The Harsh Law v. Christ: Haitian Criminal Justice Up-Close
When setting foot into the Palais de Justice in Les Cayes, Haiti, I am greeted by bold words Nicholas Nickleby might have copied from the walls of Dotheboys Hall: Dura Lex, Sed Lex, the law is harsh but it is the law. On its own, not the most surprising maxim to find in a courtroom. What makes me stare is that beneath it is a crucifix.
I nudge the Haitian lawyer next to me. “Is this display common in Haitian courtrooms?” He assures me it is.
The room bustles. Lawyers don their long black robes and law students natter and clerks huff and passersby with wide-open afternoons settle into back benches to be entertained. As I take my seat I puzzle over Christ and the Harsh Law and their meaning, intended and otherwise. Bells ring. We rise. We sit. I take out my pen, my notepad. I observe.
The Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) is a Haitian human rights organization representing a trio of victim’s interests in a civil lawsuit against five men accused of violent crimes, including murder. BAI invited trial observers to help encourage fair proceedings and protect victims from reprisal. As the lawyers’ verbal sparring picks up, the language is either in French or a barrage of Kreyòl too speedy for my mind to match. The temperature increases and I pull at my necktie. I find my observing eye stray, taking in details around the courtroom.
First, there are the victims. Back in 2007, they were attacked by Jean Morose Viliena, the local magistrate, and a group of his supporters in the town of Les Irois. One victim lost his eye. One lost his leg. Another lost his brother. For bizarre procedural reasons—the court secretary didn’t take notes or they were lost, so the high court set aside the original guilty verdict and ordered a re-trial—all of the victims were there in court, repeating their testimony, hoping for justice. I am impressed by their composure.
Second, there are the accused. The five men sit on a bench, looking tired, sad, or plain absent. Their ages vary from their late twenties to one man in his sixties. They’ve already been incarcerated for over seven years in Haitian prison while proceedings have stretched on. One of their cohort died during this time, and Jean Morose Viliena, their leader, reportedly absconded to the U.S. to avoid trial. I am struck by how very ordinary these men charged with so much harm appear.
Third, there are the lawyers. The prosecutor—calm, imperious—does most of the questioning. The opposing sides have deep benches of lawyers and they approach the lectern in turn like tag-team wrestlers.
There is a theatricality to the defense’s questioning that irks me. Imagine recreating a trial eight years after the initial crime, with no court transcripts, police reports, or physical evidence, just the testimony of the victims and their bodies, the accused, and a collection of witnesses. Though I don’t doubt the guilt of these accused, I wonder about the imperfect justice this system is known to churn out. I compare what I’m seeing to trials I’ve watched in U.S. criminal court and I sit in a place of judgment. But then I scold myself. Racially-disparate outcomes; money meaning the difference between guilt and innocence; wrongful convictions; pressuring innocent defendants to accept harsh plea bargains. The American brand of justice just hides its seams better.
The afternoon wears on. Another bead of sweat slips down my face. My eyes wander.
They return to Christ on his cross. Why is the crucifix even here? If I understand correctly, the maxim and the crucifix lack a shared, cumulative meaning. But I can’t escape them in this space together.
Jesus’ face happens to be inclined toward the accused. Jesus, the all-seeing, all-knowing. Jesus, wounded for the sins of the world. It brings to mind Calvary itself, when Jesus invited the repentant thief to enter into Paradise. I wonder if these men, likely to be condemned, are repentant.
Ah, the law is harsh, and it is the law, and I am for justice, but I am for grace. Not impunity, but a grace big enough to meet and cover the villainous wrongdoing of those men on that bench who very likely maimed and murdered. A grace able to temper that harsh law.