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Law and Justice

cates trial drummond brady

The vagaries of law have often been the subject of modern drama. Whether a play offers an analysis of a case from differing viewpoints, highlights ethical dilemmas created by clashes between moral and legal law, or explores the actual process of a case, legal dramas inevitably engage the audience’s judgment, alongside that of the judge and jury, and provide excitement, even if they do not always end with justice being done. Law and justice are clearly not synonymous in the eyes of most playwrights, and yet the idea of law, when performed responsibly and compassionately, continues to inspire.


The lengthy tribunals of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, known as HUAC, during the 1950s, has also inspired many modern dramatists to explore both the moral and legal aspects of such “show trials,” along with how they get started and how they affect the public. Two of the plays discussed here have connections to HUAC, which subpoenaed people to prove that they had no connection to communism. Those who were subpoenaed often lost their livelihoods as a result (regardless of guilt or innocence). Echoes of this period in American history resound in numerous other dramatic works.


Inherit the Wind , by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, concentrates our attention on the lawyers and the way in which a case is handled in open court. The title is taken from Proverbs 11:29: “He that troubleth his own house/Shall inherit the wind,” indicating the playwrights’ sympathy with the defendant. The play is based on a real trial that took place in the 1920s in Dayton, Tennessee, commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a schoolteacher was charged with introducing Darwin in the classroom against the wishes of the school board. A few lines have been taken from those original court transcripts, but the play does not seek to offer a true historical account. Instead, it tries to draw a connection between that earlier trial and the HUAC hearings   to gain a clearer view of the philosophy and impetus behind those hearings, with their similar agenda to restrict free thought in a nation supposedly founded on such freedoms.


Arthur Miller’s The Crucible tells the story behind the Salem witch trials of 1692, centering our attention on the repercussions these trials had on the Proctor family as well as making an analogous critical commentary on the actions of HUAC. The printed play contains extensive notes detailing the historical background of Salem society in the 1690s and detailed facts regarding the actual lives of the main characters involved. Miller wanted his critics to know that he had not made up these events, but that people really allowed such things to occur, although he does not intend the play to replace historical record, for it is a dramatization and not a retelling.


Miller initially resisted the idea of depicting the HUAC hearings in the form of an old-fashioned witch trial as too obvious. However, as the HUAC hearings grew more ritualistic and cruelly pointless, he could no longer resist, despite the obvious risks, for the parallels were far too apt to ignore. He saw how both sets of hearings had a definite structure behind them, designed to make people publicly confess. In both cases, the “judges” knew in advance all the information for which they asked. The main difference was that Salem’s hearings had a greater legal force, as it was against the law in America to be a witch in the seventeenth century, but it was not against the law to be a communist in the twentieth century. Miller does not attempt a one-to-one analogy between his characters and those involved in HUAC because that would have made the play too tied to its time. The reason the play has remained so popular is that it offers more than a simple history lesson about either the original 1629 Salem witch trials or about HUAC—what Miller explores are the prevailing conditions that cause such events.


In The Crucible , Miller draws our attention to the process and the ways in which the law, when used for political and private ends, can destroy the lives of others. We never actually step inside the courtroom as the site of the play’s action, but hear secondhand what goes on and see how it affects the lives of everyone in Salem. Miller is concerned with the tension people experience between conscience and their predilection toward selfishness, and the inevitable moral consequences of allowing the latter an upper hand. The Crucible exposes the extent to which many people use troubled times, such as those that gave rise to the witch trials, to pursue selfish ends. In contrast to these types, Miller elevates and celebrates people of individual conscience, such as the Nurses and the Proctors, who refuse to do this.


Originally a television play, though since adapted for the stage, Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men takes us into the minds of a jury who are serving on a first-degree murder trial. It allows us to follow the process by which they examine the evidence given during that trial to discover, by uncovering reasonable doubt, that they must acquit the defendant. Although the jurors are never named, each one is a distinct personality, and Rose gives us a grandstand view into how their personalities and prejudices affect their judgment of the case. We are also reminded of the heavy responsibility jurors face, and the need for them to respect this responsibility if they are to uphold America’s potentially egalitarian judicial system.


