‘Speed’ isn’t everything, you know…

If we are going to dispense with the need for evidence, as a prerequisite for a criminal court-case to even go ahead in the first place… that’s only a small step away from dispensing with evidence, as a prerequisite for actually finding someone guilty of a crime

It may be the single most unanswerable question ever asked – and possibly also the most contentious: I know people who have irreparably fallen out with their best friends, over this very issue – but… who was the greatest guitarist of all time?

Ka-BOOM! Already, I can hear the rumblings of the next world war in the making. Because people who firmly believe the accolade should go to Jimi Hendrix – and ONLY Jimi Hendrix - will simply not tolerate the existence of others who might argue that: hey, wait a sec. Maybe it’s Joe Bonamassa. Or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Or Chet Atkins. Or Jimmy Page. Or Ritchie Blackmore. Or Robert Fripp…

And what tends to follow – apart from a lot of unnecessary bloodshed and violence, of course – is a comparison between these, and other individual guitarists’ styles: with an overwhelming emphasis on just… one… aspect.


Honestly, though. It’s almost as if the only quality that separates ‘good’ from ‘great’ guitarists, is how fast – and also accurately (because let’s face it: ‘speed without accuracy’ is like… um… ‘rock without roll’) – their fingers can navigate the length of the guitar neck, without actually coming unstuck from their hands.

And don’t get me wrong: ‘shredding’ is, undeniably, a guitar-playing virtue to aspire to. It is the reason why the late, great, and much-lamented Eddie Van Halen always comes in so high in any top 100 list of guitar virtuosos… and also why Randy Rhoads even gets mentioned at all. (There, see what I mean? Ozzie fans are already ‘barking at the moon’…)

But speed is not the only mark of greatness, you know.  What about… feel? Tonality? Complexity? The fluidity of chord-changes, or the ability to improvise a gut-wrenching solo, over the same old ‘I-IV-V’ progression, whilst also sounding vaguely original…?

For instance: if people, to this day, still marvel at the enigmatic genius that was Robert Johnson… it’s not so much because of how ‘fast’ he played – which is incidentally hard to even tell, given that there is no consensus on the recording speed of his celebrated 1936/7 Dallas and San Antonio sessions - but rather, how he even made his guitar sound like that at all, with only five fingers on his left hand. (Hence, I suppose, the whole myth about his ‘deal-with-the-Devil-at-the-Crossroads’).

Then again, however… ooh, OK, wait: this like having to tear yourself away from playing (or trying to play) the guitar, in order to attend to more pressing matters. Like the last track on ‘Ziggy Stardust’: ‘It Ain’t Easy’. Still, it has to be done sometimes. So… with a deep breath, and not a little reluctance… time to slide away from the analogy, and towards to the subject itself.

Justice. It’s not only music that suffers from this delusion about the ‘need for speed’: there is even a saying, in the English language, that ‘justice delayed, is justice denied.’

But without questioning the veracity of that observation: there is much more to the delivery of justice than ‘how long a court case takes to reach a verdict’. There’s also the minor detail of whether the resulting verdict – however long it took to emerge – is, in fact, ‘just’ or not.

This is why I was a little perturbed to read that Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis is now proposing the removal of the ‘compilation of evidence’ stage - even if only for ’major criminal cases’ – in a bid to ‘speed up criminal proceedings’.

Not, I must stress, because there isn’t any need for faster delivery of justice by Malta’s law-courts - I think we can all agree that the justice system might need a good kick up the backside, from time to time - but because…

Well, there are quite a few reasons, actually: starting with the question of who gets to decide which criminal case is ‘major’, and which is ‘minor’.

If we were still talking about music, the answer would be straightforward enough. It all depends on whether the third note of the scale is ‘flattened’ or not. But in justice? I reckon everyone who has ever been accused of any crime – across the entire world, and throughout the entire history of criminal jurisprudence – would have regarded their own case as being somewhat ‘major’, in their own eyes (if nothing else, because it could result in their own incarceration).

So… why the heck should some cases be ‘speeded up’, but not others? Where, exactly, is the ‘justice’ in that?

