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A Trial in Fiction

by Arthur F. Gotthold

THE varied temperaments of the learned courts in this country have always prevented trial work from stagnating into anything so dull as certainty. But on reading such a book as “Hand and Ring,’’ by Anna Katherine Green, we are forced to admit that fiction is stranger than truth.

The story is one of those “this-cross-marks-the-spot-where-the-body-was-found” tales, in which the jury labors manfully in an obviously impossible attempt to convict the hero of murder. A district attorney will go on for volume after volume wasting the county’s money in prosecuting the hero, when any jury of intelligent circulating libraryites would acquit him before they got to “The Untangling of the Web.” And he never learns any better.

But to resume. In this particular mesh the counsel for the defence is in love with the prosecution’s star witness, who is in love with the hero. He, in turn, is very properly in love with the p. s. w.; but he thinks she did the dastardly deed, while she thinks he did. The counsel for the defence knows neither did it, because he killed the old woman himself. This, needless to state, is unknown to the young detective, who —But there, you had better read it yourself.

Anyway, the noble young hero is up for trial, and then things are doing. For instance, the district attorney asks an obviously improper question, to which the defence promptly objects. We were deeply interested in this, supposing the objection was for the benefit of the prisoner. But it seems that it was for the protection of the witness. “‘Gentlemen,’ said she [the witness], ‘there was no need of all this talk.’“ And thereupon she proceeded to answer the question ruled out by the Court.

The learned author’s interpretation of the value of a ruling is certainly novel, but it is submitted that when a judge is in a state of coma, the trial should be adjourned until restoratives can be found.

A little later the same witness having been asked an improper question, which was withdrawn, and also a proper one, calmly says she prefers to answer the first one, and proceeds to do so. And still the Court never turned a hair.

Nor is this witness the only nervy person in the caste. The district attorney at times does surprisingly well. For example, the prosecution in cross-examining indulges in some rather irrelevant questions. The defence objects on the ground that there is no evidence to bear out the line of inference suggested.

“‘What testimony I have to produce will come in at its proper time,’ retorted Mr. Ferris. ‘Meanwhile, I think I have a right to put this or any other kind of similar question to the witness.’ The judge acquiescing with a nod, Mr. Orcutt (counsel for the defence) sat down.” And well he might; but he should have prefaced it by going ‘way back.

It is these little incidents that cheer us on the way to “The Clearing of the Clouds.”

As we close we say with the poet:

“O, Mistress Green, we do beseech you—”
So runs the public’s humble prayer—
“When you another book prepare,
Please get some lawyer man to teach you.”

But it’s a good story, just the same.