Actus Reus by Patrick McPhee

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ACTUS REUS

Patrick MacPhee

“Mrs. Davidson, is that man in this courtroom?”

“H-he is,” stuttered a middle-aged woman, who sat up awkwardly in the witness stand. She averted her eyes and pointed a thin, shaking finger towards the defence team.

The room erupted in a cacophony of flash photography (the judge had already tried to ban it twice that day, but this kind of theatre was front-page stuff), unsettled murmurs, and outright histrionics.

“Objection!” The defence attorney was on his feet, a thin, balding Englishman who had been spending much of his limited speaking time shifting radically between an unassuming placidity and vociferous intensity. The cameras loved him.

The judge overruled him, but he had his chance a few minutes later in cross-examination.

“Mrs. Davidson,” he began. “I don’t doubt what you saw. In fact, I don’t doubt what the other witnesses say, or what the Skype video shows.”

“Does Mr. Charon wish to change his plea, now?” suggested state attorney Linda Stinson, a thirty-something woman who had been looking perpetually tired while trying a case that, on the surface at least, had seemed like a slam dunk. Her question was smothered by an angry look from the judge.

“No,” Rice answered anyway. “Your honour, Mrs. Davidson presents as a credible witness. She says she saw my client walk into his former office, saying he was there to get some personal effects, only to proceed upstairs into a teleconference meeting filled with several senior executives, and look at them intently. We do not dispute that. Mr. Charon went somewhere in that building where he was not supposed to go. And when told to leave, Mr. Charon did exactly as ordered by the firm’s security personnel. He left.”

“Not before looking at one of the guards as well,” said the state attorney.

“It’s not a crime to look at people.”

“It is when six of them drop dead within seconds!”

The room erupted again and it took the judge some time to restore order. Mercifully, the prosecution wrapped up its case and they recessed in time for the evening news, coming back early the next day. The defence team called only one witness, Dr. Richard Senway, a psychologist and well-known professional “sceptic”.

Wanting to get ahead of cross-examination, and realizing the YouTube version had already surpassed four hundred million views, Rice showed “The Video”. For the fifth time in open court, everyone saw a series of videos spliced together to follow Mr. Charon in the twenty-three minute period preceding his arrest. The videos showed everything from a cheap one-frame-per-second outdoor security camera that captured his approach to the building, through a series of faster black and white indoor cams, to the show-stopper, the climactic HD thirty-frame-per-second Skype video conference call that captured him in exquisite detail, walking into the conference room and staring at four men in turn. As he stared, each man spasmed in his seat and clutched his throat and chest before slumping over, lifeless, the whole process taking perhaps ten seconds for each.

“What we are seeing here looks shocking, but it is an example of what is referred to as confirmation bias. Each of these men died of a massive heart attack. It is possible that seeing Mr. Charon triggered some kind of psychological stressors that then contributed to those heart attacks. It would not be unreasonable to assume that men in such positions are under an enormous amount of stress. Heart attacks are common and I understand these men were in the midst of a rather harrowing teleconference concerning a rather dismal earnings report.”

“Objection! Dr. Senway is not a medical doctor.”

“Sustained.”

Rice sighed and changed his angle of attack. “Do we need to know why they died, Dr. Senway?”

Senway shook his head, then was directed to state ‘no’ for the record. “So many deaths so close together may seem unlikely, perhaps even improbable, but it is far from impossible.”

“So, Mr. Charon doesn’t have special powers?”

A titter of nervous laughter swept through the courtroom.

“You mean like psychic ability? Psycho-kinesis?” He grimaced and shook his head. “No, there are no such things as psychics, Mr. Rice. It is scientifically impossible. And to punish a man for having the misfortune to look at someone, even a few people – why, we might as well be back in the olden days when women were accused of witchcraft for looking the wrong way at a field of crops that failed, or at an animal that took sick.”

“Did Mr. Charon kill those men?”

“No,” he scoffed. “Of course not.”

“How do you know, doctor?”

“He didn’t kill those men, because it is against all known laws of physics for him to have killed them. There are no traces of drugs, or any conceivable external trauma. The room was even electromagnetically shielded in an effort to prevent corporate espionage. No, what the prosecution claims is, in fact, impossible.”

