A dramatic controversy is raging in the corridors of international justice. We all know judges have to be present at trials. But do they have to be paying attention? Do they have to be awake? And, here's the cruncher - do they have to be alive?
These are important issues, particularly since many judges are, to use the recognized medical term, "drooling old codgers." I used to be a court reporter and knew several members of the judiciary who were still at work despite suffering from incurable diseases including rigor mortis, decomposition and fossilization.
I was alerted to this topic by a reader named Harsha who told me about two unusual trials in Australia. At the first one, court officials were initially pleased at the jury's copious note-taking. But then they noticed that what they were actually doing was filling in Sudoku puzzles. The trial was abandoned. In the second case, the judge fell asleep during the arguments, but woke up in time to sentence the men in the dock to prison sentences. The men afterwards complained that it was not their fault that their fates bored the judge.
Senior judges considered the issues and concluded that the law required judges to be PHYSICALLY present, but didn't force them to be MENTALLY there. Their argument was that one person cannot make judgments on another person's level of awareness. (Where was this argument when I was in school and teachers were thrashing me for being mentally on another planet?)
The findings reminded me of a 2010 case in India concerning a judge whose written judgments failed to mention the evidence, simply replicating the original charge sheets. A review by senior Delhi High Court judges said it was as if the judge blanked out during his trials: "We noted a complete non-application of mind by the judge." That sounds better than "sleeping". I should have told my teachers that "I was going through a period of non-application of mind".
In Asia, courts are sleepy places with occasional bursts of drama for which we wake each other. For example, a furious man once stormed into a Sri Lanka courtroom holding a bag of excrement. He flung it at the judge but aimed too high. The substance hit the ceiling fan. This defendant illustrated the truth in an adage ("the s*** hit the fan") that is widely used, but had probably never before been scientifically tested. We now know that the adage can accurately be used for a revolting mess.
But what about death? I can testify many judges sit immobile with their eyes closed for hours on end. It is impossible to tell whether they are awake, asleep or deceased. I remember one case in what a rather skeletal judge had not moved for hours. The rest of us wondered whether to call a doctor or speed things along by digging a grave in the courtyard flower bed. Eventually I nudged his bench to see if his skull would fall off and roll across the courtroom. He woke up and looked around and sentenced me to two years in jail. After I explained that I was a journalist, he increased it to three years.
In the US city of Denver a few years ago, Judge Frank G. Henderson died right there on his bench in the middle of a hearing. (I wonder how people left the room, since no one is allowed to stand up before the judge does? Is everyone still there?)
If they had followed the Australian precedent, lawyers could have just pointed out that Judge Henderson was still physically present, and carried on regardless. They would probably have enjoyed having fewer interruptions from the bench. And the jury, of course, could have finished their Sudokus.
A donkey mated with a zebra to produce a brown animal with black and white striped legs. The zedonk (half zebra, half donkey) was born at the Xiamen Haicang Safari Park in China.
It happened after a female zebra spent some time sharing an enclosure with three male donkeys. None of the males has admitted parentage. (Honestly, guys, that's SO typical.)
Some people are worried that the zoo may get into trouble, because Zedonk sounds like the personal name of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, I heard from reader Carol Wan, who sent me the information. Will the Chinese communist party take this as an insult and send the creature off for re-education? Mao Zedong's main achievement was to cause 30 million deaths, but he is considered a hero in China. Perhaps the current generation don't like their grandparents.
But Beijing leaders may see the birth of the zedonk as a compliment, and make the animal head of the politburo. This could be a good thing. The human rights situation couldn't get worse.
Reader Jaya Wicmrama sent me a tale from the New York Post to add to our dumb criminals file. A man from that city called the police, gave his name and address, and said: "I killed my mom." A few minutes later, he called again, saying: "I mean, she committed suicide." After thinking about it, police decided to go with his first version, and arrested suspect Jonathan Schwartz, 41, on murder charges. Moral: think first, phone cops later.
Pigeons never forget, French scientists discovered, according to a reader who did not want her name printed. The small gray birds remember who feeds them and who doesn't. Even when the feeder and the non-feeder swap clothes, pigeons aren't fooled, but look at the humans' faces to see who's who, claims Paris-based researcher Dr Dalila Bovet.
I was amazed at this. How did pigeons get to be so smart? If I wear a hat my dog won't let me into the house. My children are pretty much the same. Can I get pigeons to train my dog? Or my children, come to that?
The really scary thought is this: All the pigeons that have ever pooped on me probably did so deliberately, knowing who I was. I'm never leaving home again. Bang goes my plan to visit the zebra-donkey and tell its keepers to name it Mao, as in Mao Zedonk.
I suspect the Rowenta appliances company had male university students in mind when they added a warning to the irons they sell: "Do not iron clothes on body."
(24.08.2012 - Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via www.mrjam.org)