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from the September 2008 issue

Justice Unbalanced

One night, many years ago, I was strolling with a friend on the terrace of the São Pedro de Alcântara Theater. It was between the second and third acts of the play The Sentence, or The Tribunal of the Jury. All I remember is the title, and it was precisely the title that brought us to talk about an institution, and for my friend to tell a tale that I have never forgotten.


I've always been opposed to juries (my friend said). Not because of the institution in itself, which is liberal, but because I find it repugnant to condemn someone, because of the New Testament precept: "Judge not, lest you be judged." Nevertheless, I served twice. The court was in the old prison building, the end of Ourives Street, at the beginning of Conceição.

Such were my scruples that I voted to acquit all but two of the defendants. In fact, the prosecutors did not prove their guilt; one or two trials were poorly argued. The first defendant I voted to convict was a quite presentable man, accused of having stolen a certain amount, nothing great, rather small in fact, by forging a document. He didn't deny the fact, nor could he, but he argued that he had neither instigated nor planned the crime. Someone, whom he didn't name, bore that responsibility, but God, who sees into our hearts, would visit upon the true criminal the punishment he deserved. He said this tonelessly, sadly, his words muffled, his eyes lifeless, so pale as to evoke pity; the prosecutor construed his poor color as confession of the crime. The defense attorney, on the other hand, contended that his dejection and pallor represented the pain of slandered innocence.

Seldom have I witnessed a more brilliant debate. The prosecutor's speech was short but powerful, indignant, with a tone that seemed hateful but wasn't. The defender was not only a talented lawyer, but was making his first appearance before the court. Relatives, colleagues, and friends awaited the young man's opening statement, and it was worth the wait. The speech was admirable and would have saved the accused, if he could be saved, but his guilt was obvious. The lawyer died two years later, in 1865. Who can say what a loss it was! Believe me, when I see a young man of talent die, I feel it more than when an old man dies… But let's return to what I was saying. There was a rebuttal by the prosecution and a rejoinder by the defense. The judge summarized the debate, then read the instructions, which were given to the foreman of the jury, who was I.

I won't say what went on in that closed room; besides being confidential, the details are of no interest in this particular case, which you must keep to yourself. I'll speak quickly; the third act is about to start.

One of the jury members, corpulent and redheaded, seemed more convinced than anyone of the crime and of the accused's guilt. The trial was reviewed, the instructions read, and the vote taken (eleven against one); only the redheaded juror was silent. In the end, as the vote guaranteed conviction, he was satisfied, saying that it would be an act of weakness, or worse, if we were to acquit. One of the jurors, surely the one who had voted in the negative, offered a few words in defense of the young man. The redheaded man— his name was Lopes—replied in annoyance:

"What, sir? But the prisoner's crime is more than proven."

"Let's stop arguing," I said, and everyone agreed with me.

"I'm not arguing, I'm defending my vote," Lopes continued. "The crime is more than proven. The fellow denies it, because all defendants deny, but what's certain is that he committed the forgery, and what forgery! All for a pittance, two hundred mil-réis! Steal something big! If you're going to steal, steal something big!"

"Steal something big!" I admit that my jaw dropped, not because I understood the phrase, but just the opposite; I neither understood it nor found it clear, and that was why my jaw dropped. I finally went over and knocked on the door. It was opened and I went to the judge's bench and gave him the jury's verdict. The defendant was convicted. His lawyer appealed; whether the sentence was upheld or overturned, I don't know; I lost track of the matter.

When I left the court, I thought about Lopes's words and seemed to understand them. "Steal something big!" was like saying that the defendant was, more than a thief, a petty thief, a thief of nothing. I came to that explanation at the corner of Rua São Pedro, coming down Ourives. I began to retrace my steps a bit, to see if I could find Lopes and shake his hand; no sign of Lopes. The next day, reading our names in the newspaper, I came across his full name; it wasn't worth the effort to look for him, and it didn't stick in my mind. Such are the pages of life, as my son used to say when he wrote poetry, and added that the pages pass by one by one, dead as soon as read. It rhymed like that, but I don't remember the form of the verses.