Set in a generic small country township, Inherit the Wind relates the trial of Bert Cates, brought up on charges for attempting to teach his students about evolution. A relatively minor case becomes a media event because of the principles involved and the two big-name lawyers called in to prosecute and defend. The prosecutor, Matthew Brady, argues that creationism is the only explanation for the world and to deny this, as science does, is sinful. The defense attorney, Henry Drummond, turns the case into an argument about free speech. Both understand that this is a landmark case that will influence the education of future generations. The minister’s daughter, Rachel, who loves Cates, pleads with him to apologize, but after hearing her own father damning Cates to hell and then turning on her for objecting, decides to support Cates in his quest for knowledge. Cates is found unanimously guilty by the court but it is a pyrrhic victory for the prosecution, because Cates is only given a minimal fine, will most likely win on appeal to the Supreme Court, and has brought sufficient national attention to the archaic law that he broke for it to be struck down. Brady dies of a heart attack soon after the verdict, a broken man whose popularity has clearly passed.


Beginning with the town’s children, the playwrights want us to realize from the start how little harmed a boy like Howard has been by knowledge of evolution. Later, Drummond points out that knowledge of Darwin has not made Howard forget his ten commandments, just as there being no tractors or telephones in the Bible does not make him view them as sinful. But these old-fashioned townsfolk are mostly creationists, and it is the town itself that is on trial for backward thinking. These people are so staid that they are horrified by Drummond’s bright-purple suspenders. The head of the religious community is Reverend Brown, whose belief in the literal word of the Bible leads him to damn his own daughter, showing how far such overzealousness can go.


Cates is partly a target because he has stopped attending church, put off by Brown’s insistence that a young child who recently died would writhe in hell-fire because he had not been baptized. Brady unfairly twists the evidence against Cates by interpreting his private musings to his girlfriend about the relationship of God and Man into a declaration that God does not exist. It is up to Drummond to try to prove that it is possible to believe in the Bible and science simultaneously, as one does not necessarily negate the other. At the close, Drummond significantly leaves with copies of both Darwin and the Bible in his briefcase, indicating his ability to do this.


Brady has come not to prosecute Cates so much as to defend the state statute against teaching evolution, and so defend “the Living Truth of the Scriptures” (25). He views this as a fight to maintain people’s belief in the Bible and God.   So that we are in no doubt that this is a real battle, on his arrival the townspeople confer on Brady the honorary title of Colonel in the State Militia. Brown shows his support for Brady with a banner over the courthouse stating, “Read Your Bible,” and a prayer meeting on the courthouse lawn during the trial. Drummond naturally objects that these are unfairly prejudicial, and they should at least give equal time and publicity to Darwin, but the judge dismisses this as preposterous. With the same apparent prejudice, the judge also accepts Brady’s objection that all of Drummond’s scientific witnesses—there to prove the reality of evolution—are “Irrelevant, immaterial, inadmissible” (101). But the truth is, technically, he is right, for the state law does not allow such views to be spoken, regardless of whether they are correct or false.


The trial itself is a direct contest between Brady and Drummond: both criticize everything the other says and does to try to find an opening, like two prizefighters sparring. Both play to the crowd, have specific pre-formed outlooks, and are excellent public speakers. It becomes an issue of credibility: which of these two is the jury more likely to believe, for the focus is now on the lawyers rather than the defendant. Drummond respects Brady, but knows he is living in the past, so is ruthless against him in court. After his death, he defends him against the sarcastic journalist, Hornbeck, pointing out that Brady had the same rights as Cates to believe whatever he wanted.


Drummond is a known agnostic, with a reputation for defending even the knowingly guilty and freeing them by exposing inequities in the laws they have broken. Brady warns, “He’ll try to make us forget the lawbreaker and put the law on trial” (36). What Drummond insists is that the trial be about “the right to think” (88), thus setting personal liberty against the laws of the land. As he points out during the trial, if God had not wanted humankind to think, then He would not have given us the power to do so. Since he is not allowed to bring Darwin into the court, in a masterly cross-examination Drummond puts Brady and the Bible on trial. By pointing to some of the incredible occurrences and plain inconsistencies in the Bible, Drummond weakens the creationist argument and catches Brady in uncertainty.


