Stripped of all the jargon of the legal world, justice exists as a human yearning to be fair. When a child says "That's not fair, mommy," the words get to the essence of a desire we carry throughout adulthood: to see justice - not some awkwardly balanced machinery of Latin phrases and docket numbers - done.
Cutting through all the overwrought attention to the Louise Woodward case, several things seem clear:
* To have let the original, "all or nothing" verdict stand would have been, as Judge Hiller Zobel ruled, "a miscarriage of justice." There was plenty of reasonable doubt that murder had taken place.
* Neither the grieving parents of Matthew Eappen, nor frightened Louise Woodward, nor her anxious parents, nor courageous Judge Zobel deserve the cowardly threats some kibitzers have levelled at them.
* This was yet another not the trial of the century. The Scopes evolution trial, Nuremberg war crimes trials, Brown v. Board of Education on school desegregation, China's Gang of Four trial - all are candidates for that title. They marked important turning points for human history in the 20th century. O.J. Simpson, the Lindbergh kidnap/murder, the Thaw "red velvet swing" murder, and other sad or lurid dramas may have touched on problems in society, but only marginally.
Despite reams of pop-psych analysis, the Woodward au pair case is not some kind of lab study on which to judge the state of child care or dual career family life in America, important as those subjects are.
* The jury system has not been dented. It has never been perfect. But it remains better, to paraphrase Churchill, than the alternatives - especially, as in this case, where the law gives a judge the right, the duty, to remedy a potential miscarriage of justice. The reaction of some of the jurors and alternate jurors in the Woodward case, seems to ratify the wisdom of that law. Some had grave misgivings at being allowed to choose only murder or acquittal, not manslaughter. Some disputed the judge's action. Some alternates were shocked that acquittal on grounds of "reasonable doubt" was not the original verdict.
* Perhaps less attention should be paid to the roles of judge and jury, and more to shortcomings in the adversarial system of evidence presentation. Too often juries are confused by the brilliant or savage pyrotechnics of two diametrically opposite marshalings of the facts. Too often facts themselves are muddied by dubious "scientific" expert witnesses. (In the Woodward case, though, the scientific experts were, in general, commendably careful.)
It is the duty of the prosecution to protect society from wrongdoers of all sorts and degrees. It is also the duty of the prosecutor to see that justice is done. Crusades, withholding of evidence, and other excesses arise from the zeal to win at all costs. That is why Congress is currently examining the subject of prosecutorial excess.
The reasoned, eloquent explanation Judge Zobel gave for his ruling contrasted tellingly with the overwrought prosecution attempt to equate the case with a genuine national need to prevent child abuse.
* This was not a soccer match. Neither football cheers nor silent vigils should influence juries or judges. They didn't here. This trial, unlike the Simpson trial, was not bent by a media circus outside or lenses piping the case to millions around the world.
The judge began his ruling by quoting John Adams's words to a Massachusetts jury 227 years ago: The law should be "deaf as an adder to the clamours of the populace." Yes. But it should listen intently to the quiet reminder of conscience: Above all, be fair.