Physics & the Presumption of Innocence

The case was notorious, although it never came to trial. Not that it mattered — the facts alleged by the Crown were so inflammatory and so widely believed that it would have been impossible to find a fair jury.

Even so, the alleged perpetrator was as good as convicted — thought by all to be guilty. Unfairly, many now believe. But there is no point in petitioning the Minister of Justice on this case. The court of public opinion is outside his jurisdiction and some sort of statute of limitations must be in force. After all, it’s been more than 500 years.

August 22nd marks the 526th anniversary of the death at Bosworth Field of Richard III, a man vilified thoroughly and successfully by his enemies. Shakespeare administered the coup de grí¢ce, dramatizing a memorable but over-the-top villain. Who else but a villain could have murdered his own nephews — two small boys, albeit princes royal?

Odd you should ask. Richard was deposed by Henry VII, founder of the Tudor line, and it was under Henry that allegations of Richard’s crime surfaced. Since Elizabeth I died in 1603, ending the Tudor line, historians not under their collective thumb have presented other theories of the crime, and other views of Richard — progressive king, courageous soldier, able administrator, family man. Richard III societies in England, America and Canada have tried to rehabilitate the man’s memory — long overdue, if they’re right.

The case for Richard is interesting — even compelling. There is good evidence that he was loved in his day. This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of the city, grieved the town of York in its official records — a gutsy move, considering the slayers were now in power.

You could look it up. You could read why many historians believe that Henry Tudor killed the princes, while most of us believe Richard was a murderer most foul. But why should you care what really happened in 1485, when it’s hard enough to keep today straight?

I can only tell you why I care.

Although his case never came to trial, Richard reminds me to distinguish between allegations and proof. It’s a critical distinction in a court of law, essential to the presumption of innocence, and a useful discipline of thought in my own day to day.

Found guilty in the court of public opinion, Richard reminds me that there is a difference between verdicts and truth. In our day, with lifers and death row inmates cleared by advances in DNA technology, this should be obvious enough, but somehow it’s easy to forget.

Richard reminds me that what ‘everyone’ knows to be true, may not be. Stories have their own momentum. Physicists call it inertia — the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest, and a body in motion to stay in motion. Richard’s story was set in motion by his enemies 526 years ago this week, and it’s still rolling along today.

Physicists don’t really understand inertia, they’ve just named it, or so says another Richard, Richard Feynman, one of the great physicists of the last century. I know how they feel. I don’t understand why it’s easier to start rumours than to squelch them, why it’s easier to destroy a man’s reputation than to rehabilitate it, but it is so.

And so I care about Richard III, so long after the fact, because he is the poster boy for all those who are unjustly convicted, unjustly accused, or even unfairly maligned in public or in private. His case reminds me to be careful about what I accept as true, even when it comes from an authority. The inertia affecting his reputation reminds me that there is a difference between what happened and what I read in the paper or saw on CNN, between what I know and what I think I know — and that it is damnably difficult to tell which is which, sometimes.

It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, Will Rogers said, it is what we know that ain’t so. I think Richard III might have agreed.

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18 Responses to Physics & the Presumption of Innocence

  1. M. Gibson says:

    I particularly like this one Isabel – Our Lodge is a prime example. A speculation in the morning is being presented as a pronouncement from the administration by evening! Causes a mite of trouble, one might say – and as you point out, should remind us to be careful always about what we take as the “absolute truth”. MMG

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      MMG – I wonder sometimes whether our faster pace, thanks to technology, leads us even more down this path of jumping to conclusions. Waiting to ‘see’ –suspending judgement even for a while – being altogether too slow for the way we live now. On the other hand, technology also allows us to check on rumours faster than ever before – if we only will.

  2. Doris Pearce says:

    I expect you know that wonderful novel, “The Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey. It was my first introduction to the idea that Richard III was not the villain he had been painted.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Doris: Yes, it was Josephine Tey who introduced me to this little historical puzzle in what I think is a brilliant exposition.I do sort of wish that even one of my teachers had ever talked about things that get told that ‘ain’t necessarily so’, as Willie Nelson would have it. I think we could have handled the notion, and been better thinkers for it.

  3. Marianne says:

    Good article. It was nice to be reminded of the book “The Daughter of Time” as it made me (too) doubt what we have been told was the truth of the man down through history. I would like to think how different history would have been without the Tudors at the helm. Would England still be Catholic for example?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marianne – yeah, amazing how some events are pivotal. As I understand it, if some of Richard’s supporters had arrived a wee bit earlier, the battle might well have gone differently. I wonder what Shakespeare would have dramatized instead.

