From Suffering to Hope

By Doug Farmer  

In Medieval times, guilt or innocence was determined by “Trial by Ordeal.”

The concept was as simple as the ordeal was painful, and it relied on God to determine guilt or innocence. The concept, the methodology and the outcome were all considered perfect.

Trial by boiling water was sure to be efficient and effective. The accused would be presented with a cauldron of boiling water. The official would drop a ring in the boiling cauldron and the accused would plunge a naked arm in and retrieve the ring. The guilty would suffer horrendous scalding and loss of flesh while the innocent would remain unscathed.

Perhaps more humanely there was trial by water. This involved very little pain and was based on the premise that the guilty float and the innocent sink. This likely stemmed from practices within the Code of Hammurabi, tracing back all the way to more than 1,700 years before Christ.

Before we condemn the primitiveness of “Trial by Ordeal,” we should consider the efficiencies. The accused stands before the boiling cauldron and gives panicky thought to the dismal outcome. The inducement to confession is extraordinary—if not to confess outright, maybe to admit to a lesser crime. If nothing else, turn the focus to the neighbor who was always a pain, anyway.
In our modern, more enlightened age, we call this plea bargaining. The boiling cauldron is gone, but the instinct for survival remains, no matter the scale of the contemporary concern.

To date, Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor leading the investigation into possible Russian influence in the 2016 election, has spent $3 million looking for “something.” I say “something” because as surely as Ken Starr began with the Whitewater real estate controversy and ended with a semen-stained blue dress, this investigation will end someplace else.

Three million dollars spent. Lawyers at that level charge thousands of dollars per hour. It doesn’t matter who you are, that will burn through a nest egg.

Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the KGB, famously said, “Show me the man and I will show you the crime.” With $3 million already spent and an unlimited budget in the future, we would all be guilty of something.

Eventually, the charges will be many. We have seen lists of charges of essentially the same alleged crime that have the media breathlessly intoning the defendant could serve multiple lifetimes in prison. That sentence length is akin to a vat of boiling water. The specter of the cauldron remains, only avoided with a plea bargain or flipping on a former friend.

The idealist’s argument counters that the integrity of the process relies on the honesty of the prosecutor. Yes and no. Consider Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” A community bank focusing its efforts on Chinatown in Manhattan, Abacus was the only financial institution to face criminal charges following the real estate crisis. Simply put, it was a bank small enough for a prosecutor to attack.

Today’s prosecutors, be they in New York City or Washington, D.C., are today’s trial by ordeal by another name. For the accused, the choices and chances are just as stark, limiting and inevitable.

Doug Farmer has worked at Park Bank since 1981 and began his term on the State of Wisconsin Banking Review Board in 2003.He’s lived in La Crosse since 1971. You can reach him at

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