Brady is overweight and this is partly what kills him in the end, but it is a symbol of his overindulgence in everything, including his own opinion at the expense of others. He is so wrapped up in his own importance that it is he who finally proves the ridiculous limitations of the law Cates has broken by allowing Drummond to trick him into telling the open court that he personally speaks with God and then contradicting himself by declaring that “each man is a free agent” (125), to which Drummond can ask, then why is Cates in jail?


Bert Cates has undeniably broken the law, which is why he must be found guilty, but the law is shown to be unjust. Our sympathy for Cates is automatic; he is not grandstanding or trying to cause trouble but is a very meek and ordinary man, in both looks and intellect. The jailer does not even want to keep him locked in his cell. Cates simply feels that it is ridiculous not to say what he knows to be a scientific truth. Although he almost gives in to pressure, with Drummond’s support, he decides to see it through. Cates pays a price for his stance: he loses his job and lodgings, and his life will be hard. But as Drummond points out, Cates has made it easier for the next person to stand up for what he believes, so he has done justice a good turn. Cates is also rewarded by the love of Rachel, who leaves her father, reads Darwin, and intends to stick by him in the future.


The Crucible begins with the apparent bewitchment of the Reverend Parris’s daughter. Pressured by Thomas Putnam and rumors of the local girls doing something elicit in the woods, Parris has called in Reverend Hale to look for witches. Salem soon fills with tension as the girls accuse numerous townspeople of witchery and the judges start hanging many of those accused. John Proctor tries to bring people to their senses, but Abigail Williams, one of the girls with whom Proctor had had an earlier affair, tries to free John for herself by accusing his wife Elizabeth of witchcraft, and then John himself when John turns against Abigail. His only way out is to confess to witchcraft, which in all good conscience he decides he cannot do.


Although the original John Proctor was a minor figure in the Salem witch trials, Miller’s Proctor becomes the central protagonist of The Crucible . He faces the dilemma of the innocent person who must falsely confess to a crime in order to save his own life. He considers telling this lie because he feels guilty over an adulterous affair for which he has not been punished. In sleeping with Abigail he committed a sin against his own standards of decent conduct, and when Hale suggests that the town is being punished for some secret “abomination,” Proctor takes this to heart. He realizes, too, that were it not for his former relationship with Abigail, his wife would not be in danger. When Elizabeth effectively absolves him of his guilt in their final meeting, confessing her own past coldness and declaring her faith in his judgment, Proctor can reject the temptation to lie and die with honor.


Proctor’s refusal to go along with the confession indicates his awareness that he has a responsibility to himself and his community, and his conviction that he would rather hang than participate in the false judgment of either. Through Proctor and the others who die with him, Miller wishes to show the heroism of these victims in order to lead us to recognize and celebrate such personal integrity. It will come as no surprise that when called before HUAC three years later, Miller, just like his hero John Proctor, refused to name names and accepted the consequences of his refusal.


Reverend John Hale, who initiates the prosecution, begins the play a conceited figure, seeing himself as a superior intellect to these villagers, happily determined to uncover their evil spirits; but events conspire to make him reassess his thinking. Initially, he lets his fascination with devils and witchcraft overwhelm the evidence of his senses, and he allows this to continue past the point when he can stop what he has set in motion. His questioning comes too   late, but it helps to expose the closed, logical system of the judges when one of their number turns so strongly against them.


Judge Hathorne is described as a “bitter, remorseless” man, and he is certainly more concerned with his own power than he is with uncovering the truth. His refusal to even listen to others makes him contemptible, but Deputy Governor Danforth is worse. Although he listens to counterarguments, it is not with an open mind, and when he finally hangs the condemned—even with full knowledge of their innocence—he tries to justify his action by declaring that it is for a higher good. As a result, we should recognize in him an evil force. Danforth has jailed and condemned so many on the word of the girls that he is loath to accept that he has been deceived, as it would badly undermine his authority. Miller sees him as the “rule bearer” who fixes boundaries for these proceedings that, in fear and ignorance, he refuses to allow to be crossed. The security he seeks comes at a high price, and he does more evil than he intends merely by refusing to go beyond the narrow boundaries he has set himself and others.


