I read a book titled True Crime, where an author who gained fame writing about baseball decides to turn his attention to lurid tabloid crimes which have been popular long before there were tabloids in America.
The book is an entertaining read, but don’t expect any great understanding of crime or criminals to be gained as there is little in depth analysis of any worth.
The author does provide an interesting look at how outrageous crimes which caught the attention of the public and the media have shaped the criminal justice system in the United States over the century. Sometimes accepted procedures that the cops or the courts have performed for years are changed when the public starts to yowl.
One such case, mentioned in passing, is that of Yale tutor John Dwight. He and another man were walking along in October of 1843 when they came across a group of underclassmen who were gleefully breaking windows. The gang of vandals broke up an ran, so John and his buddy gave chase.
Unfortunately, John Dwight was a fit and athletic 21 years of age. He caught up to one of the ne’er-do-wells, sophomore Lewis Fassitt, and was stabbed three times for his trouble. Mr. Dwight died a few days later.
Fassitt was arrested but he was released on a $3,000 bail, which is about $350,000 in today’s currency. Instead of subjecting himself to the blind scales of justice, he went back home to his wealthy family in Philadelphia and never set again foot in Connecticut for the rest of his life.
The police and prosecutors let him go without any attempt being made to go get their man. Their response to the predictable outcry was, Why should they? Fassitt forfeited his bond when he failed to appear for his day in court. What does the lay person think putting up money for bail is for, anyway? They smugly suggested that those untrained in the law should just shut up and let the professionals get on with the serious business of bringing justice to criminals.
Unschooled in the law they may be, but the general public knew when justice wasn’t being served. The case brought about an incredible sea change in the way suspects of crimes are treated by the courts. Bail was still set, bonds were still posted, and the accused was still released from jail for a time in order to allow them to prepare their defense. But the days where the accused could turn their backs on the cash and move outside of the jurisdiction where the crime was committed in order to escape justice were long gone.
Or were they?