In a conversation much later, my son told me that I shouldn't evade the jury duty to which I had just been summoned. I told him I wouldn't appear, and cited my biblical reasoning; he insisted, calling it a citizen's duty, a volunteer service that no self-respecting person could deny his country.

I went and served in three trials. One of them was an employee of the Bank of Honorable Labor, the cashier, accused of embezzlement. I'd heard of the case, which the newspapers had covered without great detail, and in fact I didn't read much crime news. The defendant came in and sat down on the famous bench of the accused. He was a thin, redheaded man. I stared at him and shuddered; I seemed to be looking at my fellow juror from years before. I didn't recognize him immediately because now he was thin, but he had the same color hair and beard, the same air, and finally the same voice and the same name: Lopes.

"What is your name?" the judge asked.

"Antônio do Carmo Ribeiro Lopes."

I no longer recalled the first three names, but the fourth was the same, and other signs confirmed my memories; it didn't take long for me to recognize the person from that remote day. I tell you here truly that all these circumstances kept me from paying full attention to the questioning, and much escaped me. When I began to listen carefully, it was almost over. Lopes firmly denied everything he was asked, or replied in a way that complicated the proceedings. He looked about without fear or anxiety, perhaps with the hint of a smile on the corners of his mouth.

There followed the reading of the charges: embezzlement and diversion of one hundred and ten thousand mil-réis. I won't say how the crime or the criminal was discovered, because it's late already; the orchestra is tuning up. What I can say with certainty is that the reading of the charges impressed me greatly, the judicial inquiry, the documents, the attempted flight by the cashier, and a series of aggravating circumstances; finally, the testimony of witnesses. I listened to what was read or spoken and looked at Lopes. He listened, too, but with his head held high, looking at the court recorder, the judge, the ceiling, and the people who were to decide his fate, I among them. When he looked at me, he didn't recognize me; he stared at me for a time, then smiled, as he did with the others.

All of the man's gestures served both prosecution and defense, as had years earlier the contrasting gestures of another defendant. The prosecutor saw in them the clear revelation of cynicism, while the lawyer for the defense pointed out that only innocence and certainty of acquittal could account for such tranquility of mind.

While the two orators were speaking, I was thinking of the enormity of being there, sitting on the same bench as the other defendant, this man who had voted to convict him, and naturally I repeated to myself the biblical text: "Judge not, lest you be judged." I confess that more than once I felt a shiver. Not that I myself would misappropriate money, but I could be falsely accused of embezzlement, or in a moment of rage, kill someone. He who had once judged was now himself being judged.

Along with the biblical words I suddenly remembered those of Lopes: "Steal something big!" You can't imagine how that remembrance shook me. It brought back everything I've told you now, the discussion I heard in the jury room, even those words: "Steal something big!" I saw that he wasn't a petty thief, a thief of nothing, but one of great value. The verb rigidly defined the action. "Steal something big!" It means a man shouldn't commit an act of that kind except for a considerable sum. No one should defile himself for a few coins. If you're going to steal, steal something big!

Ideas and words like this were rolling around in my head, not allowing me to follow the judge's summary of the debates. It was over. He read the instructions, and we retired to the jury room. I can say here and now that I voted to convict, so certain was I of the misappropriation of the hundred and ten thousand mil-réis. There was, among other documents, a letter of Lopes's that offered evidence of the crime. But it appears not everyone read it with the same eyes as I. Two other jurors voted with me. Nine doubted Lopes's guilt; the verdict of acquittal was read, and the defendant walked out of the courtroom. The difference in votes was so great that I began to doubt if I was right. Perhaps not. Even today I feel the tugs of conscience. Luckily, if Lopes really didn't commit the crime, he didn't suffer the punishment of my vote, and this consideration consoles me for the error, but my conscience continues to nag. The best thing of all is not to judge anyone, lest we be judged. Steal something big! Steal something small! Steal however you desire! The safest thing is not to judge anyone…

The music has ended, let's go back to our seats.

Translation of "Suje-se Gordo," first published in 1906 in Relíquias de Casa Velha. Translation copyright 2008 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.

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