When the Law Falls Short

UnjustFrancis Bacon said that “revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed out . . . . In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.”1

Fast forward two and a half centuries, to Abraham Lincoln. He thought vengeance had a time and place. During the American Revolution, he noted “the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge . . . were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature . . . [became] the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause—that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty. . . . But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.”2 Lincoln gave this speech in response, in part, to a mob killing of a black man accused of murder. In Abe’s view, it was okay to take vengeance on the British but not anyone else.

Fifty years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., admits the importance of vengeance within the legal system, going so far as to say, “the law does [and] ought to, make the gratification of revenge an object . . . correspond[ing] with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.”3 Holmes saw this as a lesser evil to people perceiving the legal system as failing to satisfy and thus taking matters into their own hands. “If people would gratify the passion of revenge outside of the law, if the law did not help them, the law has no choice but to satisfy the craving itself, and thus avoid the greater evil of private retribution.” Id.4

As a trial lawyer I saw many examples of law and justice diverging, with the law “not helping” the wronged party. Writing the “The Fourteenth Juror” allowed me to inflict private retribution (even if only on the page) on one aspect of the legal system that often fell short in this regard. Gratifying indeed.

Check out “The Fourteenth Juror” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

A Stanford graduate and former (vengeful) plaintiff’s trial lawyer, Twist Phelan writes the critically acclaimed legal-themed Pinnacle Peak mystery series published by Poised Pen Press. Her short stories appear in anthologies and mystery magazines and have won or been nominated for the Thriller, Ellis, and Derringer awards. Twist’s current project is a suspense novel set in Santa Fe featuring a corporate spy. Visit her at www.twistphelan.com.

1 Sir Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral (1625). Yes, this is a footnote. As a former law review editor, I can’t resist.

2 Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, Volume I, p. 108-115 (January 27, 1838). Uh oh; another one.

3 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law 46 (1881). I’m out of control.

4 “Id.” is the abbreviation for the Latin word “idem,” which means same. Lawyers and academics use it to reference the previously cited source. Everyone else just says “same as before.”