The Main Event

Damon Runyon

A big murder trial possesses some of the elements of a sporting event.

I find the same popular interest in a murder trial that I find in any city on the eve of a big football game, or pugilistic encounter, or baseball series. There is the same conversational speculation on the probable result, only more of it.

There is even some betting on the aforesaid probable result.

Before a big horse race, or football game, or baseball series, the newspaper writers and fans sit around of an evening and argue the matter with some heat. At a trial, the newspaper men—and women—do the arguing, but without the heat. They lack partisanship in the premises. That is furnished by the murder-trial fans.

Perhaps you did not know there are murder-trial fans.

They are mainly persons who have no direct interest in the affair. They are drawn by their curiosity.

Some come from long distances, but do not marvel over this. Persons have been known to travel halfway across the continent to see a basketball game.

I am not one of those who criticize the curiosity of the gals who storm the doors of the court room, as we say in the newspaper stories of a trial. If I did not have a pass that entitled me to a chair at the press table, I would probably try an end run myself.

If I had not seen them, I know I would have been consumed with curiosity to peer at Mrs. Snyder and Judd Gray just to see what manner of mortals could carry out such a crime. It is only a slight variation of the same curiosity that makes me eager to see a new fistic sensation, or a great baseball player.

It strikes me that the courtroom, with a murder trial in issue, develops a competitive spirit, if I may call it such, more tense and bitter than is ever produced on any field of sport. Of course, this is not surprising when you consider that as a rule human life is at stake.

The trial is a sort of game, the players on the one side the attorneys for the defense, and on the other the attorneys for the State. The defendant figures in it mainly as the prize. The instrument of play is the law—it is the ball, so to speak. Or perhaps I might call it the puck, for it is in the manner of hockey more than any other sport that it is jockeyed carefully back and forth by the players.

And the players must be men well schooled in their play, men of long experience and considerable knowledge of what they are doing. They must be crafty men, quick of thought and action, and often they are very expensive men.

There are about as many newspaper men at a big murder trial as ever covered a heavyweight championship fight or a world’s series—perhaps four hundred of them, counting the telegraph operators.

They discuss the form displayed by counsel for one side or the other during the day’s session of court, just as the boxing writers chatter about the form displayed by the principals in a big match after the day’s training.

They discuss the different witnesses as they appear to them, just as the boys go over the members of a football line and backfield, or over the horses carded to start in the Kentucky Derby.

And the thrills are just as numerous as in any sporting event I ever saw, with something new popping up at every turn, something in the form of what you might call a new play by the State or the defense. Often it starts off as involved as a hidden-ball maneuver and it takes you a little time to figure it out before the play gets in the clear.

The game of murder trial is played according to very strict rules, with stern umpires called judges to prevent any deviation from these rules.

Someone is killed, perhaps in a peculiarly cold-blooded manner. You might think that the idea would be to get the guilty into court as speedily as possible to hear the details of the crime briefly related, and to at once impose the penalty of the law.

But this is not the way the game of murder trial is played, especially if it is played under the rules of circumstantial evidence, which are very intricate rules. Under these rules everything must be done just so. The game must be played by what strikes the layman, like myself, as roundabout and unnecessary and tedious methods.

If the defendant has money enough to engage an imposing team of players, or attorneys, the game becomes more complicated than ever, for high-priced players in the game of murder trial know all the rules from A to izzard. They can see a play by the other side coming up a long way off and take steps to circumvent it.

And for some reason the feeling on both sides often becomes very bitter. I sometimes wonder if the players feel toward each other the bitterness that they not infrequently express in court, or do they hobnob all friendly together, like Brown’s cows, as baseball players fraternize after a game in which they have attempted to spike each other. I suppose they do.

And yet they are supposed to be engaged in a sort of common cause, which is to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendants. I believe they are presumed to be innocent until they are proven guilty.

A player of the game of murder trial for the State represents the people. His function, as I understand it, is to endeavor to convict any person who has transgressed the law to the end that justice may be done and the majesty of the law upheld. It is inconceivable that he would wish to convict an innocent person.

But it has been my observation that the player or attorney for the State is quick to take advantage of the rules of the game of murder trial that puts his side in front, and equally quick to forestall any moves by the other side. I presume the player for the State is generally firmly convinced beforehand by his study of the evidence that he is playing for the life of a guilty person, hence his enthusiasm in his cause.

Or perhaps I should call it zeal. I doubt that any State’s attorney is ever enthusiastic over contributing to the taking of human life. He but does his duty. His remuneration financially is rarely that of the players on the other side, who might naturally be expected to show plenty of zeal on defense.

It is a strange game, this game of murder trial, as played under the rules of circumstantial evidence. I suppose if a defendant is really innocent he has all the worst of it for a time, yet, paradoxically enough, if he is guilty he has all the best of it.

It nearly always is the case in a murder trial that the personality of the victim of the crime remains very shadowy and vague. From what I heard in the Snyder-Gray trial, I never got a right good picture of Albert Snyder except that he was a fellow who liked to putter around with motorboats.