Wrong Arm of the Law

Remedial Reading for a Would-Be Sleuth

Cycle (TC 5), by Irena Kittenclaw, with Creative Commons licenceJustice is a complex issue, covered over with perceptions and shot through with assumptions – many of which are surprisingly wide of the mark. In the move from being just, or morally right, to dispensing justice, an elite intercedes and begins to make decisions on what is usual, what is fair, what seems out of place. Like any apparatus of power, the legal system is a step aside from society, with its own, often fragmented, understanding of how people live, prosper, decline and die.

The new micoreviews in the toolbar at the right are part of my reaction to that disassociation – the hesitant beginning of an inquiry into what makes justice just, and the ways in which it can err.

A crucial element in that inquiry is the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores here in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. The police inquiry into the case is currently plodding towards a conclusion that the dead woman was irrational, prone to dabbling in the occult and by implication – though never explicitly stated – a likely candidate for suicide. But gathering together the scant documentary evidence of police conduct so far, and keeping in mind what they have said publicly, the investigation seems strangely curtailed. Why focus on the possible activities of a dead woman when her home and work life (she was a live-in domestic helper) are by and large ignored?

Detective_Tales_Dec48, by PopKulture, with Creative Commons licenceWith that sort of oversight in mind I began reading about police investigation and the English legal system, which is the basis for Hong Kong’s own. And where else to turn for a soft introduction but to that perennial super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes?

That decision was a little less whimsical than it might seem, because E. J. Wagner has written an eminently readable history of forensic investigation using Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character as a foil. Wagner’s Science of Sherlock Holmes picks out episodes in Conan Doyle’s tales of mystery to trace the history of forensic investigation as it emerged in Victorian England, all the while highlighting the benefits and limits of precision detective work.

A somewhat annoying aspect of Wagner’s writing at first, but more obviously important as the narrative proceeds, is her insistence on pointing to cases in which forensic investigation has failed. Rather than an attack on scientific method, this highlights the ubiquity of human error and at times turns over the shameful remains of plain incompetence.

How does this relate to a case in distant Hong Kong that has yet to be considered a criminal investigation? At the edges of credibility, the local police have claimed that Vicky’s body washed ashore near the Tung Chung Development Pier on Lantau Island after drifting with the tides for around 3 days. If the lack of precision in the estimate of time spent in the water doesn’t raise an eyebrow, the fact that her body would have been drifting at all should – after a little investigation.

An interesting account of decomposition is tucked away in Alan Axelrod and Guy Antinozzi’s Complete Idiots Guide to Forensics – clearly not an advanced manual on the state of the art, but illuminating nevertheless. Drowned bodies, as it turns out, don’t float until around 8 days after death. Decomposition begins in the stomach and the abdomen, into which gases are released around that time. This shouldn’t suggest that Vicky Flores died in any way but by drowning – the autopsy report makes that finding very clear – but it does point to a certain lack of basic knowledge in the police officers investigating the case.

There is a substantial difference between a ready-made, credible explanation and not really having a clue.

Know Nothing, by ElektraCute, with Creative Commons licenceBut the undertone of Axelrod and Antinozzi’s book provides something of an alternative explanation here – their take on police procedure is often defensive, pointing to the difficulties faced by professional investigators in the face of ‘uninformed’ public pressure. The North Lantau police have taken a similar attitude, bordering on hostility at times, to public pressure in Vicky’s case. Theirs is a closed world of professionalism that suggests we come to them with any evidence of criminal activity in the woman’s death, on the presumption that amateurs can and will know nothing.

How can the general public break into that closed world, rattle professionals who might not be as competent as they imagine? One avenue for those of us in the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group would be a Coroner’s inquest into the death, which of necessity would investigate the broad reach of the woman’s circumstances before she disappeared. In conjunction with other concerned residents in our small community we are currently investigating that possibility. But difficulties surely lie ahead.

Penny Darbyshire’s English Legal System, a thorough but often pernickety overview of the apparatus that has been an overwhelming influence on Hong Kong law, points to a problem we’re likely to face. The law is an edifice of arcane rules, rights of passage for its practitioners and expensive outcomes for those who have justifiable recourse to it. Of course, Darbyshire is far more forgiving than that in her description of the English system, but the implications are never far below the surface of her observations. Her passages on solicitors and barristers read something like Harry Potter for the legal student, mixed with the London Below surrealism of superimposed worlds that Neil Gaiman so ably captured in Neverwehere.

Still, Darbyshire’s short introduction does highlight the surprising extent to which the English legal system has been reformed in recent years. Such a thorough renovation is unlikely to help in the Vicky Flores case, but it does point to the many ways in which the law, and the system that supports it, are constantly questioned from the inside. The move from police inquiry to Coronial inquest could well give rise to new and very important queries.

Pressure, by Meredith Farmer, with Creative Commons licenceHowever this case concludes it has become very obvious that public knowledge of the way in which the law works and police should undertake investigations is vital to the delivery of justice. Outside pressure is always a great impetus for inside change. The books mentioned here are but the beginning of what will be a long process of self-education, an accumulation of information that I can share now, and in the future.

And that’s important because ignorance is never an acceptable excuse.

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