A Day in Court
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Netherlands Antilles
HAVE you ever attended court in your country either as spectator or as participant? It can certainly prove to be an eye-opening experience, one that can broaden your outlook and aid you to appreciate that a system of law is an indispensable feature of society as we know it.
Probably many persons feel that the television or movie presentations of court trials are sufficient to familiarize them with court procedure. However, it should be kept in mind that such mock trials are usually far more dramatic and fast-moving than the real thing. Besides, an entire day spent in court brings to view a cross section of the actions that are brought to trial, ranging from petty matters all the way to cases involving loss of life.
Having been a resident of Willemstad, Curaçao, capital of the Netherlands Antilles, for over twenty-three years, during which time I had never been in court, I thought it would be interesting to attend and see what goes on. Of additional interest is the fact that cases here are tried under the Roman law system, whereas I had been brought up in a land where common law was followed.
Two Law Systems
The laws of most countries are based on one of two great systems of law, Roman law or common law. However, we must beware of a possible confusion resulting from different applications of the same term. For instance, in countries where Roman law is followed, they do not call it “Roman law” but rather “civil law.” On the other hand, in lands where the common law is practiced the term “civil law” is used to contrast with “criminal law.” So, let us keep to the terms “Roman law” and “common law” in order to avoid any misunderstanding.
Roman law is much older than common law. The first codification of Roman law consisted of twelve tablets posted in the Roman Forum at the insistence of the unprivileged in about 450 B.C.E. It remained in force for many centuries. Then, in the sixth century C.E., Emperor Justinian sought further clarification and compilation of Roman law. During the so-called “Renaissance” Roman law gained much additional prestige. Then in 1804 further codification was undertaken in France.
As to common law, it might be said that it began with the Magna Carta in the thirteenth century C.E. King Edward I of England was to common law what Justinian was to Roman law. An outstanding point in the development of common law came with the publication of Commentaries on the Laws of England in the eighteenth century by the distinguished jurist, William Blackstone.
Investigation of the two systems brings to view evidences of rivalry. However, since neither system is perfect, it is to be expected that each has its merits and demerits. One outstanding difference is that under common law a person is considered innocent until proved guilty, whereas under Roman law the person charged with a crime is considered guilty until he can prove his innocence.
January 7 marked the opening of the first session of criminal court for 1970 in Willemstad, Curaçao. Proceedings got under way at 9 a.m. with Judge F. C. Fliek, a mild-mannered, middle-aged Dutchman presiding. Wednesday is the day set aside here for criminal court. Traffic violations and other minor cases are set for other days of the week. Excited about this adventure, I was in the courtroom early. I took a seat in the front row of the section set aside for spectators.
Like the Supreme Court of the United States the courthouse is large but the courtroom itself is small, accommodating only about fifty spectators on four rows of benches, each row rising slightly behind the one in front. There are chairs for three judges as well as a seat to the right of the judges for the prosecuting attorney and one at the left for the court recorder. Judges and lawyers dress in long black robes and wide white bibs, adding an air of solemnity to the scene.
Soon two policemen brought in a group of six men who were due for trial. They were well dressed and clean looking, between the ages of twenty and thirty-eight. Exhibits to be used in the case were placed on the judge’s desk. A lady lawyer, also dressed in a long black robe, came in and conversed with one of the defendants. Then the bailiff arrived. When he saw me he came over and introduced himself, saying he knew me, though I did not recall where we met. When I asked if I might take notes, he invited me to come over to the press box. This suited me very well since otherwise the prisoners would have their backs to me, making it difficult to hear their statements.
The language problem sometimes complicates matters in Curaçao’s courtroom. Dutch is the official language, while Papiamento is the native tongue. However, there are also many people in the country who speak English or Spanish as their native language. Normally a person would be tried in his native language, and so a court interpreter is usually on hand. Today’s judge, it turned out, was quite a linguist and made little use of the interpreter. In Dutch, Papiamento or English he counseled the defendants kindly, much as a father would a wayward child.
One thing not found in this courtroom is a jury box. In common law there is a jury of the defendant’s peers to decide on his guilt or innocence or, in some lawsuits, determining the amount of the judgment. Here, under Roman law, the judge alone decides those matters.
Roman law is said to be based more on rules, on what is called “doctrine,” while common law is based on principle and precedent. Under the former the judge plays a lesser role. He is more like a referee calling the plays according to the rules. Under the common-law system lawyers and judges look for precedent, and a judge may become famous for some decision handed down, one that will be used as a precedent for generations to come.
