William L. Downing: That Drood Dude

Washington State's YMCA Youth & Coverment 2014 Mock Trial Case

by Kisaki Shattori Boshi
(click to enlarge)

In re­cent years, our mock trial cases have cel­e­brat­ed the 200th birth­days of Edgar Allan Poe and Al­fred Lord Ten­nyson. This year, it is Charles Dick­ens’ turn. True his 200th birth­day slipped by us on Febru­ary 7, 2012 but the first quar­ter of 2014 marks the cen­ten­ni­al of one of the most fa­mous mock tri­als of all time. In Jan­uary of 1914, with G.K. Chester­ton act­ing as judge and George Bernard Shaw as the pros­e­cu­tor, a mock trial con­vened to get to the bot­tom of Dick­ens’ un­fin­ished novel The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. (For the record, that mur­der pros­e­cu­tion of choir­mas­ter John Jasper ended in a mis­tri­al.)

We’re going to pick up the thread of that old in­ves­ti­ga­tion this year. Of course Dick­ens’ open nar­ra­tive hasn’t stood still dur­ing the 143 years since he put it down. To serve our pur­pos­es, his facts have been placed into a lit­er­ary mash-up blender to which we’ve added such mod­ernisms as In­ter­net brides, in­sid­er trad­ing scan­dals, po­lice drones and the up­side down as­sem­bly of a peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wich. For flavour­ing, some el­e­ments from other Dick­ens works have been tossed in and maybe even a lit­tle of the 2012 pop­u­lar novel Gone Girl

It can be a com­mon oc­cur­rence these days for a no­to­ri­ous crime to be fol­lowed by the news that there ex­ists no liv­ing, breath­ing sus­pect. It may be that the in­ves­ti­ga­tors find they have nowhere to turn or it may be that the life of the in­di­vid­u­al re­spon­si­ble has been taken by the po­lice or by his own hand. This can leave un­sat­is­fied the pub­lic ap­petites for jus­tice and for more in­for­ma­tion. In such a case, the next thing you will often hear is the news that a pe­riph­er­al play­er in the drama has been charged with the crime of ren­der­ing crim­i­nal as­sis­tance. While one who know­ing­ly as­sists in the com­mis­sion of a crime is deemed an ac­com­plice in that crime, one who sim­ply aids the crim­i­nal af­ter-the-fact com­mits only the less­er of­fense of ren­der­ing crim­i­nal as­sis­tance, or “RCA.”

An RCA charge can ac­com­plish two sig­nif­i­cant ob­jec­tives. First, it may suc­ceed in squeez­ing out some new in­for­ma­tion that will help to build a case against a major bad guy. Sec­ond, it con­veys to the pub­lic that a hor­ren­dous deed has wide reper­cus­sions and a civ­i­lized so­ci­ety will seek all pos­si­ble an­swers in order to loud­ly pro­claim its life-af­firm­ing and jus­tice-af­firm­ing val­ues.

Early 2014 will find “Jan Jasper” now the “pris­on­er in the dock”, there to face charges of ren­der­ing crim­i­nal as­sis­tance to Edwin Drood who was sus­pect­ed of foul play in the dis­ap­pear­ance of Miss Rosa Bud. In han­dling this case, we will deal with im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary is­sues of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, im­mi­gra­tion law, se­cu­ri­ties reg­u­la­tion and, of course, crim­i­nal pro­ce­dure and cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence.

In fram­ing our is­sues, this case draws in­spi­ra­tion from many cor­ners of Dick­ens’ works. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est is Our Mu­tu­al Friend — Dick­ens’ last com­plet­ed novel, writ­ten just be­fore Drood. It con­cerns a man false­ly iden­ti­fy­ing him­self as “Julius Hand­ford” who is sus­pect­ed of some vague com­plic­i­ty in the mur­der of one John Har­mon be­fore it be­comes known that John Har­mon is very much alive. When ques­tioned, he re­sponds to a po­lice­man’s in­quiry in this fash­ion:

“No class of man can un­der­stand bet­ter than you, that fam­i­lies may not choose to pub­lish their dis­agree­ments and mis­for­tunes, ex­cept on the last ne­ces­si­ty. I do not dis­pute that you dis­charge your duty in ask­ing me the ques­tion; you will not dis­pute my right to with­hold the an­swer. Good night.”

This quote re­al­ly strikes at the heart of the is­sues in “That Drood Dude.” When is it the “last ne­ces­si­ty”, the point at which so­ci­ety’s needs com­pel the mere wit­ness to co­op­er­ate with au­thor­i­ties? And, when does a po­ten­tial wit­ness cross a line by doing more than sim­ply “with­hold” an an­swer? These are among the le­gal-moral-so­ci­etal ques­tions raised in this case, ques­tions of the type that Charles Dick­ens raised so well.

The au­thor would like to thank Mike Lang for his thought­ful proof­read­ing and, once again, hats off to Con­nie But­ler for her cover art. 

Au­gust 2013