witness. The fact that he has been held for a crime by a magistrate and indicted by a grand jury places him at not the slightest disadvantage so far as defending himself against the charge is concerned, for he must be proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. These illustrations of the jealousy of the law for the rights of citizens might be multiplied to no inconsiderable extent. Further, our law allows a defendant convicted of crime to appeal to the highest courts, whereas if he be acquitted the people or State of New York have no right of appeal at all.

Without dwelling further on the matter it is enough to say that in general the State constitutions, their general laws, or penal statutes provide that a person who is accused or suspected of crime must be presumed innocent and treated accordingly until his guilt has been affirmatively established in a jury trial; that meantime he must not be confined or detained unless a crime has in fact been committed and there is at least reasonable cause to believe that he has committed it; and, further, that if arrested he must be given an immediate opportunity to secure bail, to have the advice of counsel, and must in no way be compelled to give any evidence against himself. So much for the law. It is as plain as a pikestaff. It is printed in the books in words of one syllable. So far as the law is concerned we have done our best to perpetuate the theories of those who, fearing that they might be arrested without a hearing, transported for trial, and convicted in a king's court before a king's judge for a crime they knew nothing of, insisted on "liberty or death." They had had enough of kings and their ways. Hereafter they were to have "a government of laws and not of men."

But the unfortunate fact remains that all laws, however perfect, must in the end be administered by imperfect men. There is, alas! no such thing as a government of laws and not of men. You may have a government more of laws and less of men, or vice versa, but you cannot have an autoadministration of the Golden Rule. Sooner or later you come to a man--in the White House, or on a wool sack, or at a desk in an office, or in a blue coat and brass buttons--and then, to a very considerable extent, the question of how far ours is to be a government of laws or of men depends upon him. Generally, so far as he is concerned, it is going to be of man, for every official finds that the letter of the law works an injustice many times out of a hundred. If he is worth his salary he will try to temper justice with mercy. If he is human he will endeavor to accomplish justice as he sees it so long as the law can be stretched to accommodate the case. Thus, inevitably there is a conflict between the law and its application. It is the human element in the administration of the law that enables lawyers to get a living. It is usually not difficult to tell what the law is; the puzzle is how it is going to be applied in any individual case. How it is going to be applied depends very largely upon the practical side of the matter and the exigencies of existing conditions.

It is pretty hard to apply inflexibly laws over a hundred years old. It is equally hard to police a city of a million or so polyglot inhabitants with a due regard to their theoretic constitutional rights. But suppose in addition that these theoretic rights are entirely theoretic and fly in the face of the laws of nature, experience, and common sense? What then? What is a police commissioner to do who has either got to make an illegal arrest or let a crook get away, who must violate the rights of men illegally detained by outrageously "mugging" them or egregiously fail to have a record of the professional criminals in his bailiwick? He does just what all of us do under similar conditions--he "takes a chance." But in the case of the police the thing is so necessary that there ceases practically to be any "chance" about it. They have got to prevent crime and arrest criminals. If they fail they are out of a job, and others more capable or less scrupulous take their places. The fundamental law qualifying all systems is that of necessity. You can't let professional crooks carry off a voter's silverware simply because the voter, being asleep, is unable instantly to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that his silver has been stolen. You can't permit burglars to drag sacks of loot through the streets of the city at 4 A.M. simply because they are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. And if "arrest on suspicion" were not permitted, demanded by the public, and required by the police ordinances, away would go the crooks and off would go the silverware, the town would be full of "leather snatchers" and "strong-arm men," respectable citizens would be afraid to go out o' nights, and liberty would degenerate into license. That is the point. We Americans, or at least some of the newer ones of us, have an idea that "liberty" means the right to steal apples from our neighbor's orchard without interference. Now, somewhere or other, there has got to be a switch and a strong arm to keep us in order, and the switch and arm must not wait until the apples are stolen and eaten before getting busy. If we come climbing over the fence sweating apples at every pore, is Farmer Jones to go and count his apples before grabbing us?