The handling of the defendant before coming to trial also differs under the two systems. In some parts of the world common law has progressed to the point where the person arrested cannot even be questioned by the police until he has an opportunity to be represented by a lawyer and until he has been told what his rights are under the law. Here in Curaçao, on the other hand, one can be arrested when suspected of a crime and held incommunicado for four days or longer while the case is being investigated. The advantage of this is said to be that a culprit is not able to establish a false alibi while held incommunicado. The advantage, of course, is on the side of the police. In such circumstances a criminal is more likely to confess his crime.
It may be hastily concluded that jury trial under common law offers the best likelihood of a fair hearing of the case. But is this necessarily so? What does the average person serving on a jury know about law? Is it not true that members of a jury can be more easily swayed emotionally by a clever lawyer, while a judge or panel of judges is more likely not to be swayed?
There is also the matter of time and expense to be considered. The time consumed in choosing a jury often piles up and results in a backlog of cases in the common-law courts. Under Roman law a number of cases may be disposed of in the time it takes to choose one member of a jury under common law—especially if the member happens to be a controversial figure.
Cases tend to be decided with less delay under Roman law, for under that system there is no provision for release on bail or under bond. In Curaçao, if a crime is committed that carries a sentence of four years or more, the person is held in prison until tried. Time spent in prison before trial is usually deducted from the sentence. If the crime carries a sentence of less than four years, the court may permit the defendant to return home until the case comes up, though much depends on the type of crime involved.
Observing the Procedure
Do you wonder about the effectiveness of a system under which the decision is left to one man, the judge? Well, in each case tried on that day in court the judge was always careful to tell the defendant that he had fourteen days in which to appeal the decision. That would take the case to a higher court with three judges. If still unsatisfied, the defendant could carry his case to a still higher court in Holland. Of the fourteen cases I observed that day none were appealed. If the judge seemed to err at any time in his decisions, it was on the side of mercy.
Perhaps you may think that this was merely a municipal court where only petty cases or traffic accidents are heard. No, this was a real criminal court. For example, the third defendant that day was a tall, well-dressed, well-mannered man of thirty-eight. There was nothing in his manner to suggest that he had, just a few months before, committed a premeditated murder.
The facts, as produced before the court, showed that he had doused his employer with gasoline and then set him afire. Though rescued by the police, the victim had been badly burned and died in the hospital two days later. Why the crime? It appears that the man had long harbored animosity against his employer and had often entertained ideas about revenge. This was because the employer kept belittling him and poking fun at him. He was too shy to discuss the matter with his employer; he had simply let resentment build up to the explosive stage.
At the trial the prosecuting attorney asked for a sentence of fourteen years in prison. Does that seem to you to be a light sentence for such a crime? It does remind one that Roman law from its inception has always tended to value human life lightly. For example, in early Rome a man careless of his duties toward his master could be severely punished, whereas if he killed one of his own peers he was called a “worthless fellow” and got away with a comparatively light punishment.
Other cases that were heard this day in court were of a less serious nature. Most involved stealing, fraud, fighting, resisting arrest. One case concerning morals was heard behind closed doors. The judge would ask each defendant a number of questions such as: Were you under the influence of alcohol when the crime was committed? Are you married? How many children do you have? Do you have a job, or did you lose the job because of this trouble you got into? He was like a father, showing personal interest in them, telling them they should learn to control their tempers. He would point out how foolish it was to resist arrest, for, after all, the policeman has to do his job and is not working for the pleasure of it.
Criminals, like traffic violators, often repeat the same crime, and it was such that posed a real problem for the judge. First offenders were admonished to reform, and as a rule were given light sentences. Repeaters were dealt with more sternly.
Effects of the general moral breakdown throughout the earth are reflected here in Curaçao. Theft seems to be on the increase. What is more, theft of a previously unheard-of type—stealing from the alms boxes in churches! This brings to mind a case on the island of Barbados where a thief took a contribution box from a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses while the congregation was engaged in prayer.
A day spent in court, particularly as a spectator, is truly educational. One learns to think clearly and logically; to view an issue from more than one angle; to appreciate the rights of a defendant in court. One sees the evidences that we are living in those foretold “last days” when crimes and criminals would multiply. (2 Tim. 3:1-4) Above all, one gains a deeper appreciation of the fact that only an all-powerful God can set all matters straight and enforce a perfect law that will bring peace and endless happy living to those who abide by its requirements.