Crime, Punishment, and Gerry Conlon

Screen grab from the A&E television show.

When I can (and when my wife is not around) I enjoy watching the television show The First 48.  I enjoy watching the down-home sleuthing of real police detectives, the hit-the-streets, do-what-must-be-done attitude of these crime solvers.  I like the show because it is genuine reality television—real people doing real jobs in real circumstances.

There comes a moment in many of the episodes where the detectives have gathered a body of evidence against a suspect—an eyewitness (or two, or three), a statement from a girlfriend or relative, a murder weapon, maybe even a photo of the suspect near the crime scene—and then they bring the suspect in for interrogation. The suspect doesn’t know what evidence has been gathered against him or her, we do, and more often than not it seems that these suspects regularly claim that they are innocent.  They argue that they had nothing to do with the crime, don’t know the people involved, and weren’t anywhere near it.  What is startling to me as a viewer is how blatantly people will lie about their circumstances—then, as the detectives unveil their case against the person, waiting for a confession, we watch the defendant squirm, changing the story again and again.  The whole process is mystifying and, actually, a little uncomfortable to watch.

I find, in myself, that when it comes to matters of justice, of crime and of punishment by the state, I am not as a rule very merciful.  I find that when a jury finds a defendant guilty, prosecuted by the state in a court of law, I side with the court.  I have, to date, been a supporter of capital punishment.  I am not sympathetic to the claims of innocence on the part of defendants.  Most of them seem to be appealing to our sense of compassion in order to escape justice.

The poster from the movie is now the cover of the book. The film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, and Emma Thompson, is also worth watching.

Given these prejudices, I found myself markedly challenged by Gerry Conlon’s book, In the Name of the Father.  The book documents Conlon’s personal story of false accusation, mistrial, and wrongful imprisonment for some 15 years in conjunction with an IRA pub bombing in England.  Conlon is not your typical hero; in fact, he’s not even a very good person, and he openly documents his failures in this book.  The end result is that his self-critical (but not cloying) honesty about this fact adds a certain credibility to the story he tells.  In these pages we have a curious anti-hero recounting a personal drama of Kafka-esque proportions.

His story witnesses to the fact that sometimes—and certainly in his case—the lumbering machinations of justice create rather than catch criminals.  In anger and fear at the increased terrorist activities of the IRA, the British justice system was under a great deal of social pressure to locate and prosecute the perpetrators.  Gerry Conlon, his friends, family, and particularly his father, were the unwitting victims of this hungry juggernaut for ‘justice’ of any kind.  He and his compatriots were accused, imprisoned, and then beaten into making confessions.  The prosecuting detectives manufactured their case to their liking, withheld critical information from the court, and acted in wholly improper ways.  Even some years later, when other, verifiable IRA bombers testified to the innocence of Conlon and his associates, they remained in prison—once the miscarriage of justice had been performed, the state would face shame and scrutiny for how they had behaved.  The truth would expose vast flaws in the justice system.

I highly recommend Conlon’s book, not because it is the best written of books, but rather because the story is so very compelling—it kept me turning pages till the end.  But the greatest virtue of Conlon’s book is perhaps its end effect, because it made me question my certitude on matters of civil justice.  As I said, as a rule I place my confidence in a system of law.  What In the Name of the Father has caused me to see is that the miscarriage of justice is real, and perhaps not infrequent.  Where I formerly was hasty to pronounce judgment on someone declared guilty by a court of law, now I am not so sure.  It has awoken a pity in me for those unfortunate enough to be in prison.  It has made me question the wisdom of capital punishment.

I am reminded of course that the human craving for justice is a divinely given craving—we want things to be right in the world because we are made in the image of a God who loves and longs for what is right.  But while we share in God’s desire for justice, we lack His perfect knowledge in its execution.  And there is an ever-present danger that in our zeal for justice we will see the crime more than the person; that in our haste we may create rather than catch criminals.  This, perhaps, is one of the reasons for our principle of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and for the process of justice done by a ‘jury of one’s peers.’  Because while we are given the right to judge (in a limited way), we will always be imperfect in our judgments.  And in all matters of justice, crime, and accusation, we must keep at the forefront of our minds our own, very human, judicial limitations.

And yet it remains true that every loophole of doubt created by the system will be exploited by entrepreneurial criminals.  Sin is pervasive; there really are, today, innocent people in prison who need to be released, and there are also guilty people who desire to ride the coattails of the innocent out of prison.  And while there are honest, justice loving prosecuting (and defense) attorneys, there are also mendacious, tricky, irresponsible, justice-negligent, for-hire attorneys; This side of eternity, justice is never quite as clear-cut as we might like to think it is.

Still, it very nearly (but not quite) goes without saying that because justice is imperfect doesn’t mean we should discard justice.  As G.K. Chesterton said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”—justice is worth doing, and the miscarriages of justice do not imply we should evacuate our prisons.  We have been entrusted with the ‘sword’ to maintain a measure of earthly justice, but that justice, Conlon reminds us, will always be tenuous, and perhaps therefore must always be executed with, if not a measure of uncertainty, then at the minimum extreme reverence and caution.

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