You Can Stand on the Other Side of Humanity and be Right: How the Christopher Husbands' Verdict Made Me Appreciate Our Criminal Justice System
For virtually my entire life, I have been in the minority when it comes to thinking. I can remember examples of this throughout my life from the time I was nine years old and liked the song Fight the Power by Public Enemy while most of my classmates liked New Kids on the Block (and thought I was the crazy one!). Or when I was the only person in my class who thought that O.J. Simpson was properly acquitted after learning that Phillip Vannatter had brought a vial of O.J. Simpson“s blood to his house and there was video footage of Dennis Fung meeting Officer Vannatter at O.J. Simpson´s property while collecting samples to be tested for DNA (how about that Mr. Fung!)
Being this way growing up in school made me miserable a lot. School to me was often an exercise in conforming. I used to hate being assigned a book to read and get credit for hitting the talking points that the teacher had in front of him or her. I actually thought I was very good at this, but I always hated it. I hated it so much that I thought I hated reading until a seismic event happened in my life at the age of 14.
When I was 14 years old, I read the book The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens. I knew almost nothing about Mother Theresa at the time, except for the mythology surrounding her that she was selfless, devoted herself to the service of others, especially the poor, and had achieved almost saintly status. When I began to read the argument that Mother Theresa was a complete fraud, I was mesmerized. Hitchens set out an argument that Mother Theresa´s flagship institution was a substandard hospice centre in Calcutta. That she was a spokesperson for the Catholic right, which had been for decades associated with fascism. That donations to her charitable organization did not go to improve the care and health of the poor, but rather to operations to convert people to Catholicism. Most damningly according Hitchens´ argument, that Mother Theresa went around to the poor and wretched of Calcutta and gave them the worst possible advice they could ever receive — that their poverty was a gift from god and that they should have as many children as they can and never use birth control, all but guaranteeing them a life of misery if they followed this advice.
Hitchens argued that Mother Theresa´s entire saintly reputation came from a misguided BBC documentary that talked about her being bathed in a saintly aura. It did not matter that this was nonsense. It did not matter that I or any of my classmates had never seen the documentary. Everyone somehow got the memo that Mother Theresa was among the best of humanity, even saintly, and everyone was prepared to hold this view and repeat it. Everyone except Hitchens.
After I read this book, I could finally identify something that I had often felt throughout my life, but struggled to fully understand or embrace — you can stand on the other side of humanity and be right. It is one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of life that this is possible. Conventional wisdom can be wrong. The mob can be wrong. A single individual can stand alone and be right.
Becoming a defence lawyer is sometimes an exercise in embracing this fundamental truth. Imagine the cycle in cases that make the news: an act occurs that horrifies the public; the police identify a suspect and have a press conference announcing the arrest and charges; a scary mugshot with a disoriented accused is released to the public and put in a news article that elicits anger in people at the sight of it; the public demands accountability for the horrific act.
The problem with this cycle is that very often the conventional wisdom is wrong. Someone has to have the freedom and opportunity to challenge the theory of the police, or the expert evidence or the eyewitness identification or the mental state of the accused person.
In 2019, many people are afraid to express controversial views. The power and permanence of Google often makes people terrified to be wrong, say the wrong thing, offend the wrong person or deviate from conventional wisdom. Social media, with its character limits and the incentive to troll and shame, often feels like an echo chamber that actually increases the fear many have to express views that deviate from the majority. But somehow a courtroom has escaped all this. Somehow a courtroom is a refuge from all of this. A courtroom is one of the freest areas left in our society. In a courtroom, the defence lawyer can stand alone, be excoriated in the media, be ostracized by friends and peers, be trolled and shamed on social meda, but be proven right by a judge or jury.
In the Christopher Husbands trial, I found myself in the majority in thinking that Christopher Husbands should be convicted and would be convicted of murder. But the lawyers for Christopher Husbands, Dirk Derstine and Stephanie DiGiuseppe, saw it differently. From the beginning, they saw the case as being an issue of mental health and Christopher Husbands´ state of mind and whether the Crown could prove that he could form the intent for a crime. Knowing very little about the case, I found myself in the echo chamber and thought his defence was complete nonsense and expected the jury to make short work of it and convict.
When the jury unanimously held a doubt about Mr. Husbands´ state of mind in terms of forming the intent for murder and acquitted him of that charge, I was astounded. I was astonished. I could not believe that was the result the jury reached.
There was a very substantial outrage on social media and in newspapers about the verdict that I read with interest. But for me, rather than be outraged, I took a step back and thought about what I have noticed and felt throughout my life in being in the minority when it comes to thinking and appreciated that our criminal justice system permits lawyers the freedom to advocate controversial positions for their clients without fear and also appreciated the extraordinary achievement of Dirk Derstine and Stephanie DiGiuseppe in standing on the other side of humanity (including me) and being proven right by a jury.
Since the Christopher Husbands´ acquittal, I have been thinking about how important it is to be able to stand on the other side of humanity and advocate a position without fear. There is something about this possibility that is central to the human experience and that people have understood since time immemorial. For example, the Biblical Abraham is referred to as coming from “the other side.” This is a very clever double meaning in that it refers to Abraham literally coming from the other side of the river from Canaan in Ur (modern day Iraq), but also figuratively being on the other side of humanity in that he worshipped one god while the rest of humanity worshipped many gods.
Rather than get angry about the Christopher Husbands verdict, perhaps it is time to stop and reflect about the importance of being able to advocate a controversial position without fear because of the possibility that the minority is right. We ought to cherish this as a society and celebrate it. The ability to think differently and dissent is part of our identity as human beings and is what often makes life interesting and exciting so here goes: Public Enemy was way better than New Kids on the Block, O.J. Simpson was properly acquitted and Mother Theresa was a hack and a fraud who never once in her life appeared to be bathed in a saintly aura. You can stand on the other side of humanity and be right. Hallelujah.