In an extraordinary history of the criminal trial, Sadakat Kadri shows with wit, legal insight and a travel writer’s eye for detail, how the irrationality of the past lives on in the legal systems of the present. A bold and brilliant debut from a prize-winning new writer.
‘The Trial’ spans a vast distance in time, opening in the dread silence of the Egyptian Hall of the Dead and ending with the melodramas and hubbub of the 21st-century trial circus. Reconciliation and vengeance, secrecy and spectacle, superstition and reason all intertwine continually. The book crosses from the marbled courtrooms of Athens through the ordeal pits of Anglo-Saxon England, past the torture chambers of the Inquisition to the judicial theatres of 17th-century Salem, and from 1930s Moscow and post-war Nuremberg to the virtual courtrooms of modern Hollywood.
Kadri shows throughout how the trial has always been concerned with doing more than guaranteeing fairness and holding human beings to account for their deliberate crimes. He recounts how insentient and irrational defendants from caterpillars to corpses were once summonsed to court, before being exiled for their failure to attend or sentenced to die again – and argues that the same urge to punish lives on in today's trials of children and the mentally ill. But although Justice’s sword has always been double-edged – as ready to destroy a community’s enemies as to defend its dreams of due process – the judicial contest also operates to enshrine some of the western world’s most cherished values. The show trials of Stalin's Soviet Union were shams, but Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are a reminder that a lack of a trial is equally unjust, and at a time when our constitutional landscape seems to be melting away, an appreciation of the criminal courtroom’s history is more necessary than ever. As the Labour government launches an almost annual attempt to truncate trial by jury, and as authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are indefinitely detaining people in the name of an endless war on terror, ‘The Trial’ could hardly be more timely.
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‘He tells a good story, deftly managing to mix anecdote and serious analysis. An impressive performance.’ The Times
‘A mine of information and an entertaining read, written with wit and style.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘An amusing and colourful and a deeply thoughtful book of contemporary relevance…a real achievement.’ Guardian
‘An interesting and timely book.’ Observer
‘You don’t have to agree with Kadri’s political views to find his history of the trial engaging stuff.’ Daily TelegraphFrom the Author:
About the author
The Dream of Justice: Sarah O’Reilly talks to Sadakat Kadri
(extract found in the P.S Section)
Was there anything that surprised him during the course of writing the book?
‘Well, one thing that surprised me, although it seems very obvious now, is the dual nature of the trial. When I started writing, I hadn’t decided in my head whether it was a good or a bad thing and I didn’t consciously recognize there were two aspects to it – that it both holds back state power and validates it. It was only after a while that I realized I hadn’t recognized this because I had been asking the wrong question. There wasn’t a dichotomy between the two. The trial can be both a good thing and an absolutely wicked thing: what’s important is that we recognize its Janus-faced aspect.’
He was also surprised to discover that only 1 to 5 per cent of cases actually end up in trial anyway. ‘When I first realized that I thought, why am I writing this book? But then I realized that this doesn’t mean the trial is unimportant: it actually means that any trial you do see is even more important. It also makes you wonder, why this trial? What’s going on behind the closed doors?’ And it’s this sense of curiosity that ultimately unites Sadakat Kadri’s two halves: the combination of the writer’s attraction to those events that unfold in the shadows, and the lawyer’s wish to interrogate them.
About the book
The Difference Between God and Lawyers
by Sadakat Kadri
Soon after I began working on this book, in mid-2001, I read about Kenneth Kinnaird. The 43-year-old Glaswegian had just persuaded the Scottish Court of Appeal that telling a couple of police officers to ‘fuck off’ was not a criminal offence. According to the senior judge, Lord Prosser, Kinnaird’s suggestion merely reflected ‘the language of his generation’. That was certainly plausible, and the result seemed sensible enough, but Prosser’s remark set me thinking. If he had been the one at the receiving end of Kinnaird’s language, he would probably have been rather less tolerant of it. The criminal courtroom is an odd place: ruffians and deviants constitute its clientele but they are subject to the most punctilious etiquette; and the friction between rules and ruled threatens to explode, or at least startle, at any point. I was tangentially reminded of another scatological defendant, this one apocryphal, who was asked what he had to say for himself before sentence was imposed!
