‘You know, I am sure, that it is a great principle of English law that every accused person is held to be innocent unless and until he is proved otherwise. It is not necessary for him, or her, to prove innocence; it is, in the modern slang phrase, “up to” the Crown to prove guilt, and unless you are quite satisfied that the Crown has done this beyond all reasonable doubt, it is your job to return a verdict of “Not guilty”. That does not necessarily mean that the prisoner has established her innocence by proof; it simply means that the Crown has failed to produce in your minds an undoubted conviction of her guilt.’
This little gem comes from the first few pages of ‘Strong Poison’ by Dorothy L Sayers. A judge is summing up the case against Harriet Vane, celebrated mystery writer, who stands accused of murdering her partner Philip Boyes, with arsenic. Most of the first chapter of ‘Strong Poison’ is taken up by this lengthy summation and it is full of the same kind of little, directive hints to the jury that can be found in the paragraph above. He begins by using the universal 1
male pronoun in his explanation of reasonable doubt, but eventually slips into using the female pronoun. When he starts making this point, he is providing a purely theoretical explanation about the missing link between reasonable doubt and innocence, but he ends by relating this rule directly to the case in front of the jury. His attempt to direct the jury towards a guilty verdict is quite slimily skilful.
Let me highlight another portion of his speech:
‘Now you may feel, and quite properly, that this was a very wrong thing to do. You may, after making all allowances for this young woman’s unprotected position, still feel that she was a person of unstable moral character. You will not be led away by the false glamour which certain writers contrive to throw about “free love” into thinking that this was anything but a vulgar act of misbehaviour.’
This pointed comment about Harriet’s morality, comes just after he reminds the jury that Harriet Vane lived with Philip Boyes outside of wedlock. This fact is irrelevant to the case: wives aren’t immune to murderous impulses and as the judge eventually admits the jury must not give too much weight to the idea that ‘one step on the path to wrong-doing makes the next one easier’. However, the simple fact that he spends so much time dwelling on what he sees as the immorality of Harriet’s decision to live with a man, who wasn’t her husband, when it has no factual bearing on the case, is extremely illuminating. The prejudices that existed against unmarried, sexually active young women in the 1920s are clearly marked out by the inclusion of this paragraph.
The judge is a little blunt when he makes these statements about Harriet’s moral character, but he attempts to advance his agenda with more subtlety in other portions of his speech. He carefully reiterates all the factors in the case that seem to cast doubt on Harriet’s guilt, with a view to emphasising how easily these areas of the case for the defence may be dismissed. The reader learns that Boyes had offered to marry Harriet before his death, a fact which the defence seems to have used to argue that there was no cause for antagonism between the pair. Oh, says the judge after he reminds the jury of this fact, ‘It would be natural for you to think this proposal of marriage takes away any suggestion that the prisoner had a cause of grievance against Boyes’2
... He is always very careful to ruminate on the problems with the defence’s theories at length. In all fairness to him, he also discusses the inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case, but the weight of his speech seems to be made up of a strenuous take down of Harriet’s character and defence.
As he follows up his explanation of why the natural supposition that marriage mends all problems, might be incorrect in this case, he encourages the jury to empathise with Harriet, in a move which seems designed to cloak his biased guidance in an appearance of sympathetic fairness. He encourages the jury to ‘put yourself in her place and understand her point of view’. He’s quick to add a sneaky ‘if you can’ to that request, just to remind the jury how hard that will be for any upstanding citizen, as Harriet’s views must appear far from normal to anyone of good character. He quietly encourages the jury to remain distant from Harriet, by reminding them how other she is from them and how little they should want to be able to empathise with her, even while outwardly directing them to do just the opposite. Despite despising the intent behind such an argument, I’ve got to admit it is neatly crafted and well designed by the judge to persuade jurors who may share the same moral outlook as he does.
Despite the judge’s clear bias against the young woman in the dock and her chosen lifestyle, the way this piece of extended rhetoric is written absolutely charmed me and made me plunge through ‘Strong Poison’ in a matter of days. Why did I like this speech quite so much, considering that Sayers judge is clearly trying to persuade the jury that immoral, book writing Harriet would look so much more decorative at the end of a rope? Well, firstly I was impressed that Sayers had found a plausible way to feed the reader all the details of Harriet’s case quickly and efficiently, as well as many details of her background. After reading other writers try to include large amounts of necessary exposition, I’m aware that it takes a real grasp of craft to keep all the information the reader needs to have from toppling out in an unnatural, stilted manner.
What I like the most though is Sayers masterfully creation of a judge with realistic mainstream views for the period, who uses his knowledge of people and rhetoric to his own advantage, who she then uses to sabotage himself. The man practically draws big red circles around his bias and the flimsy areas of the prosecution’s case, so that the reader can easily sift through the case themselves and examine the evidence and the prejudice, without having to rely on one character’s interpretation. Even without the critical asides from other characters, like Salcombe Hardy, a journalist covering the trail, who writes a note to his colleague saying ‘Judge hostile.’, the reader is provided with all the context they need to interrogate how impartial this judge actually is and how sound of the case may really be, once you get past his own socially influenced spin on events. Whether the reader chooses to use what this speech gives them in order to construe the case in a way that establishes Harriet as a wronged woman who has been accused of murder purely because of circumstantial evidence, may still depend on their own moral code, but the reading is there to be had.
As I followed Lord Peter Wimsey around town on his mission to clear Harriet’s name, there was always a little voice in the back of my head reminding me about this judge’s unfair, biased presentation of the case. If ever I found myself doubting Harriet, or drifting into lazy thinking about the reasons a woman might kill, I was reminded of just how flimsy the case was against her, just how much of a part societal biases played in establishing her as a suspect and I renewed my faith in her innocence. I remembered that while crimes of passion do happen and a lovers tiff provides an apparently compelling motive for murder, the most important thing in a legal case against that lover should be cold, hard evidence. What an appropriate lesson to take from one of the queens of the detective genre.
I’ve spent quite a long time talking about those first pages (sorry seem to be making a bit of a habit of that at the moment) and this seems like a comfortable place to stop, but there’s so much more I want to talk about. Shall we meet again next week for more on my feelings about ‘Strong Poison’?1
Imagine me rolling my eyes like a cow here.2
Of course every girl is just so happy to be able to throw her bouquet finally!Part Two