A Juror In Waiting by Robert Lynd

Story type: Essay

The train was crowded with jurymen. Every one of them was saying something like “It’s a disgrace,” “It’s a perfect scandal,” “No other nation would put up with it,” and “Here we all are grumbling; and what are we going to do about it? Nothing. That’s the British way.” They were not complaining of any act of injustice perpetrated against a prisoner. They were complaining of their own treatment. Fifty or sixty of them had been summoned from the four ends of the county, and kept packed away all day under a gallery at the back of the court, where there was not even room for all of them to sit down, and where there was certainly not room for all of them to breathe. It would have been an easy thing for the Clerk of the Court to choose a dozen jurymen in the first ten minutes of the day, and to dismiss the rest on their business. He might, if necessary, have also picked a reserve jury, and selected the jury for the next day’s cases. The law revels in expense, however and so a great number of middle-aged men were taken away for two whole days from their businesses and compelled to sit in filthy air and on benches that would not be endured in the gallery of a theatre, with nothing to do but watch the backs of the heads of a continuous procession of barristers and bigamists.

Few jurors would have complained, I think if there had been any rational excuse for detaining them. What they objected to so bitterly was the fact that no use was made of them, and that they were kept there for two days, though it must have been obvious to everyone that the majority of them might as well he at home. It may be, however, that there is some great purpose underlying the present system of calling together a crowd of unnecessary jurymen. Perhaps it is a form of compulsory education for middle-aged men. It shows them the machine of the law in action, and enables them to some extent to say from their own observation whether it is being worked in a fair and humane or in a harsh and vindictive spirit. One cannot sit through one criminal case after another at the Assizes without gaining a considerable amount of material for forming a judgment on this matter. The juror in waiting, as he sees a pregnant woman swooning in the dock or a man with a high, pumpkin-shaped back to his head led off down the dark stairs to five years’ penal servitude, becomes a keen critic of the British justice that may have been to him until then merely a phrase. How does British justice emerge from the test? Well, it may be that this judge was a particularly kind judge and that the policemen of this county are particularly kindly policemen, but I confess that, much as I detest other people’s boasting, I came away with the impression that the boast about British justice is justified. I do not believe that it is by any means always justified in the mouths of statesmen who use it as an excuse for their own injustice, and I would not trust every judge or every jury to give a verdict free from political bias in a case that involved political issues. But in the ordinary case–“as between,” in the words of the oath, “our sovereign lord the King and the prisoner at the bar”–it seems to me, if my two days’ experience can be taken as typical, that British justice is not only just but merciful.

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The evidence is, perhaps, insufficient, as, in most cases, the sentences were deferred. But what pleased one was the general lack of vindictiveness in the prosecution or in the police evidence. Hardly a bigamist climbed into the dock–and there was an apparently endless stream of them–to whom the local police did not give a glowing certificate of character. The chief constable of the county went into the witness-box to testify that one bigamist was “reliable,” “a, good worker,” etc. “His general conduct,” a policeman would say of another, “as regards both the women, was good.” The barristers, as was natural, dwelt on the Army record of most of the men, and, even when a client had pleaded guilty, would appeal to the judge to remember that he had before him a man with a stainless past. “But wait, wait,” the judge would interrupt; “you know bigamy is a very serious offence.” “I quite agree with your lordship,” counsel would reply nervously, “but I beg of you to take into consideration that the prisoner was carried away by his love for this woman–” This was where the judge always grew indignant. He was a little man with big eyebrows, a big nose, a big mouth, and white whiskers. His whiskers made him appear a little like Matthew Arnold in a wig and scarlet, save that he did not look as if he were sitting above the battle. “You tell me,” he declared warmly, “that he loved this woman, while he admits that he deceived her into marrying him and falsely described himself in the marriage certificate as a bachelor.” Counsel would again nervously agree with his lordship that his client had done wrong in deceiving the woman, but in three sentences he would have found another way round to the portraiture of the prisoner as all but a model for the young. Certainly, the great increase in the offence of bigamy proves at least the hollowness of all the talk about the growing indifference to the marriage tie. Whatever we may think of bigamists–and there are black sheep in every flock–the bigamist is manifestly a much-married man. He is a person, I should say, with the bump of domesticity excessively developed. The merely immoral man, as most of us know him, does not ask for the sanction of the law for his immorality. He does not feel the want of “a home from home,” as the bigamist does. The increase in bigamy, it seems clear enough, is largely due to the war, which not only gave men opportunities for travel such as they had never had before, but enabled them to travel in a uniform which was itself a passport to many an impressionable female heart. Men had never been so much admired before. Never had they had so wide a choice of female acquaintances. “I am amazed,” said Clive on a famous occasion, “at my own moderation.” Many a bigamist, as he stands in the dock in these days of the cool fit, could conscientiously put forward the same plea. But the most that any of them can say is that they thought the first wife was dead or that she wanted to bring up the children Roman Catholics.

