The novel which I use as the basis of the case study is Arthur and George (2005) by Julian Barnes, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. There is much to this book that is not described in this review, but I will focus on how society, procedure, the police, and a docile court conspired to convict a respectable and innocent man of a series of animal mutilations.
The book is based on a true story, which ultimately led to the setting up of the Criminal Court of Appeal.
Step 1: Find an Outsider
George is an English solicitor practising in Birmingham, and son of the Vicar of Great Wyrley. He grew up in that country parish in the mid-nineteenth century, and was brought up to be fiercely patriotic: “And what is England, George ?” “England is the beating heart of the Empire, father”.
He is respected in his profession, he keeps his head down, he commutes every day by train from Wyrley to Birmingham.
He has his practice, and then for pleasure he has railway law. He is perplexed, with all the thousands of journeys that are undertaken by train, why there is not a legal guide available to all commuters informing them of their legal rights as against the railway company. He eventually compiles and publishes “Railway Law for ‘The Man in the Train’ – Chiefly Intended as a Guide for the Travelling Public on All Points Likely to Arise in Connection with the Railways.”
George is modest of manner and does not indulge himself: “He has no need or desire to take part in sports, to go boating, to attend the theatre; he has no interest in alcohol or gourmandising, or in horses racing one another; he has little desire to travel.”
So, clearly someone who does not inhabit society in a conventional way. But what is it about George that really makes him an outsider ?
He is George Edalji, son of Shapurji Edalji the Vicar of Wyrley. Shapurji Edalji is originally a Parsee from India. George’s mother, Charlotte, is not of Indian origin.
Step 2: Rouse a Rabble
Today if you want to trash someone’s reputation, even a stranger, you can print wild allegations about them on the internet. Bloggers and commenters seize on it and rumour rapidly becomes fact. Unless they have deep pockets their chances of suing for libel before damage is done is very remote. Of course, in the 19th century, before the days of the internet it was much harder to do this, right ?
A troublemaker maid at the Vicarage is dismissed by the Edaljis and shortly thereafter abusive graffiti about the Edaljis starts appearing across the neighbourhood. Then a large stone key left on their doorstep which George is all but accused by the police of stealing and then “finding”himself.
Next, anonymous letters. Vitriolic. (“Every day, every hour my hatred is growing against George Edalji”. And your damned wife. And your horrid little girl. Do you think, you Pharisee, that because you are a parson, God will
absolve you from you iniquities ?”). Praising the police, and the Sergeant who has been pursuing George, defences of the maid, insane hatred of the Edalji family, religious mania. Items start to get delivered to the Vicarage, including dead animals and excrement.
And finally hoaxes of maximum public impact. A local farmer shakes the Vicar’s hand one day after church and congratulates him on his new business, showing him the advert in the local paper inviting “Eligible Young Ladies of Good Manners and Breeding” to meet “Gentlemen of Means & Character” by applying to the Rev S Edalji at the Vicarage. The newspaper will not print a retraction “as it has its reputation to consider, and telling the world it has been hoaxed might undermine the credibility of its other stories.”
A curate from another parish is furious at being summoned to the Vicarage to perform an exorcism and demands his expenses be reimbursed. The Vicarage is offered out for all manner of goods and services (including as a low-rent lodging, and for stabling facilities). When the Vicar hits back and publishes details about the hoaxes in the local paper, a new advert appears “admitting” the hoaxes and seeking forgiveness. The advert is purportedly signed in the name of George Edalji and another local youth.
The damage has been done. Regardless of how outrageous the hoaxes are, an Outsider has been created, and enough doubt about the probity of Edalji has been sown in the minds of the General Public.
Step 3: Pre-Determine the Outcome and Create the Crime
After two years of persecutions, during which the threats become more serious and murderous, the Vicar approaches the Chief Constable again. The response betrays the intention: “I do not say that I know the name of the offender, though I may have my particular suspicions. I prefer to keep these suspicions to myself until I am able to prove them, and I trust to be able to obtain a dose of penal servitude for the offender.”
