So, two things happened to inspire the topic of this week’s post. First off, I found I had absolutely nothing to say about the story. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a perfectly great story. It just didn’t spark any immediate topics for discussion in my brain. Secondly, I finally gave in to my desperate need to find an excuse to discuss the character of Odo from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Those two mostly unrelated things collided, thankfully in a way that at least gave me a way to bash out a thousand or so words. I’ll still likely expound in a deeper and more meaningful way on why I think Odo is so very clearly a futuristic alien version of Sherlock Holmes (and not so much the small town sheriff trying to hold this crazy wild west cattle town together, which is the metaphor the writers were going for), but that will be later. Today, I want to talk about how justice and innocence are addressed in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” and the DS9 episode “Things Past.”
“Norwood Builder” isn’t the first time Holmes and Watson have to disprove the guilt of someone Lestrade (or some other Yardie) is certain committed a crime. It is, though, the first time Holmes himself questions the innocence of his client. The evidence is stacked impressively against young John MacFarlane – he was the last person to see the deceased alive according to a witness, his walking stick is the apparent murder weapon, and there are no additional footprints in or out of the crime scene. There’s no evidence of another person ever entering the room where it happened. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the victim having signed a will leaving all he possessed to Mr. MacFarlane the night he died. Means, motive, and opportunity, when added to the physical evidence, just screams “slam dunk conviction,” really. Even Holmes and his keen eye and methodical brain can’t manage to find any speck to contradict the official theory, either, unlike in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” For the first time, Holmes is forced to consider that he may be working for a criminal – or at least someone he can’t prove innocent of the crime.
“Unless we succeed in establishing an alternative theory, this man is lost. You can hardly find flaw in the case which can now be presented against him, and all further investigation has served to strengthen it…I fear, my dear fellow, that our case will end ingloriously by Lestrade hanging our client, which will certainly be a triumph for Scotland Yard.”
– Sherlock Holmes, “Adventure of the Norwood Builder”
And yet, there are aspects of the case that bug Holmes enough to convince him there’s something more going on. Things that bug him enough that he’s not willing to give up the investigation or merely accept MacFarlane’s guilt. That’s because Holmes doesn’t stop at the easy conclusion – he digs back farther, looks deeper, and considers aspects and avenues that men like Lestrade never consider relevant or worthy of further inspection. That doesn’t make Lestrade a bad cop; it just makes him a lousy investigator. Not his fault, though. Holmes’ technique is very much a rarity in Victorian-era police work.
“Things Past” comes at a point when DS9 is well into the Dominion War arc, but the majority of this episode’s narrative takes place several years earlier, during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson), Odo (Rene Auberjonois), and Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) wind up transported into the bodies of four Bajoran workers on the at-the-time Cardassian-controlled space station Terok Nor (later Deep Space Nine). The three men are revealed to be living out the final days of individuals soon to be tried and convicted for attempting to assassinate the station’s commander, Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo). “Tried and convicted” here is a pretty questionable term, as the Cardassian legal system doesn’t exactly believe in the concept of innocence or a defendant’s right to dispute the charges or, really, anything we would recognize as a legal system. If you’re arrested by the Cardassians, odds are you’re going to also be executed by them.
Unless you’re Miles O’Brien, but that’s a different story for an earlier episode.
Through the course of the episode, we discover that Odo knows an awful lot about a case that happened (we’re told) before he became the station’s constable. He explains that away as his having access to the security logs, and his seemingly doomed compatriots initially believe that. Eventually, though, we find out that it wasn’t his predecessor, Thrax, responsible for the shoddy investigation and the resulting executions, but Odo himself. While evidence enough existed to convict the men (as in the story above), they were innocent, something Odo discovered later and could have found out sooner, if he’d dug a little deeper. Three men died because Odo hadn’t learned the difference between law and justice.
I was too busy, too concerned with maintaining order and the rule of law. I thought of myself as the outsider, a shapeshifter that cared for nothing but justice. It never occurred to me that I could fail. But I did. And I never wanted anyone to know the truth…that seven years ago, I allowed three innocent men to die.
– Odo, “Things Past,” Season 5, Episode 8
And that may be the most basic difference between Odo and Holmes in these two examples. Odo hasn’t learned the lesson that Holmes has instinctively known since the beginning: that there is no real justice without the truth. Holmes doesn’t serve the law. He doesn’t even really serve justice. He serves the truth, and that’s what he searches for in every case he takes on. That is what keeps him digging despite the mountain of evidence about to bury his client, and ultimately allows him to discount the most damning of it when it’s found.
“And yet, it may be premature to abandon the case. After all, important fresh evidence is a two-edged thing, and may possibly cut in a very different direction to that which Lestrade imagines.”
– Sherlock Holmes, “Adventure of the Norwood Builder”
He knows, despite all of it, that MacFarlane is innocent and he refuses to let an innocent man hang for a crime he didn’t commit; or, in this case, that was never committed in the first place.
Odo learns all that in time, but his early interactions with justice are clumsy at best. He is a natural observer, which makes him (eventually) a damned good investigator. But he has the same problem Dr. Pulaski attributes to Data in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Elementary, Dear Data”: he can’t draw real conclusions from the assembled facts (yet) because he’s lacking the instinct and human(oid) experience required to make real use of the information. It’s seven years later that he looks at himself (disguised in his mind as Thrax) and can say, “Your job is to find the truth, not obtain convictions.” His past self didn’t understand there is a difference.
And, honestly, in the Cardassian courts, there isn’t much of one, anyway.
We live in a time where wrongful convictions are the meet food that feed nightly newscasts and dozens of podcasts. Now, more than ever, we are keenly interested in and aware of how much it truly costs to send innocent men and women away for things they did not do. The justice system in this country is being scrutinized like never before and no matter what side you fall on in regards to any of the big-name cases currently sharing the spotlight, I think it’s safe to say that we’d all rather truth and justice prevailed over convictions any day.
Maybe we still have a few things to learn from Sherlock Holmes after all.