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The totally depraved US judicial system: book review

2 January 2011

The ConfessionThe Confession by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many of John Grisham’s books, this one is a legal one — a young man has been convicted of the death of a schoolfellow, and sentenced to death, though on flimsy evidence and an extorted confession. A few days before his scheduled execution in Texas a man confesses to a church minister in Kansas, several hundred miles away, that he was the real murderer, but vascillates about whether to make his confession public or not.

This scenario makes for a dramatic story, as the condemned, but possibly innocent man and his lawyers exhaust all the avenues of appeal, and the man who claims to have done it tries to make up his mind, while the church minister has to decide whether to believe him or not, and what to do about if he does.

While it isn’t a great work of literature, it is one of Grisham’s best, in the genre he has made his name in, and it’s a good read. It also, like many of Grisham’s novels, raises moral and ethical questions about the system of criminal justice. And it’s just here that I have some questions about it, and find the story improbable.

Admittedly I am not a fundi on the American criminal justice system, its strengths and weaknesses. I know it mainly from reading novels like Grisham’s, and films based on such novels. In both this one, and in another one that I read recently, The appeal, Grisham clearly believes that the system of elected judicial officials that prevails in some American states can, and frequently does, lead to miscarriages of justice. And while in novels like this he piles it on a bit thick for dramatic effect, he was himself a practising lawyer before he took up novel-writing, so he does know what he’s talking about. And it’s not just John Grisham who writes stuff like this. To kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee has a similar theme, as did the film based on it, which I saw more than 40 years ago, and a similar theme is found in several other novels and films.

Twenty-five years ago there was a popular TV series, The A-team, that was based on a similar premiss: the A-team would be confronted with corrupt officials in the American judicial system, usually a sheriff and/or judge in a small town who abused their authority, and would correct injustices using spectacular extra-judicial methods. And that was nothing new – the legends of Robin Hood and the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham go back to the 13th or 14th century.

Bent cops are nothing new. We have them here in South Africa. There are traffic cops who threaten to give tickets for bogus offences, but offer not to if they are offered a “cold drink”. Stories of the Rivonia Trial, of Nelson Mandela and his associates, reflect pretty badly on the prosecutor, Percy Yutar, but though they could have been sentenced to death under the laws of the time, they were not. Perhaps that illustrates Grisham’s thesis, since judges in South Africa were not, and are not, elected.

The problem with this book, however, is that Grisham manages to create the impression that the entire American judicial system, and especially that part of it based on elected officials, is corrupt from top to bottom. Of course it adds to the drama of the story, when everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong, when corruption permeates every level of the judicial process. Grisham approaches it like a good Calvinist: he portrays it strongly as total depravity. But if it really is as bad as Grisham makes out, then the “free” world is in a lot more trouble than we thought it was.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 January 2011 5:35 am

    I thought we had had our worst fears about the “free” world revealed this year. Julian Assange of course. But what about the scatty health system that Obama battled to get up. Some move forward in what had gone before but hardly satisfactory – when every other developed country has some form of public health or public health insurance not a citzenry disempowered by health debt. And then there is the madness of the Tea Party variety. And there is the racism in a time of crisis type of thinking in France and Germany.

    And why would elected law enforcement and judicial officials not be tainted because of an electoral process when so many others clearly are. Are they cut of a different cloth? Does no taint or spot mark them or set them apart?

    The point is – that the free world does recognise – that when the only yardstick is pleasing the public taint will stick, sooner or later. That goes for marketing soap powder or electing sheriffs and judges. Surely there must be great and grave checks and balances in law enforcement and judicial decision-making to balance out the co-ercion or co-option one way or another of those elected.

    Lastly, why do so many of us in the English speaking world appoint our law-enforcement and judicial officials. Perhaps because we have faced a few facts about ourselves. And a lot of us are still not trusting because there are people still testing the limits.

    Our outgoing Labor Govt was dragged kicking and screaming to establish thorough-going anti-corruption provisions in Victoria. The result is not the most effective method and we have to see what the incoming conservative govt does. However, Queensland and NSW and WA have had to do something. Not the Feds though. Something there for police – but clearly Australia’s Federal politicians are cut of a different cloth and are as pure and transparent as the driven snow!

  2. Alan permalink
    4 January 2011 3:43 am

    As a non-American living in the USA, it has always struck me as obscene for people seeking a judgeship or the office of district attorney to be bragging about how many people they have been responsible for locking up or sending to their death. And many family members of the victims of crime seem to be more interested in seeing *somebody* incarcerated or put to death than in making sure that the real perpetrator is convicted.

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