On Trial

This week I was selected to serve on a jury. I can’t discuss it, of course, but I will admit that it is a criminal case. And there’s nothing more fascinating to a crime reader than sitting on a criminal jury. (Well, okay, maybe there are a few more fascinating activities, but trials are high on my list of “interesting activities.” Blame it on years of Perry Mason.)

The wheels start turning the middle I hear the prosecutor’s first question…

Back in the 1950s, hapless protagonists were always getting accused of a crime they didn’t commit. They were set up, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Never mind that they rarely had a motive—if the cops found someone with a smoking gun and a dead body, then according to the rules of pulp fiction, motive or not, they had to be guilty. They rarely were. But that created the conflict.

I can’t tell you how many old paperbacks I’ve read where the cops have thrown the detective himself in jail. Does a functioning day-to-day detective have nothing better to do than go around murdering people and then wisecracking to the cops about it? Apparently not. Of course, when you throw your main character into jail, you give him all sorts of motivation to solve the crime when they inevitably let him out. But it still doesn’t generally make sense that the cops would jump to the conclusion that the shamus had to have done it.

I never understood that logic. But perhaps it has something to do with the gradually changing nature of our justice system. The law here in the States has always been predicated on the belief that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But back in the 50s, crime writers seem to go on the assumption that if you could beat or coerce a confession, that this would be enough to stand up in a court of law. That and a bit of circumstantial evidence was all that was needed to put a guy away.

Was that ever true? The assumption must have had some basis in fact for it to become the cliché. But if that’s the case, have things really changed that much? Certainly our jails are filled to the brim with “criminals.” And many of them were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But many more are now being found to have spent years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. Maybe the 50s cliché isn’t so farfetched. Maybe the jails were always filled with the railroaded innocent.

They don’t beat confessions out of people anymore. Police brutality notwithstanding, rights must be read, procedures must be followed. Now each crime is filmed as it happens, and if the cops don’t film it, someone with an iphone does it for them. Crime fiction has had to change with the times. Today’s court system would probably seem more like science fiction to someone picked up from the 50s and dropped into a courtroom trial. All we need now is to have mini-cameras installed in our heads to make sure we get it right.

And what’s a 50s detective to do then?

–Greg Shepard


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