Enjoying the vivid cover from the new translation of Dostoyesvki’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ regarded by The Spectator as a masterpiece. What started out as a post looking at various representations of ‘Crime and Punishment’ over the years, via book covers, has ended up asking what does ‘Crime and Punishment’ and crime and punishment mean for a criminal lawyer.
I consider myself fortunate to have spent a good part of my life working in the area of crime and punishment both in the USA and Australia – two common law countries, one with a Bill of Rights, one without.
From the new translation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: This acclaimed new translation of Dostoyevsky’s “psychological record of a crime” gives his dark masterpiece of murder and pursuit a renewed vitality, expressing its jagged, staccato urgency and fevered atmosphere as never before. Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, wanders alone through the slums of St. Petersburg, deliriously imagining himself above society’s laws. But when he commits a random murder, only suffering ensues. Embarking on a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a suspicious police investigator, Raskolnikov finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck. Only Sonya, a downtrodden prostitute, can offer the chance of redemption.
Essentially, a criminal defence lawyer’s work is about crime and punishment and justice and fairness.
It’s a realist’s world about bad and evil. Good and goodness.
A realist’s world about one of the ‘other’ sides of society.
You see people who are flawed and broken.
You see them dealing with the unlawful act itself.
You see their painstaking emotions, their mental anguish, their highs and lows.
It’s about psychology, conscience and the sometimes agony of conscience. The guilty mind. Innocence. Sorrow. Remorse.
As in Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ it’s about sin, guilt and redemption.
You are advocating for and representing people navigating their way through the criminal justice system, all the time seeking to ensure they are not broken by it. A person thrust into the criminal justice system should not be crushed by it.
Crime and Punishment is “Less a murder mystery than a deep exploration of the psychological motivation behind crime, the novel poses questions to the reader about guilt, justifiable acts of treachery, and control.”
It is no different in criminal law practice. To forensically understand the crime charged and the facts at issue, the lawyer must understand the psychology, the person’s point of view at the time of the offending.
What was the person thinking?
What was going on the person’s head?
What was the person’s mental state?
Often a lawyer must go further and re-construct the person’s psychological life story.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In doing this work, there are moral imperatives, like rudders, in keeping things balanced and on track.
The moral component of representing the less popular means you are always trying to promote good in the world.
In the end, the most important of these imperatives is the one requiring the lawyer to wisely counsel the person and help him/her to not only understand the law and what they can and cannot do, or what is legal, but what is right.
The moral imperative is in promoting good.
You can’t practice criminal law devoid of morality.
As a criminal lawyer you thoroughly immerse yourself in the person’s life story, their real world.
In some ways, it’s not unlike that of the reader of a novel, alone with the author’s characters as explained in this excerpt from David Mikic’s article in the New Statesman where he talks about Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ and what it teaches us about slow reading:
When you read a novel seriously, you’re alone with the author’s characters, listening and feeling as carefully as you can. Sometimes, as with Dostoevsky, the reader enters a world that may seem foreign and even repulsive, but that also fascinates. We feel exhilarated but uneasy as we find ourselves trapped with the people we usually turn away from, life’s villains. At times a television series like Breaking Bad is able, like a realist novel, to make us sympathise with a hero whom we also want to condemn. But novels, because they demand that we immerse ourselves in the lives of others more slowly and thoroughly than television or movies, give us a fuller portrait of the dark side.
Reading a novel forces us to experience the lives of characters who are radically different from us, something we can’t get from other art forms. Only by spending a long time inside the head of a character can we know something of the full range of human life. The more we can do that, the better for how we see the world, because we’ve spent serious time with otherness during our reading.
Plot Outline: When a desperate and disillusioned PhD student commits premeditated murder in the name of a theory, he finds that his soul can only be saved through the love of a religious prostitute. But will he confess in time or will the cunning police investigator ruin his chance at salvation?
‘Crime and Punishment at 150’ is an international academic conference bringing together scholars, students, and members of the public interested in Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, will take place at Green College on the campus of the University of British Columbia. The conference is dedicated to exploring new ways of thinking about, understanding, and seeing Crime and Punishment.