The public has an enormous interest in trials for, I believe, the following reason: they are microscopic illustrations of what most people think are timeless cosmic forces at work. Thus trials hold a certain morbid fascination for us, especially in the west—the global west, that is, the cultures strongly influenced by the tenets of Christianity. Most religions, however well they
function as sources of personal strength in times of stress, fail miserably as cosmologies. Species, individuals, ideas, rumors, innovations, societies, planets, stars, and galactic systems all evolve, degenerate, and change progressively. These changes are irreversible and largely unexpected. In most cases we construct the future rather than predict it. In all instances, the evolutionary end point is death. Species become extinct, stars grow cold, ideas and rumors eventually dissipate, new technological discoveries get replaced by still newer ones, and human beings die. But Christianity claims we do not die, and the more fundamentalist sects declare that sinners and non-believers spend eternity in a place called “Hell.”
I have this picture of a human spirit appearing at the gates to Heaven, being judged, then either admitted or sent to Hell. Such images are, I think, the source of our fascination with criminal proceedings. All of the basic elements of Christianity—origin, sin, judgment, fate—are compressed, metaphorically, in a trial, especially when the defendant is accused of violating one of the Ten Commandments. These are not really cynical comments, just Jack Blake's interpretation of certain aspects of his profession and the public’s view of it.
A trial, however, is as much an evolutionary event as the appearance of a new species. So its progress must be built, made from existing and manifested occurrences, rather than predicted, no less than a work of art, or literature, must be built. You cannot always know in advance what raw materials a witness will provide, or how much of your laboriously constructed edifice will be destroyed by testimony you cannot—let us say, are not prepared at the moment to—refute. Thus Eleanor Haddock becomes a problem. She not only saw Stanley walk away from the church a few moments before the explosions, she also saw him install the dynamite and hook up the wiring. Or so she claims. None of these claims are, of course, true.
Single witness incrimination in the absence of corroborative evidence is a problem for juries as well as for defenses. Technically: single witnesses don’t fulfill the criterion of beyond all reasonable doubt. What they do accomplish within the artistic medium known as “courtroom” however, is to legitimatize massive amounts of circumstantial evidence. Suddenly coincidence is explained so becomes fact, instead of conjecture, in the mind of a juror. Prosecution and defense alike, all bound by legal, ethical, and judicial constraints, are nevertheless free to try to convince a sample of the electorate that the plausible is indeed true. Or, conversely, that the implausible is true, or, I suppose, that the truth is implausible. But even a single witness can play havoc with the best made plans of defense attorneys.
During direct, led by Shivvers, I struggle to keep a straight face. Periodically I glance over at Stanley; for the first time since we met that interested day decades ago in the Fillmore County courthouse, he seems to be paying attention to something other than himself. His eyebrows are drawn together by his squint; his lips are tight; his head is cocked, almost as if he’s a little hard of hearing in one ear. Of all the people in the world who might have been the one who is supposed to have seen Stanley walk away from the Cathedral that night, Eleanor Haddock is the most unlikely. Upon cross examination, I learn why she has survived all these years: she’s a superb actress. She also knows my client well enough, and me too, that she’s confident I will not call him to the stand to testify in his own defense. But Eleanor Haddock on the stand, as a prosecution witness, changes everything. Suddenly, Stanley on the stand is starting to look like a real possibility. I strain to keep from smiling.
“What is your current address, Ms. Haddock?” I begin cross examination innocently enough.
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