Fractal Myth

Justice and Innocence.

[Michelle Chapman ©1997]

"Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colours, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the others?"
Billy Budd, p.379.

A discussion of the ways in which 'justice' and 'innocence' are interrogated in Melville's Billy Budd, Miller's The Crucible and Capote's In Cold Blood..

The pursuit of 'justice' and the protection of 'innocence' are ideals felt to be essential in Western society. Legal institutions derive great authority in society by purporting to bring ideals of 'justice' and 'innocence' to the arbitration of human conflict. The three texts chosen for this essay, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, question this notion that 'justice' and 'innocence' are achievable ideals embodied in the practises of the law. In these texts, a distinction is drawn between institutional definitions of innocence and justice, as embodied in the legal trials, and the personal ideals of justice and innocence held by the characters involved. Justice and innocence are shown to be relative values. This distinction is emphasised in all three texts by the use of capital punishment. When the penalty for failing to prove your legal innocence is death, questions of 'innocence' and 'justice' become desperately important. In their interrogations of the terms, the texts point out that legal notions of justice and innocence are socially constructed. 'Justice' is the result that the culture in authority requires. 'Innocence' is redefined to accomplish that result.

The control over 'justice' and 'innocence' exercised by those in legal authority is apparent in Herman Melville's Billy Budd. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, enters the closed society of the naval ship, The Bellipotent, like "a goldfish popped into a cage." (Billy Budd, p323.) He had been impressed into naval service, and Melville explicitly links this with the idea that a culture redefines notions of innocence and justice in order to meet perceived social needs:

...the British navy could so little afford to be squeamish in the matter of keeping up the muster rolls, that not only were press gangs notoriously abroad both afloat and ashore, but there was little or no secret about another matter, namely, that the London police were at liberty to capture any able-bodied suspect, any questionable fellow at large, and summarily ship him to the dockyard or fleet.
Billy Budd, p343.

In Billy Budd, Melville draws a sharp distinction between the artificial, institutionalised 'innocence' and 'justice' which the military tribunal is confined to, and the natural, moral force which is opposed to it. 'Innocence', in the story, is specifically attributed to Billy Budd:

In his disgustful recoil from an overture which, though he but ill comprehended, he instinctively knew must involve evil of some sort, Billy Budd was like a young horse from the pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory, and by repeated snortings trying to get it out of his nostrils and lungs.
Billy Budd, p361.

However, this simple, natural innocence is no defence against the 'justice' of naval discipline, which looks only at the action and ignores extenuating circumstances in constructing guilt. The legal definition of innocence is paramount, and the dictates of conscience are of no consequence:

In the jugglery of circumstances preceding and attending the event on board the Bellipotent, and in the light of that martial code whereby it was to be formally judged, innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places. In a legal view the apparent victim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a man blameless; and the indisputable deed of the latter, navally regarded, constituted the most heinous of military crimes. Yet more. The essential right and wrong involved in the matter, the clearer that might be, so much the worse for the responsibility of a loyal sea commander, inasmuch as he was not authorized to determine the matter on that primitive basis.
Billy Budd, p380.

Melville points out that the separation between legal and personal notions of justice and innocence often pose moral problems for the officers of the law. However, legal rhetoric exempts them from responsibility for the consequences of their construction of guilt and innocence. Legally, 'justice' requires only that the law be applied according to its prescribed and accepted principles. These principles are formulated in response to social pressures, and may bear little resemblance to moral notions of right and wrong. In his speech, Captain Vere draws attention to this, distinguishing natural justice as the province of the heart, and out of place in the stern world of martial discipline:

'If, mindless of palliating circumstances, we are bound to regard the death of the master-at-arms as the prisoner's deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one. But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?'... 'Would it be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate in any instances, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.'
Billy Budd, p387.

The episode of the priest on The Bellipotent confirms that, in the closed society of the ship, naval justice prevails. Once Billy Budd has been pronounced legally guilty, his personal, moral innocence is meaningless to those in authority. Even the human agent of divine justice, the priest, is bound by his naval role and allegiance to naval rules:

Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor's essential innocence the worthy man lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of the boatswain or any other naval officer.
Billy Budd, p398.

Billy's "essential innocence" is, however, confirmed by the symbolism that accompanies his death. His hanging is ambiguously marked by miracle, separating Billy from lesser mortals, and signifying a greater justice than that of man:

At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.
Billy Budd, p401.

The type of justice which has the final symbolic word therefore, is not the military execution of the guilty, but the spiritual resurrection of the innocent.

In Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, the society of Salem has also adjusted its notions of justice and innocence to meet specific social pressures:

It was, however, an autocracy by consent, for they were united from top to bottom by a commonly held ideology whose perpetuation was the reason and justification for all their sufferings. So their self-denial, their purposefulness, their suspicion of all vain pursuits, their hard-handed justice, were altogether perfect instruments for the conquest of this space so antagonistic to man.
The Crucible, p15.

In looking at this society, and the legal methods it employs in dealing with its fear of witchcraft, Miller investigates the subjectivity of innocence. It is suggested that innocence is uncertain and ambiguous. Far from being an objective entity, discoverable through legal enquiry, innocence is shown to be much more problematic and personal:

Elizabeth: I cannot think the Devil may own a woman's soul, Mr Hale, when she keeps an upright way, as I have. I am a good woman, I know it, and if you believe I may do only good work in the world, and yet be secretly bound to Satan, then I must tell you, sir, I do not believe it.
The Crucible, p66.

In Salem, innocence is a valuable, if tenuous, quality. Merely to be accused is to be counted guilty. Certain members of the community, however, have their innocence assured by their role in the society: "The Devil can never overcome a Minister." (The Crucible, p48.) Pregnant women are exempt from the death penalty, for the courts will "not hurt the innocent child." (The Crucible, p58.) The language of guilt and innocence, and good and evil, is used in The Crucible to further the political ends of the court. In constructing the crime of witchcraft, for which the death penalty is imposed, the practitioners of the law in Salem cite the 'protection of the innocent' as their primary motivation:

Hale: Look at her God-given innocence; her soul is so tender; we must protect her, Tituba; the Devil is out and preying on her like a beast upon the flesh of the pure lamb. God will bless you for your help.
The Crucible, p49.

The authority of the courts is supported by this relationship between law and religion, because the practitioners of the law do not only control the language of innocence and justice. They are also charged with the specific construction of individual innocence and with drawing the lines of justice:

Danforth: You misunderstand, sir; I cannot pardon these when twelve are already hanged for the same crime. It is not just.
The Crucible, p113.

The circularity in Danforth's argument illustrates the extent to which the general principles of criminal responsibility contained in notions of innocence and justice are subverted when the law becomes caught up in social hysteria. In the character of Reverend Hale, Miller presents a churchman who, like Melville's priest in Billy Budd, finds that his ideals of justice and innocence are compromised by the legal institution to which he is attached:

Hale: I cannot say he is an honest man; I know him little. But in all justice, sir, stop here; send him home and let him come again with a lawyer -
Danforth: Now look you, Hale -
Hale: Excellency, I have signed seventy-two death warrants, I am a minister of the Lord, and I dare not take a life without there be a proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of conscience may doubt it.
Danforth: Mr Hale, you surely do not doubt my justice.
The Crucible, p89

The only answer he receives is that the word of the law is final. The legal definitions of innocence and justice are absolute in the society, and moral notions of right and wrong are inconsequential. Reverend Hale is, however, unable to accept this. Principles of justice and innocence are, to him, sacred and incapable of redefinition. The strength of his belief enables him to place himself in conflict with the court, asserting the unequivocal innocence of those the court has condemned:

Danforth: It is no lie, you cannot speak of lies.
Hale: It is a lie! They are innocent!
The Crucible, p115.

Throughout the play, Miller shows us that notions of innocence and justice are almost always problematic. Abigail Williams, for example, maliciously leads the girls in crying out false accusations of witchcraft. Her guilt seems clear, and yet, in her descriptions of her childhood, and in her relationship with John Proctor, Miller shows us that her loss of 'innocence' began long before her 'crime' was committed:

Abigail: I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretence Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men! And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes? I will not, I cannot! You loved me, John Proctor, and whatever sin it is, you love me yet!
The Crucible, p30.

Abigail's moral loss of innocence is accompanied by her construction of herself as legally innocent. Miller does not allow her troubled childhood to excuse Abigail's behaviour, however, and in her case, 'poetic justice' results, for "legend has it that Abigail turned up later as a prostitute in Boston." (The Crucible - Echoes Down the Corridor.) John Proctor, in contrast, moves from personal guilt over his adultery to an acceptance of his own capacity for innocence. By denying the false confession, Proctor refuses to compromise his essential innocence, or to cheapen the deaths of those innocents who were condemned with him:

Proctor: You have made your magic now, for now do I think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.
The Crucible, p125.

Like Billy Budd, John Proctor dies in a moment of final, poignant triumph:

Elizabeth: He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!
The Crucible, p126.

Although the legal system's definitions of innocence and justice may licence the taking of his life, Proctor's own personal truth to the principles underlying these terms results in the salvation of his soul.

