The Salem Witch Trials and Criminal Defense. Is Our Judicial System Fair?

old witch house

In the 1690’s a series of hearings and trials were held in colonial Massachusetts. The defendants; women of Massachusetts. The charge; witchcraft.

It boggles our modern mind today how such allegations could be taken seriously. We have a difficult time stepping into their shoes, and understanding what the citizens of Massachusetts were thinking. However, we are not so far removed from this type of hysteria. Of course you will be hard pressed to find a modern day equivalent as extreme as the Salem witch trials. These trials are the most extreme example of group hysteria in recent history. The analogous examples today are not so poignant, but that makes them all the more dangerous.

Hysteria like that of the Salem witch trials, quickly loses its flavor with the public when they come to their senses. Of course there are no witches!  We all know that. Common sense can bring us back from the insanity. It is the more subtle examples of hysteria that are the most dangerous because they can run rampant, and our reason will never check them.

Its worth noting the type of women who were initially accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. The first was a 12 year old girl by the name of Ann Putnam. Salem had been the home of a vicious and prolonged family feud between two rival families. The Putnams, and the Porters. It is believed by many historians that the accusation of 12 year old Ann Putnam was just an extension of this family feud. The second female was a poor homeless woman that was a beggar of food and shelter in Salem. The third female had no affiliation with the local church. And the fourth was a woman who was not of puritan ethnicity. Family feuds, class warfare, religious zealously, and ethnocentrism were all underlying factors in the hysteria that has become known today as the Salem witch trials. Although we no longer believe in witches, these other elements are still very much alive today, and can still play a significant role in the criminal justice system. This injustice manifested itself in the form of allegations of witchcraft in Salem, today it manifests itself in the allegations of domestic violence, rape, child molestation, and any other allegation that is so repugnant to our polite society, that merely being charged with the crime could ruin your reputation for the rest of your life.

Witchcraft can be easily dismissed with today as fictional. Domestic violence, rape, and child molestation on the other hand are very real. If 150 residents of Massachusetts can be falsely accused of a fictional crime, then how much more likely is it that residents of Idaho, or any other state in the Union for that matter, could be unfairly convicted of a real crime?

The Salem witch trials started with these four outcast girls, but the allegations and the hysteria did not stop with the outcast and the downtrodden. Quickly women and men of all walks of life were being accused of witchcraft. No one was safe. That is the nature of these types of hysteria. The hysteria is born easily in the fertile soil of our hatred of other classes of people, but it spreads and multiplies so quickly that the hysterical begin attacking even their own.

Today the hysteria is more subtle and hidden than the hysteria of the Salem witch trials, but it is still very real, and all the more dangerous. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The great State of Idaho (with one of the lowest crime rates in the nation) has the second highest rate of its citizens who are either locked up in a County jail or State prison, or who are on supervised probation or parole. How can a state like Idaho with one of the lowest rates of crime convict so many people? The second highest rate of conviction in a nation who boasts the highest number of incarcerated citizens in the world. Has our hysteria over domestic violence, rape, child molestation and illegal drugs resulted in wrongly convicted defendants in Idaho? One can not help but wonder.

What disturbs me most about the Salem witch trials is that they were using OUR judicial system. Over 150 people were imprisoned for witchcraft using OUR judicial system. They had grand jury indictments, and jury trials. Prosecutors had to prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The accused had a right to confront their accusers, and call witnesses in their own defense. Despite all this, the prosecutor was able to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused was a witch. This is what disturbs me. Something that is such an obvious fantasy, witchcraft, and a prosecutor was able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was a fictional villain.

I bet if you were to have asked a resident of Massachusetts at the time if he thought the accused were receiving a fair trial, he would have said yes. They were given a jury trial, they could call their own witnesses, they could cross examine the state’s witnesses, the prosecutor was required to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, so there must be no question that the defendant received a fair trial.

Is the system flawed? How can a system that we trust so much be so flawed? The system itself is not flawed. The system is built on sound principles. It is everything else that comes into play that keeps the system from working properly. The media, personal vendettas, class warfare, racism, reverse racism, sexism, reverse sexism, ethnocentrism, religious conflicts, and many other elements of our society derail the fairness of the system.

I hope to cover many of these injustices through the medium of my blog. Often they are hard to spot because they do not receive the same media attention. When a poor man gets thrown in prison for 20 years on trumped up charges, the public’s curiosity is never peaked so much as when a charge is dismissed against a man “on a technicality.” Stories such as OJ Simpson being found not guilty by a jury trial, or Michael Jackson getting off of his child molestation charges, sell so many more newspapers, and improve the television ratings. Stories of men going to prison on less than credible evidence are not lucrative. Stories of men getting an unfair trial are boring.