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Tag Archives: trials
March 19, 2011 – 4:12 pm
Poetry and law may seem to some as incommensurable as dancing and architecture. Not so, according to M. NourbeSe Philip: “Law and poetry both share an inexorable concern with language⎯the “right” use of the “right” words, phrases, or even marks of punctuation; precision of expression is the goal shared by both.” But language may be used to very different ends in each realm: “The law uses language as a tool for ordering; in the instant case, however, I want poetry to disassemble the ordered, to create disorder and mayhem so as to release the story that cannot be told, but which, through not-telling, will tell itself.”
The story that cannot be told, the subject of Philip’s most recent collection of poems, is that of the Zong massacre. In September 1781, the slave ship Zong set sail from the east coast of Africa bound for Jamaica under the stewardship of Captain Luke Collingwood. The “cargo” consisted of 470 Africans. The voyage should have taken six to nine weeks but, due to navigational errors, stretched into four months. By the end of November, sixty Africans had died “for want of water for sustenance,” and forty more had thrown themselves into the sea “through thirst and frenzy thereby occasioned.” A further 150 Africans were then flung into the sea to their deaths on the orders of the Captain who believed that if they died on board by “natural causes,” the owners would have to bear the loss, whereas if they died by drowning, the loss would be covered by the owners’ insurance policy as attributable to “the perils of the sea.”
Back home in England, a famous case resulted: Gregson v. Gilbert. It was not a murder trial, since the Africans who had been killed were regarded as chattels not as human beings, but rather a legal dispute that turned on the finer points of insurance law. The insurers refused to pay the owners’ claim, and the owners challenged that refusal in court. The owners won in the initial trial, but the jury’s decision was overturned on appeal by the Court of King’s Bench.
Philip describes that King’s Bench decision, the only part of the litigation to make its way into the law reports, as “the tombstone, the one public marker of the murder of those Africans on board the Zong,” and she opts to limit herself to that text, using it as “a word store” for the composition of her book-length sequence of poems. She literally deconstructs the decision, pulling apart the words with which it is composed, then rearranging them to construct her own text. Through the alchemy of poetry, she also thereby reconstructs the African passengers, so present aboard the ship, yet peculiarly absent from the legal decision. “In Zong!,” Philip writes, “the African, transformed into a thing by the law, is re-transformed, miraculously, back into human.”
These are poems in which the placement of the words on the page is as important as the meaning that those words convey. In the early poems, the words are spread thinly across the page, the spaces making visible the absence of African bodies and voices. But as the sequence continues, the poems become denser and denser, the words tumbling over one another, sometimes scoring one another out. The effect is disorienting, disturbing, and, ultimately, extremely powerful.
I recommend reading the book at least twice, the first time approaching the poems fresh, taking them on their own terms. Then again after having read the material appended at the end (Philip’s essay on the writing of the book, from which I’ve quoted above, and a copy of the Gregson v. Gilbert decision) to more fully appreciate how Philip has illuminated injustice by making poetry out of law.
March 5, 2011 – 4:14 pm
A couple of months ago, when I tweeted a link to an article in the Observer that heralded “a new wave of Italian crime writers,” I quickly received a flurry of replies insisting that, of the writers mentioned therein, Gianrico Carofiglio was the one whose work I must sample without delay. One of my correspondents went so far as to dub Guido Guerrieri, the character at the centre of Carofiglio’s series of legal thrillers, “an Italian Philip Marlowe.”
Intrigued as I was by this description, it initially struck me as unlikely, given how thoroughly a product of 1930s and 40s Los Angeles Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe seems to me to be. But even if Marlowe is rooted in his time and place, noir certainly travels. The success of Akashic Books’ marvelous noir anthologies which serve up hardboiled crime stories from every corner of the globe amply demonstrates that point. It was undoubtedly the noir quality of Carofiglio’s books which my correspondent was lauding and, having now read Involuntary Witness, the first book featuring world-weary criminal defense lawyer Guido Guerrieri, I can echo the recommendation of him as a most intriguing noir antihero.
At the beginning of the book, Guerrieri’s wife leaves him and, despite the fact that he hadn’t seemed particularly invested in his marriage, this provokes something of a breakdown. It’s an existential crisis. Guerrieri hasn’t lost his life’s purpose so much as the illusion that he had a purpose in life. Work provides no counter-balance to his unraveling personal life for, there too, he realizes he has long been deluding himself. He had not become a lawyer out of a passion for justice as he had sometimes tried to convince himself. Rather, he “had become a lawyer by sheer chance, because [he] had found nothing better to do or wasn’t up to looking for it.” He had just been marking time in practice, “waiting for [his] ideas to clarify.” His wife’s departure brings a now unwelcome clarity: “Then the lid blew off and from the pan emerged a lot of things I had never imagined and didn’t want to see. That no one would want to see.”