Like Melville and Miller, Truman Capote, in his novel, In Cold Blood, investigates the grey areas of innocence and justice in their relationship to a legal system. Unlike the other two texts, however, the original victims in In Cold Blood are clearly innocent, and uninvolved in their own deaths. Capote emphasises this through his construction of the Clutter family's idyllic life before the murder:

Then, with the dog running ahead of him, he moved southwards towards the fields, lion-coloured now, luminously golden with after-harvest stubble.

The river lay in this direction; near its bank stood a grove of fruit trees - peach, cherry and apple. Fifty years ago, according to native memory, it would have taken a lumberjack ten minutes to axe all the trees in western Kansas... However, as Mr Clutter often remarked, 'an inch more of rain and this country would be a paradise - Eden on earth.' The little collection of fruit-bearers growing by the river was his attempt to contrive, rain or no, a patch of paradise, the green, apple-scented Eden, he envisioned.
In Cold Blood, p10-11.

Prosperous, happy and peaceful, the innocence of the Clutter family is only complicated by the stark contrast it makes to the childhood experiences of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The harrowing narrative in which Perry relates his family history could not be further from the 'innocently normal' image of Nancy Clutter making cherry-pie:

When Perry said, 'I think there must be something wrong with us,' he was making an admission he 'hated to make.' After all, it was 'painful' to imagine that one might be 'not just right' - particularly if whatever was wrong was not your own fault but 'maybe a thing you were born with.' Look at his family! Look at what had happened there! His mother, an alcoholic, had strangled to death on her own vomit. Of her children, two sons and two daughters, only the younger girl, Barbara, had entered ordinary life, married, begun raising a family. Fern, the other daughter, jumped out of a window of a San Francisco hotel. (Perry had since 'tried to believe she slipped,' for he'd loved Fern. She was 'such a sweet person,' so artistic,' a 'terrific' dancer, and she could sing, too. 'If she'd ever had any luck at all, with her looks and all, she could have got somewhere, been somebody.' It was sad to think of her climbing over a windowsill and falling fifteen floors.) And there was Jimmy, the older boy - Jimmy who had one day driven his wife to suicide and killed himself the next.
In Cold Blood, p106.

As the confessed murderer of the Clutter family, Perry's guilt should be clear, but as Capote shows, the question of innocence is not black and white. In investigating the question himself, Perry's narrative contains echoes of Herman Melville's discourse on the colour of "any degree of aberration" (Billy Budd, p380):

'... Dick didn't shoot them, he never could've - though he's damn quick when it comes to running down an old dog. I wonder why I did it.' He scowled, as though the problem was new to him, a newly unearthed stone of surprising, unclassified colour. 'I don't know why,' he said, as if holding it to the light, and angling it now here, now there. 'I was sore at Dick. The tough brass boy. But it wasn't Dick. Or the fear of being identified. I was willing to take that gamble. And it wasn't because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like other people have all my life. Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.'
In Cold Blood, p282.

Perry's 'innocence' is complicated by the extent to which his act is involuntary, the natural overflow of a lifetime's built-up tension. In contrast to Perry, Dick Hickock stridently refuses to take any responsibility for the murder. Technically he is correct and has a claim to innocence:

'What's so funny about that sonofabitch?'
'Nothing,' Andrews said. 'But I was thinking: when you count my three and your four and their seven, that makes fourteen of them and five of us. Now five into fourteen averages out -'
'Four into fourteen,' Hickock curtly corrected him. 'There are four killers up here and one railroaded man. I'm no goddam killer. I never touched a hair on a human head.'
In Cold Blood, p318.

When the crime is considered in accordance with legal principles of criminal responsibility, by which a person's legal innocence is established, it becomes apparent that while Perry carried out the act, Dick's part fulfilled the mental requirement for murder. The process of establishing legal innocence is further complicated by the role of Floyd Wells:

... a reward of one thousand dollars for any information leading to the capture and conviction of the person or persons guilty of the Clutter murders. An interesting item; it almost inspired Wells to speak. But he was still too much afraid, and his fear was not solely of the other prisoners. There was also the chance that the authorities might charge him with being an accessory to the crime. After all, it was he who had guided Dick to the Clutters' door; certainly it could be claimed that he had been aware of Dick's intentions. However one viewed it, his situation was curious, his excuses questionable.
In Cold Blood, p155.

