The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair
Piers Paul Read

The terrible thing, and the tragedy in this celebrated case, is that the justice system is not self-correcting. Unable to admit to error, it reinforces any mistakes it makes. It’s a system that, above all else, cannot be challenged. We live in a society of laws, after all, not men. So if a man gets screwed by those laws, that’s too bad. Few people at the top wanted to prosecute Alfred Dreyfus. Even those who thought he probably was guilty of spying thought the matter should be dropped. General de Boisdeffre, chief of the army general staff, told the chief Dreyfus investigator to spike it: “You’ve got nowhere with your Dreyfus. You’ve got nothing.” The investigator’s response correctly sealed Dreyfus’s fate: “Allow me to say, mon général, that the man you call ‘my Dreyfus,’ is also yours.” Dreyfus’s guilt had been adopted by the system, a conviction that would prove nearly impossible to shake even in the face of overwhelming evidence (most miscarriages of justice begin the same way, with the adoption of “tunnel vision” early in the proceedings locking in the guilt of a suspect). This is just the way the system works, how it is supposed to work. Here, for example, is Lord Denning upon turning down an appeal by the Birmingham Six: “Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial . . . If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. . . . That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.'” In other words, even if innocent it were better for the system that the accused not be allowed any further appeal. Luckily, in both cases the convictions were overturned, but only many years later and after much suffering and a public backlash. The system did not want to fix, or even acknowledge, its mistakes. This is because, its defenders argue, to do so would be to invite disorder, even chaos. Which isn’t true, but is an excuse that’s still being used.