But in the end, it is his work as a lawyer that brings him back to himself and into the world, when he is engaged to defend Abdou Thiam, a 31-year-old Senegalese pedlar who has been charged with the murder of a 9-year-old Italian boy. Thiam had been seen speaking to the boy on the beach on a number of occasions, and has been found to have a photo of him as well as some children’s books among his possessions. A bar owner has said that he witnessed Thiam walking towards the boy’s grandparents’ home on the day in question, and one of his fellow pedlars has said that he saw Thiam washing his car the day after. This tissue of circumstantial evidence, through the lens of the racism of witnesses, police, lawyers, and judges, is thought to add up to an airtight case. Guerrieri has no faith in his capacity to counter it, and initially advises Thiam to opt for “the shortened procedure” which would rule out an acquittal but perhaps lead to something less than a life sentence. But Thiam protests his innocence and wants to fight for an acquittal. Guerrieri’s growing belief in and sense of responsibility to his client, and the challenge of the trial gradually bring him back to life.
This is not a mystery novel. No attempt is made to get to the bottom of the question of who committed the murder. All of the suspense relates to the outcome of the trial. Following the process from beginning to end offers some fascinating glimpses into the Italian legal system. (The author served for many years as an anti-mafia prosecutor in Bari, the same southern Italian city in which the novel is set, so I’m confident that the depiction of the operation of Italian criminal law is an accurate one.) One facet of the novel that I particularly appreciated that Carofiglio has in common with some of my favourite Scandanavian crime writers is that he eschews the Hollywood version in favour of what seems a more realistic portrayal of the progress of a case through the justice system, adeptly conveying its plodding pace and bureaucratic nature without thereby producing a plodding read.
I was quickly caught up in Guerrieri’s life, and in Thiam’s fate, and found Involuntary Witness overall to be an always interesting, sometimes riveting, and ultimately very satisfying read. Carofiglio has written four novels featuring Guerrieri as the central character, three of which have so far been published in English translation, with the final one due out later this year. I am very much looking forward to continuing on to read the rest.
February 12, 2011 – 2:58 pm
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending a launch for my colleague Allan Hutchinson’s new book, Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How they Shaped the World.
In the book, Hutchinson tells the stories behind, and assesses the legacies of, eight well-known cases from across the common law world. Well-known, that is, to law students, law professors, and lawyers. But the book is intended to have a broader appeal. By setting each case in social and political context, and focusing on character and incident rather than on legal doctrine, Hutchinson seeks to put a human face on law, and to convey the “evanescent, dynamic, messy, productive, tantalizing, and bottom-up” character of the common law.
Having now read a couple of chapters, I have no doubt that the book will be embraced by a non-legal audience. These are great stories, told in a compelling and accessible style. But it’s also illuminating reading for those of us already fully steeped in law, as most of us will have encountered these cases before only in diminished form. Here Hutchinson restores the richness that is routinely stripped away as cases make their way through the courts, and into law reports and casebooks.
Every year I offer my first year torts students a brief introduction to the field of law and literature in a session titled “A Closer Look at the Facts.” We look beyond the facts articulated in a judgment to demonstrate that they’re not simply an objective account of the relevant evidence, but rather a narrative carefully crafted to support a particular legal resolution. Then we broaden our lens still further to discuss the layers of storytelling that precede the courtroom and continue on after the issuing of the judgment.
Hutchinson’s Is Eating People Wrong? promises not just an interesting and entertaining read, but also some excellent new material for that exercise. I skipped straight from the introduction to the chapter on Donoghue v. Stevenson, and I can tell you that I will most definitely be integrating it into my next torts syllabus. Now, on to Roncarelli v. Duplessis and Hadley v. Baxendale…
February 5, 2011 – 4:05 pm
In January 1844, Charles Dickens launched a copyright suit in the Court of Chancery against printers and publishers Richard Egan Lee and John Haddock.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had been published on December 19, 1843, and not quite three weeks later, on January 6th, Lee & Haddock’s version, “re-originated” by Henry Hewitt, had appeared for sale under the title A Christmas Ghost Story. An outraged Dickens instructed his solicitor to “stop the Vagabonds” at once. Over a whirlwind three days, his bill of complaint was filed, and an interim injunction sought and obtained.
