The assault was truly shocking and it was carried out with utter callousness and viciousness, leaving the victim maimed and traumatized, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. It was well publicized for the victim was well-known and much respected. And then a suspect was identified, interviewed and charged. He is now in the dock of the criminal court, looking forlorn and dishevelled, despite his suit and tie.
The public commentators have already pronounced him guilty, as if they had special knowledge of the case and were of course empowered to pronounce on the guilt or innocence of those charged with serious offences, before any evidence had been led in court and of course, tested by cross-examination.
The reading, watching and listening public may be relieved that someone had been charged with this awful assault, and may be willing the prosecution on to prove the guilt of the accused. Their blood is up and the desire for vengeance, even if they had no connection with either the victim or the accused, is palpable.
This is a simple summary of some of the more lurid court cases which occupy a major part of our print and broadcast media. But my question is about how we approach these matters. Do we really believe in the presumption of innocence, and the requirement that the prosecution prove its case beyond reasonable doubt? Or will we rubbish the right of the accused person to a defence? More than that, do we want the accused person to be found guilty, regardless of the evidence led against him or of his right to have that evidence probed and tested? Is this a question of ‘He would not be here if he were not guilty’ and so it should be up to him to prove his innocence? Would we also allow him the equal protection of the laws of evidence and procedure, and thus entitled to their scrupulous observance and application without being dismissed as ‘technicalities’?
Above all, what do we really hope for? Do we want this man to have committed the assault anyway – or might we hope, secretly – that he is not that crazed fiend portrayed by the media and did not commit this assault? It is one thing to put away one who has been proved beyond reasonable doubt to have committed an offence once all the rules of court, evidence and procedure have been met. But it is something wholly different to find one who is possibly awkward, who does not express himself well, who does not come across well or generate any kind of natural sympathy and then to project onto him the sins of the city like some kind of scapegoat enduring a form of civic mob-justice.
Jesus had said, ‘Judge not that you be not judged, for what judgment you judge, you will be judged.’ (Matt 7: 1) It is one thing to judge on the basis of established and tested evidence – but it is something quite different to judge on the basis of raw emotion and the desire for vengeance, if not blood-lust. That is why we have courts of law and not vigilante or mob-justice. But there is something else, for Paul words about love say that love suffers long and does not rejoice in iniquity but in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never fails, and is the greatest of the trio of faith, hope and love. (1 Cor 13: 4-13)
If we despise an acquittal of an accused man on the basis of a failure of evidence or procedure, and call it a ‘technicality’ then we despise all forms of justice and all rules of law. We become part of that baying mob seeking satisfaction and whether the accused was really innocent or guilty should not obstruct that demand for blood and revenge. This can only be a foundation of a savage and ignorant society going down to its own destruction.
Sombre thoughts on a sombre subject.