There is a principle in the law called proximate cause, taught to first-year law students through the case
. A woman stands at one end of a train platform. Picture her: The year is 1924, and Helen Palsgraf is taking her two little girls to Rockaway Beach for the afternoon. The day is very hot, and the brick row house where the girls, their older brother, and their parents live is stuffy. With school out and nothing to do, the girls have been whining all day, and Helen has finally decided to take them to the beach. Perhaps she has buttoned a cotton dress up over her bathing suit and donned a wide-brimmed straw hat to block the sun. Now she leans against one of the station platform supports and fans herself with the hat. A few feet away, the girls play together with a doll one has brought. Helen watches them idly.
At the other end of the platform, thirty feet away, a young man runs to catch the train that is now departing, an express to the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. Perhaps he has plans to meet his pals there for a night of carousing. They will drink beer; they will listen to a band play; they will dance with pretty girls. Maybe he will even kiss the girl his cousin has told him about, a looker from Connecticut. He is with two other young men, and they all run for the train, but the man we care about carries under his arm a small package wrapped in newspaper, fifteen inches long.
The train has already begun to leave the station, its large metal wheels turning at an ever-increasing clip, but the man does not want to miss tonight. He runs faster. Can he make it?
The train pulls out. There’s a gap between it and the platform now.
The man leaps.
From the train, a conductor leans out to catch his arms and pull him aboard. From the platform, a porter gives him a shove. The man lands safely on the train.
But the package falls—and when it hits ground, explodes. The package contains fireworks.
The next morning, newspapers report that dozens were injured. A teenager’s hair caught flame. A mother and daughter suffered cuts all over their arms and legs. And at the other end of the platform from the train, a large metal scale used for weighing baggage shook and tottered. The woman standing beneath it holding a wide straw hat screamed. The scale fell.
When Mrs. Palsgraf recovers, she sues the railroad for her injuries.
What caused her injuries? Let’s start with the scale’s falling. This is what in law is called cause in fact
: If the scale had not fallen, Mrs. Palsgraf would not have been injured.
But there’s a problem. Scales don’t just fall. The explosion caused the fall.
And explosions don’t just happen. The young man’s fireworks caused this one.
But fireworks don’t just go off. The porter made the young man drop his fireworks by pushing him.
Mrs. Palsgraf ’s injury must be the porter’s fault—and thus that of the railroad that employs him.
All of these possible causes are causes in fact. The causes in fact are endless. The idea of proximate cause is a solution. The job of the law is to figure out the source of the story, to assign responsibility. The proximate cause is the one the law says truly matters. The one that makes the story what it is.
In my memory there is a dark room that stands wide-mouthed as a cave, fluorescent bars weakly aglow in its center. On the walls, rows of leather-bound books stretch to the ceiling, the muted colors of their spines alternating the blue of an old flag, the green of the sea, the red of dried blood. The books are legal registers, the same books in every law firm library in the country that hold case decisions from decades before. Each of them contains countless stories, countless lives, who did what and who was made to pay.
Picture me there. In June of 2003, twenty-five years old. Last week I passed my days hunched in a library carrel that smelled of old wood, where I scribbled six-hour blue book exams to finish my first year of law school at Harvard. Yesterday, I boarded a plane that carried me south to New Orleans, where I disembarked into air that was a hot wet slap. I have come to the South to fight the death penalty by interning with a law firm that represents people accused of murder. I am proud of this work I want to do and also frightened. My knowledge of the law comes only from books, and from the client stories my parents, both lawyers, shared with me as I was growing up. Those were disputes over custody, medical errors or a slip and fall, once a murder, but—nothing like a death penalty case. Nothing like I imagine New Orleans, in the midst of a crime wave this summer, will be.
On last night’s evening news yellow caution tape stretched tight across a closed door. This morning on Baronne Street newspaper boxes blasted black headlines of murder. On the library shelves, below the case registers, lie photocopied booklets, each one sheathed in plastic and bound with plastic rings. They detail the steps the state takes for an execution, I know. In this room, lives are defended.
I fidget in my metal folding chair. The brown suit I brought with me is too hot for New Orleans; I can feel the sweat already starting to bead on my forehead. This is where my attention is in this moment: on my clothes and how wrong I feel in them.
A woman strides to the head of the conference table and holds a videocassette up for me and the other interns to see. She is poised, confident, dressed in a simple black skirt and a white shirt that somehow stays crisp in the heat. “This is the taped confession of the man whose retrial we just finished, recorded in 1992,” she says. Her accent is thin and British, her hair upswept like a Brontë heroine’s. “Nine years ago he was condemned to death, but this time the jury gave him life. Could you please,” she says to another lawyer, “get the lights?”
Cause in fact, then: This tape. If I hadn’t seen the man’s face on the tape—if I hadn’t heard him describe what he’d done—he might have stayed just a name to me.
Cause in fact: Her showing me the tape. Twelve years have now passed since this day at the law firm, and I want to reach back through the years and tell her no, he isn’t my client, he never will be my client, I don’t need to see this tape. The child he killed is already dead. The man has already been convicted of murder. Everything that happened has already been done. There’s no need for me to see the tape.
Or go back farther. Cause in fact: I could have chosen not to come south to this office. I could have chosen never to confront, or question, what I believed. I could have allowed my past to remain undisturbed.
What if I’d never gone to law school? What if I’d never found a book about law school on my father’s bookshelf one afternoon when I was home sick from school at thirteen? The month I read and reread that book, the month I dreamt my future, a little blond boy knocked on the door of his neighbor’s house in Louisiana. The man on the tape answered the door.
I have spent more than ten years now with his story, a story that, had facts gone slightly differently, I might never have found. I have read the transcript of this confession he gave so many times I have lost count, and the transcripts of his other confessions. I know his words better than words I have written. Working backward from the tran- scripts, I have found the place where he lived and where he killed the little blond boy, and the gas station where he worked and was later arrested. From the transcripts, and by visiting the places in Louisiana where events in the man’s life took place, I have imagined his mother, his sisters, the little boy’s mother, all the characters from the past. And I have driven the long, lonely road from New Orleans to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, called Angola. I have sat across from this man, the murderer, in a visiting booth, and have looked into the same eyes that are on this tape.
This tape brought me to reexamine everything I believed not only about the law but about my family and my past. I might have wished I’d never seen it. I might have wished that my life could stay in the simpler time before.
She pushes the videotape into the player and steps back. The screen on the old box television flickers. A seated man slowly comes into view. Pale face, square jaw, jug ears. Thick, round Coke-bottle glasses. An orange jumpsuit. Hands bound in cuffs in his lap.
“State your name,” a deep off-screen voice instructs. “Ricky Langley,” the man says.
The Fact of a Body is published on 18th May 2017. Find out more here.
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