“At the federal prosecutor’s office in the Southern District of New York, the staff, over beer and pretzels, used to play a darkly humorous game.Junior and senior prosecutors would sit around, and someone would name a random celebrity – say, Mother Teresa or John Lennon.
It would then be up to the junior prosecutors to figure out a plausible crime for which to indict him or her.
The crimes were not usually rape, murder, or other crimes you’d see on Law & Order but rather the incredibly broad yet obscure crimes that populate the U.S. Code like a kind of jurisprudential minefield: Crimes like “false statements” (a felony, up to five years), “obstructing the mails” (five years), or “false pretenses on the high seas” (also five years).
The trick and the skill lay in finding the more obscure offenses that fit the character of the celebrity and carried the highest sentences. The result, however, was inevitable: ‘prison time.’”
William L. Anderson
American justice provides no safeguards against innocent people being indicted. In their zeal for convictions, prosecutors easily lose sight of the fact that everybody is presumed innocent. Like Kafka’s cage, they view their job as catching birds.
“To a hammer, everything is a nail,” said Mark Twain.
140 years ago, Twain visited Venice and came across a unique system of justice that caught his attention: the famous Lion’s Mouth. There were several of them in the city, the most famous one being at the Doges Palace. (The Lion’s Mouth and the dungeon beneath the Doges Palace are popular tourist attractions today.)
Under the Venetian system of justice dating back to the 15th century, a citizen could slip an anonymous letter* into the open mouth of the stone lion plaque embedded in the palace wall, without fear of retribution. Wrote Twain in Innocents Abroad:
“These were the terrible Lions’ Mouths… these were the throats down whichwent the anonymous accusation thrust in secretly in the dead of night by an enemy, that doomed many an innocent man to walk the Bridge of Sighs and descend into the dungeon which none entered and hoped to see the sun again…”
In France – home of the dreaded words “J’accuse!” – such letters were commonplace. Called lettres de cachet, or “letters in hiding,” these were anonymous letters of accusation. The famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, is about the injustice of a man put away in a dungeon for eighteen years solely on the basis of such a letter.
Today, of course, we have our modern equivalent: the snitch, accepted at face value and granted immunity by prosecutors. But Twain had it wrong. The Lion’s Mouth was not a tool of oppression and persecution, it was a tool of justice. The Lion’s Mouth had three locks, meaning a message could only be retrieved by three people.
There were no runaway prosecutors in those days, justice was done by committee. Allegations were carefully checked out, not taken at face value. Because there could be no retribution (because the person making the complaint was not known), there developed in the Italian judicial mind a keen sense of judging the contents of the Lion’s Mouth.