The most presumptuous of all presumptions is this "presumption of innocence." It really doesn't exist, save in the mouths of judges and in the pages of the law books. Yet as much to-do is made about it as if it were a living legal principle. Every judge in a criminal case is required to charge the jury in form or substance somewhat as follows: "The defendant is presumed to be innocent until that presumption is removed by competent evidence" . . . "This presumption is his property, remaining with him throughout the trial and until rebutted by the verdict of the jury." . . . "The jury has no right to consider the fact that the defendant stands at the bar accused of a crime by an indictment found by the grand jury." Shades of Sir Henry Hawkins! Does the judge expect that they are actually to swallow that? Here is a jury sworn "to a true verdict find" in the case of an ugly looking customer at the bar who is charged with knocking down an old man and stealing his watch. The old man--an apostolic looking octogenarian--is sitting right over there where the jury can see him. One look at the plaintiff and one at the accused and the jury may be heard to mutter, "He's guilty,--all right!"

"Presumed to be innocent?" Why, may I ask? Do not the jury and everybody else know that this good old man would never, save by mistake, accuse anybody falsely of crime? Innocence! Why, the natural and inevitable presumption is that the defendant is guilty! The human mind works intuitively by comparison and experience. We assume or presume with considerable confidence that parents love their children, that all college presidents are great and good men, and that wild bulls are dangerous animals. We may be wrong. But it is up to the other fellow to show us the contrary.

Now, if out of a clear sky Jones accuses Robinson of being a thief we know by experience that the chances are largely in favor of Jones's accusation being well founded. People as a rule don't go rushing around charging each other with being crooks unless they have some reason for it. Thus, at the very beginning the law flies in the face of probabilities when it tells us that a man accused of crime must be presumed to be innocent. In point of fact, whatever presumption there is (and this varies with the circumstances) is all the other way, greater or less depending upon the particular attitude of mind and experience of the individual.

This natural presumption of guilt from the mere fact of the charge is rendered all the more likely by reason of the uncharitable readiness with which we believe evil of our fellows. How unctuously we repeat some hearsay bit of scandal. "I suppose you have heard the report that Deacon Smith has stolen the church funds?" we say to our friends with a sententious sigh--the outward sign of an invisible satisfaction. Deacon Smith after the money-bag? Ha! ha! Of course, he's guilty! These deacons are always guilty! And in a few minutes Deacon Smith is ruined forever, although the fact of the matter may well have been that he was but counting the money in the collection-plate. This willingness to believe the worst of others is a matter of common knowledge and of historical and literary record. "The evil that men do lives after them--" It might well have been put, "The evil men are said to have done lives forever." However unfair, this is a psychologic condition which plays an important part in rendering the presumption of innocence a gross absurdity.

But let us press the history of Jones and Robinson a step further. The next event in the latter's criminal history is his appearance in court before a magistrate. Jones produces his evidence and calls his witnesses. Robinson, through his learned counsel, cross-examines them and then summons his own witnesses to prove his innocence. The proceeding may take several days or perhaps weeks. Briefs are submitted. The magistrate considers the testimony and finally decides that he believes Robinson guilty and must hold him for the action of the grand jury. You might now, it would perhaps seem, have some reason for suspecting that Robinson was not all that he should be. But no! He is still presumed in the eyes of the law, and theoretically in the eyes of his fellows, to be as innocent as a babe unborn. And now the grand jury take up and sift the evidence that has already been gone over by the police judge. They, too, call witnesses and take additional testimony. They likewise are convinced of Robinson's guilt and straightway hand down an indictment accusing him of the crime. A bench warrant issues. The defendant is run to earth and ignominiously haled to court. But he is still presumed to be innocent! Does not the law say so? And is not this a "government of laws"? Finally, the district attorney, who is not looking for any more work than is absolutely necessary, investigates the case, decides that it must be tried and begins to prepare it for trial. As the facts develop themselves Robinson's guilt becomes more and more clear. The unfortunate defendant is given any opportunity he may desire to explain away the charge, but to no purpose.

The district attorney knows Robinson is guilty, and so does everybody else, including Robinson. At last this presumably innocent man is brought to the bar for trial. The jury scan his hang-dog countenance upon which guilt is plainly written. They contrast his appearance with that of the honest Jones. They know he has been accused, held by a magistrate, indicted by a grand jury, and that his case, after careful scrutiny,


Courts and Criminals - 2/40

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