On the level of moral innocence, Capote raises even more questions about the relative value of such concepts. In preventing Dick from raping Nancy Clutter, Perry was simply reacting to his inner impulses and prejudices. However, the actual Clutter murders could also be attributed to Perry's innate impulses, if the violent outbursts towards authority in his past are considered:

Then he says to me, as we're heading along the hall towards Nancy's room, "I'm gonna bust that little girl." And I said, "Uh-huh. But you'll have to kill me first." He looked like he didn't believe he'd heard right. He says, "What do you care? hell, you can bust her, too." Now, there's something I despise. Anybody that can't control themselves sexually. Christ, I hate that kind of stuff. I told him straight, "Leave her alone. Else you've got a buzzsaw to fight."
In Cold Blood, p236.

Capote leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions regarding the relative innocence of Perry and Dick. Of equal problematic value, however, is the question of the justice of capital punishment, and the legal arguments used to justify it. A precise moral argument for the justice of the death penalty is given through the thoughts of Al Dewey, the investigator in charge of the Clutter murder, though he, in particular, has reason to believe in the ambiguity inherent in all claims of justice:

The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. None the less, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger - with, rather, a measure of sympathy - for Perry's life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress towards one mirage and then another. Dewey's sympathy, however, was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy. He hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged - hanged back to back.
In Cold Blood, p239.

Al Dewey's concern with justice is enhanced by his role as detective, for it is his duty to 'protect the innocent,' which includes solving the crime and ensuring the rights of potentially innocent suspects are upheld. Dewey's support for the death penalty is shared by the majority of the community the narrative 'surveys'. In his quest for justice, however, Capote also includes a persuasive moral argument against capital punishment for Perry and Dick. This argument is given weighty authority, as it is presented by the brother of the murdered Bonnie Clutter:

'I have heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. it is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it very difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.'
In Cold Blood, p103.

In turn, Capote also emphasises the artificiality of the legal rhetoric of the prosecution, which uses similar Christian arguments to justify the death penalty. Logan Green, called in as the "star turn" (In Cold Blood, p295) for the prosecution, displays the sense of presence common to both Captain Vere and Danforth in the role of pursuing 'justice' for the society:

Green fumbled, and seemed to accidentally shut the Bible, whereupon the visiting legal dignitaries grinned and nudged each other, for this was a venerable courtroom ploy - the lawyer who while reading from the Scriptures pretends to lose his place, and then remarks, as Green now did, 'Never mind. I think I can quote from memory. Genesis Nine, Verse Six: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."'
In Cold Blood, p296-7.

Legal justice requires that the accepted principles of the law be followed, but as Capote shows, even this is problematic when there is no consensus in society as to what those principles are. In the jurisdiction of Kansas, where Perry and Dick are tried, the legal rules regarding insanity are shown to be the subject of considerable controversy. The rules set out the elements needed to prove a person innocent due to severe mental disturbance:

The M'Naughten Rule, as has been previously stated, recognises no form of insanity provided the defendant has the capacity to discriminate between right and wrong - legally, not morally. ... [and] the more lenient, though to some minds impractical, Durham Rule, which is simply that an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act is the product of mental disease or mental defect.
In Cold Blood, p308-9.

These principles are concerned to ensure that people are only condemned for the crimes which they 'legally' committed. As the three texts considered show, such principles of justice are commonly subverted as the law is adapted to meet the society's political needs. This theme is most clearly illustrated by the audience in Perry's dream, as he bids goodbye to his final fantasy future:

There was no applause, none, and yet thousands of patrons packed the vast and gaudy room - a strange audience, mostly men and mostly Negroes. Staring at them, the perspiring entertainer at last understood their silence, for suddenly he knew that these were phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted - and in the same instant he realised that he was there to join them, that the gold-painted steps had led to a scaffold, that the platform on which he stood was opening beneath him.
In Cold Blood, p312.

In the three texts considered, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the ideals of innocence and justice that underlie Western legal systems are interrogated to find the extent to which these ideals work in practise. They look at the rhetoric used by the law to justify its interference in people's lives. The texts also suggest a distinction between legal definitions of justice and innocence, and personal, moral beliefs about these principles. The general conclusion seems to be that innocence and justice are ambiguous, subjective terms, capable of multiple interpretation. Finally, these three texts show that the principles of criminal responsibility that justify capital punishment are uncertain, often formulated in accordance with political pressures, instead of being based on ideals of right and wrong.


Primary Sources:

Melville, H.
Billy Budd, Sailor And Other Stories
(Penguin, 1967)

Miller, A.
The Crucible
(Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1968)

Capote, T.
In Cold Blood
(Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1966)

Marker's comments.

87% - A very good essay which addresses the topic thoughtfully and searchingly. You read the texts - especially Capote - in interesting and illuminating ways, and the passages you pick for each one are well used in your argument. The next question might be: 'where do concepts of natural or moral justice come from...?' Good work.

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