  4. Morris B says:

    This ‘inertia’ that you speak of and the apparent willingness of people to believe unproven things about others, I think is limited to negative views about them. People will immediately jump to the conclusion about a bad or nasty bit of information about another person even if for years prior they may have revered or thought the best of that person. After all, doesn’t that type of news sell well in the media? News outlets and other public purveyors of “information” are forever reporting about the worst in humans. And we eat it up. When a bit of bad press is eventually shown to have been wrong, rarely is there any attention paid, either by the originator or the public. In fact, we tend view such revelations with suspicion, often thinking that the reversal is more due to their celebrity or perhaps even some pressure from that person or his/her lawyers/employer than the truth.

    Why does this happen? My theory is that we have a need to see the worst in others so that we may feel better about ourselves. Oh sure, Bill Gates is a great philanthropist who donates billions of dollars, but he has tons of money to burn, doesn’t do it for the good of society but for tax benefits and he probably doesn’t pay any taxes, and besides he’s a geeky nerd, who doesn’t have much of a life so he gives money away to make himself feel better, and also Microsoft software is crap and it’s all his fault so he doesn’t deserve any of the money he has. I on the other hand work hard for my money and can’t afford to give even $5 to save dying children in Africa because they shouldn’t be there and it’s their parents fault for having so many kids so why should I bail them out.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Morris – Ouch – but I think you’re right. We are, indeed, quicker to believe unsubstantiated bad things about people (maybe about institutions too) than rumours of the good. Maybe there’s a sensible explanation for this that relates to its value in survival fitness – or maybe this is part of what the ancients (and some not-so-ancient) called ‘original sin’.

    • Vince says:

      I’ve heard and used a saying based precisely on this principle: “build a thousand bridges and no one will ever call you a bridge builder, but … [paraphrasing here for the sake of manners] lay one egg and you’re a chicken for life.”

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Vince – Thanks for the g-rating edit on that old saying/joke. I sometimes wonder why some folks get a pass on their foibles, while others never live down lesser infractions. Something about likeability, perhaps, or celebrity status. But that just names it (like ‘inertia’), it doesn’t really explain it….

  5. Jim Taylor says:

    I was going to refer to “Daughter of Time,” but others have beaten me to it.
    So, instead, I will suggest looking at the myth of Sisyphus, condemned forever to roll a rock to the top of a hill and then watch it roll down again. People spend lifetimes building their reputation; but once that reputation starts downhill, even if the initial movement is almost imperceptible, it’s almost impossible to stop.

    Jim Taylor

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Ancient Greeks and Josephine Tey – who would have guessed? The things I regret most are the things I cannot put right in any sense – and damaging something as intangible as a reputation would certainly rank right up there.

  6. Thank you for your excellent article. Btw there are also branches of the Richard III Society in Australia and New Zealand. We just met at the beginning of this month for our Biennial Australasian Convention. The website of the New South Wales Branch can be viewed here:

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dorothea – I like to think that Richard III would be pleased to know that there are people who care about his reputation in so many countries, so long after his death. Would that any of us were even remembered.

  7. Susan Wright says:

    What an interesting dialogue. I wonder whether we’re prepared to believe the worst about people (whether we’ve met them or not) because deep down inside we like to see people who are wildly successful falter. Perhaps we’re envious of their success.

    Take the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. One minute he’s an arrogant, wealthy man with the world in the palm of his hand and the next minute he’s on TV doing the “perp walk”. Then the prosecutors decide the maid isn’t credible and DSK is free to go. But at what cost? He’s lost his job at the IMF and it’s unlikely that he’ll be the Socialist presidential candidate. The strange thing is I really don’t care. I’m prepared to believe the maid (the underdog in this story) instead of the rich and powerful DSK. I’d like to think this is because I’m sympathetic to the poor maid as opposed to envious of DSK, but who knows.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – For me, it’s tough to know all my motivations, but so important to at least recognize that some of these can be less than creditable. That is the beginning of being humble/skeptical about my own reactions.

  8. Annette Carson says:

    The Richard III Society is dedicated to looking for the truth behind the centuries of tradition, and anyone interested in Richard’s side of the story will find recommended books on their UK website, from Josephine Tey onwards (perhaps I may modestly mention my own). With so much material available at the click of a mouse these days, it really IS possible to ascertain how much – and how little – proof exists for the stories that malign his name.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Annette – From the wilds of northern Ontario (and intermittment email access), thank you for your comment. Reserving judgement doesn’t seem to be our core competency, does it? People won’t even do basic checking on email rumours before forwarding them – we have village minds in a world of villages…

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