George probably knows deep down that his goose is cooked: “I think, to be honest, Father, the Chief Constable might be more of a threat to me than the hoaxer.”
The hoaxes abruptly stop for a few years. George qualifies as a solicitor. He still lives at the Vicarage, takes regular walks in the surrounding country lanes, opens his own office in Birmingham, and publishes “Railway Law.”
Then the mutilations begin – the fictional version of the true story of the Great Wyrley Outrages.
Horses, sheep, cows ripped in the stomach, mostly occurring during the first week of a month, all within a three-mile radius of Wyrley. An extremely sharp implement has been used. Police deliberations: “some ill-feeling a few years ago...black man in the pulpit telling them what sinners they were...this fellow – the son - does he look like a horse ripper to you ?...Inspector, let me put it this way, after you’ve served around here as long as I have, you’ll find that no one looks like anything. Or, for that matter, not like anything. Do you follow?”
Step 4: Abuse a Flawed Procedure
It appears that a hundred years ago, procedures for collecting evidence were not particularly well developed. So having pre-determined the outcome the police now went about gathering evidence. The anonymous letters re-start, and one contains a threat to shoot a police officer and twenty wenches. “Threatening to murder a police officer. Put that on the indictment and we’ll be able to get penal servitude for life.”
The police hypothesize a fictitious “gang” operating in the area, including the mutilator, the letter writer, the postboy and the co-ordinator. But one name comes up consistently - George Edalji. “There was a campaign of letter-writing before, mainly against the father...We nearly got him at the time...Eventually I gave the Vicar a pretty heavy warning...and not long afterwards it stopped. QED, you might say...”
But most importantly there is the insight into the total disregard for proper procedure. “What you did was catch a fellow, charge him, and get him sent away for a few years, the more the merrier.” So the police agree to have George followed and the Vicarage staked out. George of course tries to continue as normal,“as is his right as a free-born Englishman”. He is outraged at the waste of public money used in trying to have him followed by police officers day and night.
And then the police visit the Vicarage while George is out and intimidate the family. They do not have a search warrant, but they ask to search the house “to exclude [George] from the investigation if possible”. They ask to see George’s clothes. And his razors. It transpires that George borrows his father’s razor rather than having one of his own - “Why do you not trust him to have a razor ?”. George has an old house-coat hanging by the back door that he never uses and is completely dry - “Why is your son’s coat wet ?”. It has loose thread on it – “It appears that there are pony’s hairs, blood and saliva on this coat”. George’s daily walking boots are handed over – “Why are his boots encrusted with mud ?”.
Quarantine the suspect under police orders. The family was instructed not to make any contact with George until given police permission.
Step 5: Restrict the Freedom of the Accused
George is soon arrested at his office. Fatally, he says to the officers: “I am not surprised by this. I have been expecting it for some time.” More insinuation at the station: “Did you wear this shirt in the field last night ? You must have changed it. There’s no blood on it.” And so, as he is moved back and forth from his police cell, his interrogation continues in the same vein, innuendo, unsubstantiated allegation, wrongly attributed motives.
But George is optimistic: “those tormenters and these blunderers had delivered him to a place of safety: to his second home, the laws of England...The police had no evidence against him, and he had the clearest proof of an alibi it was possible to have. A clergyman of the Church of England would swear on the Holy Bible that his son had been fast asleep in a locked bedroom at the time when the crime was being committed...Case dismissed, costs awarded, released without a stain on his character, police heavily criticised.”
But from the newspaper the next day, a press release from the prosecutors, selectively quoting fabricated or tenuous evidence, with the newspaper adding the spice of the headline to catch the reader’s attention: “VICAR’S SON IN COURT:....So far as can be ascertained at present the result of this search is a quantity of bloodstained apparel, a number of razors, and a pair of boots, the latter found in a field close to the scene of the last mutilation.”
Hence guilt is already fixed in the mind of the public.
At his bail hearing, bail is set by the magistrates to be much higher than expected, “given the gravity of the charge.” George refuses bail.