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The first wife in one of the bigamy cases went into the witness-box, and I saw what to me was an incredible sight–an Englishwoman of thirty who could neither read nor write. Red-haired, tearful, weary, she did not even know the months of the year. She said a telegram had been sent to her husband saying she was dangerously ill in February. “Was that this year or last year?” asked counsel. “I don’t know, sir,” she said. “Come, come,” said the judge, “you must know whether you were suffering from a dangerous illness this year or last.” “No, sir,” she replied shakily; “you see, sir, not bein’ a scholar, I couldn’t ‘ardly tell, sir.” Then a bright idea struck her. “My hospital papers could tell the date, sir.” She produced from her pocket a paper saying that she had undergone an operation in a hospital in September 1919. That was all that could be got out of her. The counsel on the other side rose to cross-examine her about the dates. “You had an operation in September, you say. Were you laid up at any other time during the past two years?” “No, sir.” “But you have sworn that you were ill in February, when a telegram was sent to your husband?” “Yes, sir.” “And now you say that you weren’t ill at any other time except in September?” “No, sir.” “So you weren’t ill in February?” “Oh yes, sir; I had the ‘flu, sir.” She was as obstinate about it all as the child in We are Seven. But she kept assuring us that she was no scholar. Her husband said that he had received a letter saying she was dead, and, though he had lost it, he quoted it at length “as far as he could remember it.” It was a beautiful letter, expressing regret that he had not been at the side of the deathbed, where, the writer was sure, whatever faults had been on either side would have been forgiven. “You never were dead?” the judge asked the woman. “No sir,” she replied in the same tone of We are Seven seriousness.

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A girl was put in the dock, charged with having stolen a Post Office savings bank book. A policeman, giving evidence, said: “Until the 6th of December she was in the Wacks.” “You say,” said the judge, rather bewildered by the good appearance of the girl, “that she was in the workhouse!” “In the Wacks, my lord.” “I think he means the Royal Air Force,” prosecuting counsel helped the judge out of his perplexity. And the word “Wraf” went from mouth to mouth round the court. The girl was guilty, but the judge told her that he was not going to send her to prison. “I don’t think it would do you any good, and I don’t think the interests of society call for it,” he said. “What I’m going to do is to bind you over to come up for judgment if called upon. Now, go away home, and be a good girl, and, if you are, you won’t hear anything more about it. You have done a very disgraceful thing, but you can live it down by good conduct in the future.” There was another thief, a boy of eighteen, who had been deserted by his mother at the age of three, and whom the judge also told, though not in those words, to go and sin no more. There was also a boy who had forged his father’s consent to his marriage, and he and his girl wife were lectured like children and sent home to do better in future. As the judge said to the boy: “This is not a thing you are likely to do again.” His wife, who was expecting a baby, had to be carried fainting from the dock. Counsel could not bring himself to say that she was expecting a baby. He said that she was “in a certain condition.” The modesty of the law is marvellous. One of the most interesting of the prisoners was a little sleek-headed man accused of fraud, who kept moving his head about like a tortoise’s out of its shell. His head was black and shining where it was not bald and shining. He had gold-rimmed spectacles and a sallow face. He glided his hands over the knobs on the front of the dock with a reptilian smoothness. He had persuaded a number of tradesmen and hotel-keepers that he was an English peer. He had even complained to one shopkeeper of the smallness of a wallet, as he needed something larger to hold the title-deeds relating to the peerage. In another case, a young man, staying in a house, had stolen, along with other things, his hostess’s false teeth, her best dress and a great quantity of underclothing. A parcel of clothing had been recovered from a second-hand shop and was shown to the lady when in the witness-box. She took up one of the garments and fingered it. “Well,” said the prosecuting counsel, encouragingly, “is that your best dress?” “Naoh,” she said melancholily, “that’s me ypron.” Then there was a young man who stole a motor-bicycle by presenting a revolver at the head of the owner. He denied that he had stolen it, and maintained that, after he had apologised to the owner “for having treated him so abruptly,” they had become friendly and he had been told to take the bicycle away and pay for it later. Alas! there is a limit to human credulity. Besides, the young man had a crooked mouth. After two days in court, one begins to believe that one can tell an honest man from a liar by looking at him. Probably one is over-confident.

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