As Rice sat down and Stinson took the lectern, a wave of murmuring swept through the room, smothered by the usual gavelling.

Stinson said, “Doctor Senway, since you presume to tell the court about science, then could you explain to us how gravity works?”

“I beg your pardon?”

The judge was sceptical of this whole line of questioning, but gave Stinson some leeway.

“Gravity. How does it work?”

Senway stammered slightly before catching himself. “Well, Einstein believed it is a simple curvature of space-time – and we’ve observed such curving and twisting through experimentation.”

“All well and good, Doctor,” continued Stinson. “But how does this force communicate? According to the Standard Model, particles communicate with other particles through messenger particles – what we call the four fundamental forces of the universe, is that correct?”

“A physicist may have much more to say, but… well, that’s a basic understanding, yes.”

“So, where are the gravitons? The messenger particles for gravity – we have yet to observe any.”

Senway looked momentarily confused, but realization dawned on him. He closed his mouth, nodded his head and smiled. “Yes, of course. The old ‘science can’t answer everything’ routine – quite common in pseudo-scientific circles. Is that what you’re getting at, Ms. Stinson?”

“I had hoped so, yes,” she quipped and a few spectators chuckled.

“Ms. Stinson, our maps of what we know about reality may have boundaries, beyond which we can only speculate, but you’ll forgive me if I thought we’d grown beyond the need to fill the unknown with monsters. Or in this case, psychic assassins.”

“That depends, Dr. Senway. If a man lived his whole life having never seen a tiger, in fact never believing that such a thing existed, could he then close his eyes and go into a cage with one, protected by his ignorance?”

“But other men have seen tigers, Ms. Stinson. Other men and women could show him evidence. He could be made to understand, by degrees, that tigers existed and that going into that cage would be harmful.”

“And what if he refused to believe, even with that evidence?”

“Then he would be eaten by the tiger. Ms. Stinson, Mr. Charon is not a tiger. Psychics don’t exist.”

Stinson stifled a sigh. The jury, and the cameras, looked on intently. “Dr. Senway, surely you realize the absurdity of suggesting that something is impossible, because it is impossible.”

“Extraordinary claims require-”

“Extraordinary evidence, yes. We’ve all heard that fallacy, which holds no sway in a court of law.” She looked to the judge, who gave the barest hint of a nod. “We have video tape, Dr. Senway.”

“Coincidence. You are confusing a correlation with causation.”

“Are we? Doesn’t every major drug company, every medical study in history, look for correlations? We give x patients y drugs and observe z results? Should we invalidate them now, Mr. Senway?”

Senway sighed. “You’re twisting my words. There’s-” Stinson tried to press on, in the best TV-courtroom-drama tradition, but the judge banged his gavel and told Senway to take his time answering. Nodding in appreciation, he took a deep breath and continued. “A double-blind study that controls for variables, coupled with a meta-analysis of multiple such studies – and all peer-reviewed by qualified professionals, is far different from some… random YouTube video.”

“Peer-review, you say?” Stinson asked, after the laughter had died down. “There is ample such evidence that supports the existence of psychic phenomena.”

He smiled grimly. “Are you referring to the pseudo-science of parapsychology?”

“Your calling it that doesn’t make it so, Dr. Senway.”

“Ms. Stinson, the so-called ‘science’ of parapsychology has yet to meet the standards of publication for any reputable journal. Gathering a few like-minded folks together to rubberstamp each other’s work and calling that peer-review, does not constitute proper science.”

“Do you serve on one such journal?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you receive submissions from these parapsychologists on occasion?”

“Yes, we do.”

She shuffled her papers and withdrew a photocopied letter. A bailiff walked it over to Senway.

“Did you write this, doctor?”

“I did.”

“Could you read it for the record, please?”

Senway scanned it silently and sighed. He put on his reading glasses and read aloud:

“‘Thank-you very much for your submission, (redacted). As you know, (redacted) does not ascribe any scientific validity to so-called ‘psychic’ or associated phenomena. While your findings are certainly interesting, they are statistically marginal and will likely dissolve upon tighter control of possible variables. Best of luck in your future endeavours.’”

“Is this an accurate version of your letter, Dr. Senway?”

“Yes,” he answered through gritted teeth, shifting about uncomfortably.