Thomas Putnam is an example of a sour man filled with grievances against others, mostly ones that have been created by his own imagination, sense of self-importance, or greed. Greedy and argumentative, Putnam manipulates truth and law to his own vindictive ends. His wife, Ann Putnam, is no less self-absorbed and vindictive, and, for a religious woman, ascribes far too much value to silly superstition. The Putnams are typical of the worst kind of Puritan, whose religion has become mere show and who live narrow, venal, and selfish lives that ultimately damage themselves as much as their community.


Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse are ideal Puritans who live their faith, showing kindness and compassion to others and displaying a gentleness in their lives that is rightly respected. The fact that such women can be accused of witchcraft and condemned to die helps underline the ludicrousness of the proceedings. Francis Nurse, the opposite of Thomas Putnam, is a man who puts others before himself and lives a genuinely moral life. In the past, Francis has acted as the unofficial judge of town disputes and has been a voice of calm reason, but it is a voice that becomes lost in the hysteria of the moment.


Evidently still in love with Proctor despite his ending the affair (for which she blames his wife), Abigail Williams cleverly uses the town’s superstitious leanings to her own advantage to claim greater respect in the community and to revenge herself upon Elizabeth, whom she sees as having “blackened” her name by having dismissed her from service in the Proctor household. A masterly manipulator and actress, Abigail solicits the complicity of many of the town’s young girls in accusing numerous townspeople of witchcraft. The way she sacrifices former friends like Tituba to the court, without a shred of concern, suggests an amorality in her nature. She eventually turns on her beloved Proctor in an act of self-preservation, and when the possibility arises of the town turning against the court, she quickly flees, stealing the Reverend Parris’s savings on the way, proving what a truly disreputable character she is.


Mercy Lewis, Susanna Walcott, Betty Parris, Ruth Putnam, and Mary Warren are among the young girls who follow Abigail’s lead. All have led limited lives up to this point, bullied by employers, forced to be quiet and subservient. Abigail offers them a chance to be at the center of attention and treated as special. They are attracted to the power they see themselves holding over the townspeople as they offer the judges any names they like. Their deceit in these matters seems clear, partly based on Mary’s initial confession and finally because they run away to avoid any repercussions when the villagers start to object.


Twelve Angry Men begins with the judge giving the jury instructions before they retire to deliberate in a murder trial, which carries an automatic death penalty. The judge reminds them that their decision must be unanimous or they will be declared a hung jury and the case will go to retrial. On retiring, the jury takes an initial vote on the case and finds that only one of their number, juror #8, is prepared to say not guilty. He explains that he does not necessarily believe the accused to be innocent but wants to talk further before sentencing a man to death. They consider the defendant’s character and the various pieces of evidence presented by the prosecution throughout the trial. The defense lawyer, it seems, has done little to present the defendant’s case and the witnesses, we discover, are less than reliable. Gradually the jury finds reasonable doubt in nearly every facet of the case against the defendant. One by one, the jurors change their minds until they return a unanimous vote of not guilty.


The jury room in which they deliberate is purposefully empty and without character to direct all of our attention to the jurors themselves. Each of the twelve men has a different background, ranging from blue-collar and white-collar workers to a successful stockbroker, an architect, and a retiree. They run in age from their twenties to their seventies; some taking their responsibility lightly, others more seriously. Their personalities are similarly varied, from the bombastic and opinionated to the shy and retiring, the disengaged to the vengeful, the thoughtful to the thoughtless. None of these men is perfect—even #8 has doubts that he is doing the right thing and is capable of losing his temper—although none are entirely unsympathetic. They reflect those people with whom we are most familiar, and Rose ensures that we understand just how ordinary and universal they are by conferring on them only numbers rather than names. These jurors aptly reflect a judicial system that states that people should be tried by a jury of their peers.