. ‘Fuck all,’ he mumbled. All eyes turned to the judge, who was staring with perplexity at defence counsel. ‘What did your client say?’ he inquired. ‘It was "fuck all", your honour,’ drawled the barrister. ‘Are you sure?’ came the surprised reply. ‘I could have sworn I saw his lips move.’
This book could have been dedicated to that judge. No one is likely to forget that trials can be grim affairs, but the tension that turns his remark into a punch line means that they are often ludicrous as well. Although the criminal law enshrines sentiments that aim high, it is administered by, and to, some very ordinary people; and the interaction between ideals and reality has produced the tragicomedy of the trial drama – a romping, stomping, threatening tale of passions imperfectly restrained, and hysteria barely controlled.
The comic element comes, admittedly, with too much gore to tickle everyone’s funny bone. I recall one New Yorker, initially curious to learn more about my book, whom I then tried to amuse with anecdotes about legally aided corpses and executed pigs. ‘Wow …’ she murmured, with some concern. ‘You’re in a dark place.’ Eighteen months into my contract, with no manuscript in sight, I certainly was. My chat-up lines could also have done with a rethink. But, at the risk of proving my solemnity as well as my gloom, I maintain that the tales with which I regaled her were not just gems of wit; they encapsulate an absurdity that lies at the heart of the legal enterprise.
In the name of justice, monomaniacal lawyers have perpetrated monstrous violence, but they have also developed a surreal logic that could validate the prosecution of werewolves and mandate the execution of failed suicides. Their claims to authority and integrity have been noisy, but their reputation for chicanery has been even more enduring. The stereotypical lawyer is neither admirable nor honourable, but laughable – routinely matched against skunks, sharks and laboratory rats, and never coming off well from the comparison.
As this book’s title might imply, there is one writer who, I think, nailed the delusional aspects of the law better than any other – Franz Kafka. All his stories evince his lifelong fascination with the power of rules over the individual, and even those on ostensibly non-legal themes are narrated with a forensic precision that owes much to the law degree he earned at Prague’s Charles University. But though their protagonists analyse their various peculiar predicaments in great detail, they are never able to resolve them. Whether it is Gregor Samsa, struggling to come to terms with his transformation into a giant beetle; an inquisitive dog, too engrossed in trying to work out where food comes from to notice the human beings that surround it; or a subterranean creature, obsessing to the point of paralysis over the intruder that may or may not be about to burst into its burrow, their rationality is as rigorous as it is unhinged. Obstacles and risks are apprehended with crystal!
clarity, but the way to surmount them is inconceivable. The hope of discerning a pattern to existence vies with the ominous possibility that the universe might be a very malign place indeed. Inquiry itself seems counterproductive – because logic is not so much a tool, as a trap.
Kafka’s gnomic wisdom entirely transcends the nuts and bolts of actual legal procedures; but, just as a stray profanity can throw light on the dynamics of a courtroom, so his pessimism speaks volumes about justice. The gulf between our dreams and our capacities means that courts, like any human institution, are imperfect – and it became ever clearer to me while writing this book that few people do more to compound the imperfections than the lawyers and politicians who pretend otherwise. Courts regularly promise answers that they cannot deliver, and the results can be farcical – but when they are allowed to forget their own fallibility, the course is set for tragedy.
That is not to say that justice lacks meaning. Anyone who has ever been burgled or biffed knows that crime is more than a sociological construct, and injustice takes countless tangible forms, from the lethal injections of US death-penalty states to the amputations of Islamic ones. But justice depends on humility at least as much as nobility – and at a time when magnificent ideals are being trumpeted to justify such things as torture and detention without trial, the frequent laughability of legal pretensions stands as an all too sombre warning that being self-righteous is not the same as being right. As connoisseurs of the judicial joke will already know, there is a difference between lawyers and God. God, at least, doesn’t think He’s a lawyer.
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