“Doctor, did you just tell this court that parapsychology is not a reputable science, because it had not been published in reputable magazines, while serving on the board of directors of such a magazine, a magazine that refuses to publish pro-psychic articles, because it claims that they are not reputable science?”

A hiss of whispering filled the room, exchanged between those who had actually followed what Stinson was getting at and those who had not.

Dr. Senway said, “You must think I’m so smug. The truth is, I’m just tired of wasting so much effort on this nonsense.” He shook his head, searching for words, a gesture that included the jury as well. “You have to understand, these kinds of claims of psychic phenomena would come in every few weeks. In the early days, we took them seriously and we tried to replicate them. We’ve never been able to. We’re not a charity, Ms. Stinson. How much time and money are we supposed to waste?”

Stinson shuffled her notes, searching for a counterattack. She didn’t search long.

“Many parapsychologists claim that extreme scepticism can interfere with the results of an experiment that seeks to measure conscious influence.”

He scoffed. “We don’t see the results, because we don’t want to? Yes, how convenient for them.”

Stinson’s eyes narrowed as a smattering of laughter drowned out her follow-up.

Senway held up a conciliatory hand. “I’m sorry, Ms. Stinson, but until these parapsychologists can provide us with an experiment that even crusty old unenlightened sceptics like me can reproduce, then I will not call it science and my magazine won’t waste any more precious resources by investigating.”

Stinson took a long time with her papers this time before frowning and folding them together. “No further questions.”

The jury deliberated for forty-three minutes, time enough to give the appearance of caring about the truth (while going through a few more taxpayer-funded pizzas). Then, they found Mr. Charon not-guilty of all charges.

There was enough light for a press conference outside the courthouse, where the jury forewoman explained the verdict to a gaggle of squawking reporters.

“…of course it looked bad, but we have to go back to our duties as jurors. We had reasonable doubt … I don’t know if he did it or not. Probably – maybe. I don’t know … but how do we convict on that?”

Whatever she had said next would have to wait for the impending book as it was drowned out by a wave of questions towards the man who descended the steps behind her. She yielded the microphones to Mr. Rice and Mr. Charon.

Mr. Rice did the talking, while Mr. Charon stood stoically, looking almost as though he were suffering some kind of gastric problem. He’d been live in front of millions of people throughout the trial. Perhaps the prospect of needing to speak was the unsettling bit, now.

“I hope this judgment proves to everyone, once and for all, that my client is not a monster. This whole sorry affair was…” He broke off and several reporters asked what that strange smell was. Mr. Charon looked even more agitated and had begun to sweat profusely.

“Somebody’s looking at me,” he stammered. He put a hand in front of his face. “Turn them off. Turn them all off, now!”

Suddenly, Rice jumped away from his client and the reporters gasped. Wisps of smoke were rising from Charon. He screamed, his voice a mixture of pain and surprise, but barely took three steps before he was fully engulfed in flames. Everyone watched in horrified fascination as he staggered, fell and was still.

Then they panicked.

Food for thought

This story explores the mysterious philosophical realm that lurks beyond our present understanding of reality. In this particular case, the so-called psychic phenomenon is tested, but in a way that is more intense (mass murder) than a typical laboratory experiment that may seek to alter a random-number-generator by several decimal points.

  1. Which is a better arbiter of truth: a courtroom or a science laboratory?
  2. Did the jury act correctly? What would you have done?
  3. Did Dr. Senway represent the sceptical viewpoint as strongly as possible? If no, what was missing?
  4. Did state attorney Stinson represent the believer viewpoint as strongly as possible? If no, what was missing?
  5. Senway and Stinson reach a philosophical impasse. Stinson argues that psychic phenomena exist, but are only testable by “believers” and that sceptical thought can actually negatively influence a thought experiment. Assuming, just for argument’s sake, that this “observer effect” is true, can parapsychology ever be considered scientific? Is this a limitation of science, or a limitation of parapsychology?

About the Author

Patrick is a husband, father, and teacher, who has been writing stories for many years. His work has appeared in Neo-Opsis and Ethereal Tales and has been short-listed at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and at Allegory.

He was the kind of child to walk through the woods, see a path leading off into the trees, and feel an almost overwhelming desire to follow it to wherever it may lead. He still feels that curiosity, although the paths he follows presently are often philosophical.

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