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Law and Disorder

December 1, 2009

The chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that I find most intriguing is Chapter 11, in which the trial is held. I recently attended a forum in our nation’s capital in which I learned much about the legal system. Surprisingly, while there are some inevitable quirks of a Wonderland trial, it is actually quite similar to our own system in many ways. There is a judge, 12 jurors, witnesses, a defendant, etc. One odd thing, however, is the fact that there are no lawyers! Perhaps that is so because the Queen does not want any chance of her victims being cleared.

More interesting, however, is the fact that the judge (the King) screams at the witness, the Mad Hatter, and threatens execution if he does not present his evidence promptly. Also, he threatens execution if the Mad Hatter does not remember every detail of every question, no matter how tangential or completely unrelated to the case. In my opinion, this is true (albeit to a much lesser degree) in courts of law in the United States today, and is one of the most worrisome problems of our legal system. Witnesses truly are sometimes interrogated as if they were criminals. How is that just? A witness is someone who is willing to go to the measures to ensure that justice is served, be it in favor of the prosecution or defense, and should therefore be treated respectfully. All too often, however, that is the farthest thing from what happens.

In a mock trial that I participated in, I was a member of the jury. One of the things we were required to be very familiar with and take into consideration when deliberating on the trial was memory. Memory is a very subjective thing; oftentimes we remember what we wish to remember, in the manner we wish to remember it. If something seemingly inconsequential to us occurs, we are unlikely to pay it much attention, and therefore are unlikely to have an accurate memory of it come the trial. How, then, is it possible for witnesses to be expected to remember every single detail of what happened? I take the King’s threat to behead the Hatter if he does not remember as a representation of what happens in actual court. There are multiple things that could happen-1) the witness could be badgered to remember something to the point that they break down, in which case they become an unreliable witness, 2) the witness could make something up, which could affect the outcome of the trial, or 3) a lawyer could manipulate the jury into believing the idea that if the witness doesn’t remember something, they are obviously unreliable and corrupt. So, if badgering witnesses does nothing other than cause confusion and misinformation, then why does it happen? Is the point of the law not to serve justice?

In the case in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, such corruption is understandable if not expected, for it is a trial held by none other than the corrupt Queen of Hearts herself, in a land in which everything but the ordinary occurs. However, if nothing is normal in Wonderland, why does the trial resemble actual proceedings so closely? Since we have concluded that Carroll hid many digs at society and politics in the story, could this be a dig at the corruption of the legal system? Not to mention the fact that of all the characters of Wonderland to be tried it is the Knave, instead of any of the truly guilty creatures. So, what do you think, is Carroll crafting one of the first lawyer jokes, embedded within a story originally written for a 10-year-old girl?

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