Then the trump card at George’s committal hearing (where magistrates decide whether to commit to trial). Add in a charge that is so serious that the Magistrates cannot possibly discharge George, namely that of threatening to murder a police officer by shooting him. “Shooting him? Shooting Sergeant
Robinson ? I’ve never touched a gun in my life, and I’ve never to my knowledge laid eyes on Sergeant Robinson.”
Needless to say, George is indeed committed for trial, after committal proceedings which include a handwriting expert, a 14-year old schoolboy and his classmate who have been on the same Birmingham train as George a dozen times, and a couple of local yokels who saw George out on a walk on the night of one of the mutilations.
Step 6: A Court with no Legal Expertise
The author gives us some nice Dickensian-style metaphorical names. Acting for the Defence is solicitor Mr Meek, with barrister Mr Vachell. The barrister for the defence Mr Disturnal. The Judge is Sir Reginald Hardy. Ah yes, the Judge. Just before the trial is about to start Mr Meek comments to George that it is a little unfortunate that they have been assigned Court B rather than Court A. The reason why this is unfortunate is that “Court A is run by Lord Hatherton. Who at least has legal training.”
“You mean I am to be judged by someone who doesn’t know the law ?”
The story presented by the prosecuting barrister Mr Disturnal is clearly made up, and clearly has no merit, “but something in repetition of the story by an authority in wig and gown made it take on extra plausibility.”
The trial proceeds. The handwriting expert is recalled, and again testifies in detail that the letters are in George’s writing. The house-coat becomes “wet”rather than “damp” in the police testimony. A junior officer claims to have found a muddy footprint in the vicinity of the last maiming which matches George’s boot. Counsel Vachell for the defence picks holes in the numerous procedural flaws in collecting evidence, but these will be lost on the jury.
And finally, Shapurji Edalji, George’s father. Called as a witness. The prosecution’s case is now firmly that George left the house in the middle of the night to undertake the maiming. Since George shares a bedroom with his father, and the door is always locked surely his father will testify that he did not see his son leave that night, in which case they “will have to claim that a clergyman of the Church of England is not telling the truth.”
Of course, the cross-examination proceeds nothing like this. Shapurji crumbles, and Disturnal sows enough doubt that Shapurji can’t possibly have known for sure that his son remained in the room.
If the reader was any doubt beforehand as to what the verdict would be then he is no longer. Only George himself is still sure he will be acquitted. And so his seven-year jail sentence begins.
Step 7: No Judicial Appeal
There was no Court of Appeal at the time. Appeals were only heard by the Home Secretary, but he has thousands of cases on his plate, and typically no judicial training. Letters and expressions of support do arrive, and newspaper campaign is begun in his name. The fact of the matter is though that the man is already ruined, reputationally, financially, and emotionally, not to mention the effect on his family.
Arthur (I will leave you to read the novel to find out who Arthur actually is) finds out about George’s case, and takes up the challenge of proving George innocent, both through meticulous evidential examination, and through ramping up the media campaign. Again, you will need to read the book to learn whether the campaign is successful.
The Lessons for Today’s World
Of course, this type of abuse of process doesn’t occur any more in civilised countries like the UK. After all, the events described took place over 100 years ago, and many changes have been brought in since then. And one couldn’t possibly imagine a situation in civilised society today in which:
- The prosecuting body pre-determines the outcome and then goes about collecting the evidence to support its case.
- A single body is responsible for collecting evidence and presenting it to a judge, and is permitted to present it in any way it deems fit.
- The body responsible for collecting the evidence is the same body which publicises its version of events, before the defendant has public right of reply.
- The body responsible for collecting the evidence effectively also has the power to restrict the defendant’s right of movement and comment prior to
- The body responsible for collecting the evidence abuses its own procedures.
- The judge is not legally qualified, and does not require standard procedures of evidence collection to be followed.
- The executive and / or legislature is involved in the decision-making.
Any others ? Comments welcome.
The wikipedia link to the book is here.