But that was only intended as a ghost-note, really. A much more serious concern is that… the ‘compilation of evidence’ stage serves a rather crucial purpose, within the entire judicial process. Actually, two. The first (and arguably less important, because the answer is usually quite obvious) is to determine whether there is enough evidence to prove that the crime in question was even committed at all; but the second is to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a criminal trial, against that particular suspect.

Remove that stage from the equation, and quite a few (mostly unpleasant) things are likely to happen. For instance: it could result in cases being brought before the courts, without any justifiable reason… which, aside from being something of an injustice, in and of itself… is also likely to slow down the course of justice, rather than speed it up.

For while it is undeniably true that the compilation of evidence stage can sometimes take long (in Yorgen Fenech’s case, it seems to be taking an eternity), the real reason for the duration of Malta’s court procedures has more to do with the sheer number of cases being filed, on a daily basis… as opposed to the much smaller number of judges and magistrates available to actually hear them.

I would have thought that the removal of a phase that is actually intended to reduce the first of those two numbers – by weeding out the unnecessary cases from the outset – would increase, not decrease, the current caseload; especially if, at the same time, we are doing nothing to also increase the number of judges and magistrates.

Another issue is that the judge/magistrate presiding over the compilation of evidence, is never going to be the same as the judge/magistrate who will go on to preside over the criminal trial itself.

And while that may seem a trivial detail, at a glance… it is nonetheless important, as it provides an additional protective barrier against miscarriages of justice.

The judiciary is, after all, composed of human beings… and human beings are not generally known for their ‘infallibility’. So having two judges to assess the evidence can only help: even if just on the principle that ‘two pairs of eyes are better than one’.

Meanwhile, yet another function of the ‘compilation of evidence stage’ – which only occurred to me just now, to be honest - is to assess the quality of the evidence itself; to ensure that it is all up to scratch, and in line with correct legal procedure.  So even if removing it might, in the immediate term, shorten the duration of any given trial… it will also dramatically increase the likelihood that procedural flaws will only show up at a later stage (resulting in further delays anyway).

Much worse: to remove it only for the purpose of ‘speeding up the process’ – without replacing it with any other mechanism to safeguard the same legal principles - would be the equivalent of trying to ‘speed up’ the process of a surgical operation, by… um… removing the phase where the patient is anaesthetised before the incision. (Yes, operations would no doubt be much ‘quicker’ that way; but only because the patient would almost certainly die within seconds…)

But I would say the overwhelming cause for concern is that… OK, let me put it this way. If we are going to dispense with the need for evidence, as a prerequisite for a criminal court-case to even go ahead in the first place… that’s only a small step away from dispensing with evidence, as a prerequisite for actually finding someone guilty of a crime.

And the truly scary part is that: in a sense, this is already happening. Not, perhaps, within the law-courts themselves (even if there have been, and will always be, miscarriages of justice)… but among vast sections of the wider population out there: people who just can’t seem to ever understand that their  own personal opinions and/or suspicions, are simply not enough to establish ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ in any given case.

This, incidentally, is also why I am not particular impressed by Zammit Lewis’s argument that… ‘Oh, but that’s what the UK did years ago’. First off: I was under this vague impression that Malta actually ceased to be a British colony more than half a century ago (but of course, I could be wrong).

Whatever political relationship exists between our two countries today, however: fact remains that the United Kingdom is not Malta, and Malta is not the United Kingdom.

I have no doubt that the UK has its own fair share of criminal cases that somehow got ‘politicised’ over the years…  but the reality in Malta is that almost ALL cases tend to get undermined by political concerns, sooner or later; if nothing else, because people here are far more likely to reach conclusions on the basis of their own political bias, than they are in the UK… or, for that matter, almost anywhere else in the observable universe.

Under those circumstances, I would not be too quick to phase out a legal procedure that exists precisely to ensure that court rulings are based on EVIDENCE – and, moreover, evidence that has been properly compiled, legally presented, and thoroughly scrutinised – as opposed to the popular suspicions of an instant, politically-motivated lynch-mob…

… yes, even if it means ‘delaying justice’ a little more.

(Oh, and one last thing: what I said about Randy Rhoads earlier? I was kidding, you know. He really was a great guitarist…).