It must be conceded that we are in a peculiar condition in this nation today—in such a condition that, in my judgment, one of the greatest problems which have ever presented themselves to the minds of the people is confronting us. That problem is whether crime, and especially crime which destroys innocent human life, shall be triumphant; whether the man of blood, the man of vicious disposition, the man who destroys human life, shall be the despotic ruler, or whether the law of the land shall exert its peaceful sway, and by its protecting power secure all men in their lives under their own roof-tree or wherever they may be. It is a great problem. It is one which is exciting the interest of all good men in the land. We find the great educators of the people, the newspapers of the country, have discovered the evil and are agitating the method of finding a remedy. We find the matter discussed in the law journals of the nation, in the lectures of judges, in statements by professors of colleges, and we find it presented in the most forcible way from the pulpits of the land.
When we go to facts, we find that during the last six years there have been 43,902 homicides in the United States, an average of 7,317 per year. In the same time, there have been 723 legal executions and 1,118 lynchings. These startling figures show that crime is rapidly increasing instead of diminishing. In the last year 10,500 persons were killed, or at the rate of 875 per month, whereas in 1890 there were only 4,290, or less than half as many as in 1895. This bloody record shows a fearful increase of the crime which destroys human life. We are all alike anxious for a remedy, but before we can obtain one we must know the cause. We can easily recognize that the greatest evil of any civilized age is confronting us, not only in the shape of crimes committed by individuals but also of crimes committed by masses of men who are endeavoring by bloody and improper means to seek a remedy—I mean those who band themselves together as mobs to seek that protection which they fail to obtain under the forms of law.
What are the causes of this fearful condition? It cannot be because either in the states or nation we have a defective system of laws, because almost every violation of a human right which is serious in its nature is declared a crime and is punished by the laws of the states or the nation. In fact, according to most criminal lawyers, it may be said that we have the most magnificent system of laws defining crimes.
The truth about it is, for some reason or another, and the reason to my mind is manifest, the administration of the law affecting the civil rights of the citizen, his property rights growing out of controversies between man and man upon contracts, has come to be regarded as of much more important than the enforcement of the law which protects the life of the citizen. All can notice that. The criminal law and its administration have rather fallen into disgrace. That is especially true of the large cities of the country. All must agree it is more important to protect a man’s life than it is his property. If the man’s life is destroyed, if the assassin fires into his house and takes away his life, is that not a greater deprivation than to deprive him of his horse or his cow, or even of all the other property which he possesses? Now, why is this the case? It is largely because of the corrupt methods resorted to defeat the law’s administration, and because courts of justice look to the shadow in the shape of technicalities rather than to the substance in the shape of crime.
The cause of this condition springs in part from a morbid, diseased public sentiment, which begets undue sympathy for the criminal, and has none whatever for his murdered victim. It grows out of the indifference of the people to the enforcement of the criminal law. It arises from corrupt verdicts begotten by frauds and perjuries. It arises from the undue exercise of influence, either monetary, social, or otherwise so that juries are carried away from the line of duty. It is often brought into existence by the indifference and negligence of trial courts, for it cannot be said that courts have done their duty when so many murderers escape. To the dereliction of appellate courts this relic of barbarism, the mob, can be largely attributed. To their action, as a rule, may we look for the source of this revolting method of undertaking to secure protection. In fact, the greatest cause of the increase of crime is the action of the appellate courts, which very largely exist in order to consider and act on alleged flaws in the records of the trial tribunals. They make most strenuous efforts, as a rule, to see not when they can affirm but when they can reverse a case. Their conduct encourages the legal practice that is altogether in the interest of the man of crime. My judgment is that, if the people will turn their attention to this gravest of all questions and build up a public sentiment which will secure a vigorous and pure administration of the law in the trial courts, and then see to it that their lawmakers provide for the establishment of these courts of criminal appeals where cases can be passed upon by men who are entirely conversant with the criminal law of the land, crime in a large measure will decrease, and mobs will be entirely destroyed; for I believe it to be a cardinal truth that where the law is properly enforced, the people are more than willing to look to the law for security than to any method which is in violation of the law.
Published in This Land: Spring 2016.