The case being tried is not a show trial but a run-of-the-mill murder case, in which a young ethnic teen, also unnamed and equally representative, has been charged with killing his father. The trial has been fairly lengthy and the jurors are mostly eager to get on with their lives, but, as #8 points out, they have a moral responsibility to properly consider all the evidence before condemning a fellow human being. He also insists that the case is too clean to be true, and that nothing in life is ever that straightforward. He feels that too many questions were left unasked, the defense having done a terrible job, and the witnesses were unconvincing. The judge has directed them to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully, but it takes #8 in the jury room to ensure that they do—unfortunately suggesting that not all trials by jury are such considered affairs.


Juror #8 is the most sympathetic of the twelve as he alone champions justice from the start, but he is soon joined by others, especially those who had been initially reticent about pushing their opinions. He stands firm and will not let the more belligerent jurors intimidate the less self-assured as they struggle to be heard, offering them gentle support, mostly through looks and gestures. Only #3 holds out against #8’s calm reasoning, though even he grudgingly accepts defeat and allows his vote to be changed to not guilty, unable to stand alone as #8 had done.


During the judge’s instructions, it is already evident that #8 will face the most opposition from #7 who fidgets, #10 who is preoccupied with his cold, and #3 who has already decided the defendant’s guilt. These three are the most opinionated and the least caring. From the start, #10 mocks the others for even attempting to deliberate, #7 complains about wanting to get to a baseball game, and #3 reveals himself as racist and prejudiced against youths, as we later discover, because of his own poor relationship with his son. His scorn works against him by provoking others, from the elderly #9 to the young #5, to come out in support of #8, rather than be seen to side with such a blatant bigot. He even manages to offend the Foreman, who actually shares his racist views. The battle comes down to a contest between the compassion of #8 and the brutality of #3, and it is thankfully the former who wins out—this time.


Initially only #8 is open-minded enough to take a sympathetic view of the defendant, who has led a hard life: his mother died when he was nine, his father is an ex-con with a temper, and he has spent time in an orphanage. It would be odd if he were not angry and wild. This description humanizes the defendant for the others, and allows them to reconsider the evidence.


The case rests on the issue of “reasonable doubt,” a legal standard that finds a person not guilty if there can be any reasonable doubt regarding the evidence presented. The jurors, guided by #8, collectively uncover such doubt by allowing themselves to question each piece of damaging evidence. The murder weapon was supposedly a one-of-a-kind knife that had been seen in the son’s possession but that had no fingerprints on it, and the son declares that he had lost it. Juror #8 produces an identical knife he has found to show the falsity of the shopkeeper’s claim to its uniqueness, and points out that if the boy had intended to murder his father with that knife, why would he have shown it to so many people beforehand? Juror #11 later adds that if it had been a crime of passion, as others suggest, then why was the knife clean of fingerprints, and if the boy had been guilty, why would he have returned home later?


Both of the eyewitnesses are similarly questioned, especially as it becomes evident that both cannot possibly be telling the truth. The man downstairs who   heard the son yell, “I’m gonna kill you,” heard the body fall, and saw the accused run down the stairs, would not have been able to do so if a train had been passing by, as the other witness stated. They determine that this elderly and lonely witness may have lied to gain some attention, and they realize that it would not have been physically possible for him to have seen what he said he saw. Then #8 goads #3 into declaring that he will kill him to show how little such a declaration really means. We discover that the other eyewitness from across the street wore glasses, and because she didn’t have them on in bed, from where she saw the incident, she could definitely have been mistaken as to the identity of the murderer. As they uncover more and more that is wrong with the case, each juror is won over and begins to help #8 discover even more holes. Jurors #2 and #5 uncover the fact that the entry wound does not match how the boy would have stabbed his father if he had done it.


They also question the boy’s motive once again. Juror #6, honest but unimaginative, points out that there was strong evidence that the father had hit his son, but, as #8 points out, he probably did this often, so why kill him for it this time? This could have been a case of the final straw, but, on reexamination, the boy’s alibi that he was at the movies but cannot recall actors and titles becomes more credible as #8 questions #4 about movies he has recently seen, and finds he cannot answer fully either. They have also realized that the father was a disreputable character and could have been killed for a number of other reasons by someone else; he gambled, often got into fistfights, and treated women badly. Such flaws in the case provide all the reasonable doubt both jury and audience need, and the play ends with the solid feeling that justice has finally been done.

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