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The Law’s Delay

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Robert Green Ingersoll

THE object of a trial is not to convict — neither is it to acquit. The object is to ascertain the truth by legal testimony and in accordance with law.

In this country we give the accused the benefit of all reasonable doubts. We insist that his guilt shall be really established by competent testimony.

We also allow the accused to take exceptions to the rulings of the judge before whom he is tried, and to the verdict of the jury, and to have these exceptions passed upon by a higher court.

We also insist that he shall be tried by an impartial jury, and that before he can be found guilty all the jurors must unite in the verdict.

Some people, not on trial for any crime, object to our methods. They say that time is wasted in getting an impartial jury; that more time is wasted because appeals are allowed, and that by reason of insisting on a strict compliance with law in all respects, trials sometimes linger for years, and that in many instances the guilty escape.

No one, so far as I know, asks that men shall be tried by partial and prejudiced jurors, or that judges shall be allowed to disregard the law for the sake of securing convictions, or that verdicts shall be allowed to stand unsupported by sufficient legal evidence. Yet they talk as if they asked for these very things. We must remember that revenge is always in haste, and that justice can always afford to wait until the evidence is actually heard.

There should be no delay except that which is caused by taking the time to find the truth. Without such delay courts become mobs, before which, trials in a legal sense are impossible. It might be better, in a city like New York, to have the grand jury in almost perpetual session, so that a man charged with crime could be immediately indicted and immediately tried. So, the highest court to which appeals are taken should be in almost constant session, in order that all appeals might be quickly decided.

But we do not wish to take away the right of appeal. That right tends to civilize the trial judge, reduces to a minimum his arbitrary power, puts his hatreds and passions in the keeping and control of his intelligence. That right of appeal has an excellent effect on the jury, because they know that their verdict may not be the last word. The appeal, where the accused is guilty, does not take the sword from the State, but it is a shield for the innocent.

In England there is no appeal. The trials are shorter, the judges more arbitrary, the juries subservient, and the verdict often depends on the prejudice of the judge. The judge knows that he has the last guess — that he cannot be reviewed — and in the passion often engendered by the conflict of trial he acts much like a wild beast.

The case of Mrs. Maybrick is exactly in point, and shows how dangerous it is to clothe the trial judge with supreme power.

Without doubt there is in this country too much delay, and this, it seems to me, can be avoided without putting the life or liberty of innocent persons in peril. Take only such time as may be necessary to give the accused a fair trial, before an impartial jury, under and in accordance with the established forms of law, and to allow an appeal to the highest court.

The State in which a criminal cannot have an impartial trial is not civilized. People who demand the conviction of the accused without regard to the forms of law are savages.

But there is another side to this question. Many people are losing confidence in the idea that punishment reforms the convict, or that capital punishment materially decreases capital crimes.

My own opinion is that ordinary criminals should, if possible, be reformed, and that murderers and desperate wretches should be imprisoned for life. I am inclined to believe that our prisons make more criminals than they reform; that places like the Reformatory at Elmira plant and cultivate the seeds of crime.

The State should never seek revenge; neither should it put in peril the life or liberty of the accused for the sake of a hasty trial, or by the denial of appeal.

In my judgment, defective as our criminal courts and methods are, they are far better than the English.

Our judges are kinder, more humane; our juries nearer independent, and our methods better calculated to ascertain the truth.

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