Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

C. Fraser Smith: In Freddie Gray cases, signs of ‘Jarndyce’

Lawyers and judges conspire now to push the Freddie Gray cases into the chartless future.

And that’s not all bad.

Those who worried that Baltimore might never evade the shame of Gray’s life and death forget the memory-cleansing power of courts.

Over time, even the most important trial can lose its punch. Justice delayed is justice denied, to be sure. Over time, even the passionate demand for justice can fade.

A proof of sorts lies in the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the fictional lampoon found in Charles Dickens’ novel, “Bleak House.”

The demands of process, precedent and procedure dictated the court’s approach then and now.

One thing leads perforce to another. Over time, the process supplanted the issues.

Dickens writes of Jarndyce:

“No man alive knows what (the case) means. The parties to it understand it least…”

How could it be otherwise, he asks, what with everyone “mistily engaged in one of ten thousand stages or an endless cause, tripping one another on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities… making a pretense of equity …”

Couldn’t happen with the Baltimore case, right? Too many watchers here. But consider these developments with time consequences.

‘Scarecrow of a suit’

Baltimore faces six police abuse trials. The first ended with a hung jury. A new trial was scheduled for the summer. A spring conclusion for all six trials already reaches into July. (All the charges stem from Gray’s arrest and injuries sustained while in police custody last April.)

Trial two began – or would have begun – with the judge ordering the first defendant to testify, constitutional protections against self-incrimination notwithstanding. He would have some protections, but…

There are, you may have guessed, complications. Complications equal motions and delays and postponements.

The officers’ lawyers appealed.

The Court of Special Appeals agreed to consider the matter. Oral arguments, it was announced, were scheduled for March, with no date for a decision.

At which point, the fictional case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce comes to again mind.

What Dickens calls “a scarecrow of a suit” meant to settle disputes over an inheritance has fallen prey to every element of delay. A marriage hangs on the outcome, suggesting there will be money enough to support the couple should the case actually be settled. So what?

Sons have inherited the case from fathers who made sizeable incomes from it over time. And still it goes on.

Dickens writes: “…Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have been married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it; scores of persons have been made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce themselves without knowing how or why.”

Everyone became a party to the romp:

“The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking horse if Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, possessed himself of a real horse and trotted away into the other world.”

Legal debates

While the Maryland court considers the incrimination issue, the state’s legal community continues to discuss the most serious charge – “depraved-heart murder”: when it can be used with any hope of success.

Dickens would have smiled. A fan of descriptive, if not over-the-top naming, he might have applauded “depraved-heart murder.”

Lawyers and legal experts, not so much. Blatant overreach, the critics muttered and wrote.

They began debating as soon as the charge was lodged. Many wondered if the state could be unable to convict anyone on any of the charges.

State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, praised for charges that helped quell unrest, was thought to be in danger of an embarrassing shutout.

In Jarndyce, time eroded memory. And, surely, whatever sums were there at the start had been exhausted by the fees.

Patience was gone as well.

“There are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out in at a coffee house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce drags its dreary length on … perennially hopeless.”

Tell me again: Who was Freddie Gray?

C. Fraser Smith is host of Inside Maryland Politics on WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record.