Dickens was known to be an advocate of copyright, having caused quite a stir during his 1842 visit to the U.S. with speeches agitating for an international agreement. But despite having been a frequent victim of domestic piracy, he had never before taken legal action to enforce the copyright protection available to him at home.
Why, then, did he act with such alacrity in January 1844? Perhaps because his hopes for A Christmas Carol were so high. Dickens had attained enormous success by this time, but his fortunes appeared to be on the wane. Critics had not been enthusiastic about his most recent books, and sales had dropped so precipitously that his publishers were poised to invoke a contractual clause that entitled them to reduce their payments to him accordingly. Indeed, their faith in the marketability of his work had soured to the extent that they rejected A Christmas Carol. Dickens had to self-publish, taking all of the responsibility and the risks upon himself. But he did not hesitate to do so, so convinced was he that the book would revive his critical status and earn him a quick profit as well.
Dickens’ confidence proved well founded. The reviews were raves; even William Thackeray, usually his harshest critic, had nothing negative to say, pronouncing A Christmas Carol to be “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” The book went through three printings in two weeks, with 15,000 copies sold in that space of time ⎯extraordinary numbers given the steep price of 5 shillings charged for each lavishly produced volume. But that lavishness, particularly the inclusion of colour plates, rendered the profit margin very slim, so runaway success though it was, many more copies would have to be sold before Dickens could pocket the “thousand pounds clear” on which he had set his heart.
Thus Dickens’ concern over the potential undercutting of sales by Lee & Haddock’s penny edition was understandable. But if bringing suit against them was initially a business decision, the affidavits they filed in support of their motion to dissolve the interim injunction transformed it into a matter of personal honour.
Lee & Haddock maintained that A Christmas Ghost Story was not simply a copy of A Christmas Carol, but a considerable improvement upon it, and hence an original work. Henry Hewitt had, it was averred, “tastefully remedied” the “defects and inconsistencies” in Dickens’ work, and supplemented it with “a more artistical style of expression” and “large original additions.” For example, Lee pointed out, where Dickens had made only a brief mention of Tiny Tim singing a song about a child lost in the snow, Hewitt had penned an original song of sixty lines that was “replete with pathos and poetry.” They went further to allege that Dickens was in fact indebted to Hewitt, having obtained “the germs of many of his works” from the “hints” and “criticisms” contained in Hewitt’s earlier re-originations of The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, both also procured, published and sold by Lee & Haddock. Finally, Hewitt himself claimed that Dickens owed more “to the works of an author named Washington Irving for the material of his Christmas Carol” than Hewitt did to Dickens for his Christmas Ghost Story.
Judge Knight Bruce, before whom the motion to dissolve the interim injunction was heard on January 18th, was not convinced. He opined: “The defendant has printed and published a novel, of which the fable, the persons, the names of persons, the characters, the age and time, and scene and country, are wholly the same. The style of language in which the story is told is in some instances identical, and in all similar.” He concluded that, in his view, the defendants’ publication was “plainly colourable,” and, on that basis, he upheld the injunction.
Dickens was ebullient, declaring: “The pirates are beaten flat. They are bruised, bloody, battered, smashed, squelched, and utterly undone.” Of course, these were only preliminary motions. For a final resolution from the courts, Dickens would have to bring the matter to trial. But given the decisiveness of the judge’s rejection of the defendants’ arguments, Dickens suspected that a trial would not be necessary, and so it proved. After some hedging, the defendants accepted Dickens’ terms, agreeing to apologize for their affidavits and to pay all of Dickens’ costs.
Alas for Dickens, it did not end there. Lee & Haddock promptly declared bankruptcy, thereby evading their obligation to pay his costs and leaving him on the hook for a substantial sum. In the end, Dickens’ costs swallowed nearly all the profits that A Christmas Carol had generated, leaving him feeling much scarred by the experience. Some years later, when it was suggested that he take action against another instance of piracy, Dickens recalled “the expense, and anxiety and horrible injustice of the Carol case,” and declined to proceed. He concluded that “it is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.”
If Dickens obtained neither justice nor financial recompense from his foray into the Court of Chancery, the experience did provide direct inspiration for one of his finest novels, Bleak House. For that, I can’t help but think it was worth every bit of “the mental trouble and disturbance” he had to endure.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).
E.T. Jaques, Charles Dickens in Chancery (1914).
Kathleen Tillotson, ed., The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 4 1844-1846 (1977).
* The above illustration is The Court of Chancery, drawn by Augustus Charles Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11).