I once read an offbeat story in a hardback SF anthology which I checked out from a library, back around the late 1980s. This story qualified as science fiction, since it was set well in the future when society had changed a great deal, but I don't think it was written by any of the "big names" of the genre. I still remember the plot fairly well, but not the title or any of the character names. Here's an outline:

  1. It was a short story, and the bulk of it was basically a courtroom drama. I don't remember if such terms as "judge" and "district attorney" and "defense counsel" were used in the text, or if the author invented replacements for the traditional terms in order to stress how different his skewed vision of a future society was. (I suspect the latter.) However, characters corresponding to the roles of judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel did much of the talking in the story.

  2. I believe the defense counsel (or whatever he was called) was presented to us as already having a colossal reputation for successfully defending his clients, time after time. A futuristic Perry Mason, you might say.

  3. The prosecution's case involved demonstrating that the defendant had killed a prominent figure by using an archaic weapon which most of the people in the courtroom were evidently unfamiliar with. I think it was a crossbow -- definitely not what we would call "a regular firearm." The prosecution did a good job of showing that the defendant was, in fact, the person who had fired the fatal shot.

  4. The defense strategy was where the plot got particularly weird (as in, this approach wouldn't work in a real-world murder trial). Instead of the local legal system just having a blanket rule against murdering people by any means, I think there was just a long list of specific things which people were forbidden to do (such as firing guns or setting off bombs which might hurt other people). So the defense counsel argued that firing an old-fashioned crossbow at a human target did not squarely fit within the bounds of any of those specific prohibitions; therefore, firing that weapon had not constituted a criminal act. (Apparently this was an accidental loophole in the system; nobody had planned it that way when those laws were being enacted.)

  5. The judge ended up accepting this interpretation of the legal situation. Which seemed to mean the defendant would go free on a technicality, even though everyone knew he had deliberately taken the life of another human being.

  6. However, at the end of the story, there's an ironic twist:

    Acting upon instructions from the judge (I'm almost sure), someone picks up the murder weapon and fires it . . . at the defendant, right there in the courtroom . . . since it has just been firmly established that, according to the strict letter of the law, using this weapon against a human target is not a felonious act. Thus the defense attorney preserves his reputation as an advocate who usually or always "wins," but everyone else is satisfied that the defendant got what was coming to him. Nobody seems to miss the guy. (The ethics of this society appeared to have mutated drastically from the ones we take for granted in modern criminal justice systems.)

  • 5
    This rings a bell. I remember that the defendant had been tortured, so has to interrupt his testimony so he can receive medical attention. Also that the crossbow had been banned by the Pope formed part of the legal argument. Sep 1, 2016 at 10:24
  • 3
    They were banned by the Second Lateran Council under Pope Innocent II in 1139 (according to Wikipedia)...might help in a search
    – Paulie_D
    Sep 1, 2016 at 11:06
  • Handsome John -- I can't recall the details you mentioned, but I strongly suspect that we are, in fact, remembering the same story. I do know that the culture in question seemed much harsher than modern Western civilization, in various ways; I wouldn't be surprised if torturing prisoners before the trial was considered "Standard Operating Procedure."
    – Lorendiac
    Sep 5, 2016 at 17:27

1 Answer 1


The story is "In the Matter of the Assassin Merefin", by Ken W. Purdy. It is a courtroom drama set in the future, the killer used a crossbow, an "obscure weapon", because "I could be sure that no one would recognise it", and there is a discussion on legal points and precedents "the principality of Usa forbade the use of the crossbow against animals."

In addition, the crossbow was not only not declared illegal for the purpose of attacking men, but it is specifically listed as a proper weapon to use to dispatch heretics, which the victim had been proven to be.

"I beg to disagree, O Judge," Ter­ravan says. "I will cite further prece­dent. In the year 1139, Earth Reck­oning, the Second Lateran Council, a duly authorized, although secular, governing body of the time, formally outlawed the crossbow as a weapon, forbidding its use except—and this goes to the heart of the matter—ex­cept against the infidel. The term 'in­fidel' was understood to mean one who did not profess the accepted faith, in this case Christianity, one of the ancient religions. To be classified an infidel one did not need to reject the entire faith in its every tenet: the rejection of the smallest part of it would suffice. Clearly, therefore, an infidel was a heretic. And clearly the Eminence Fallett, in rejecting the of­ficial policy of this planetis, the Venusian deorbitizing, was heretical."

And indeed, he looks to be about to get off with only a relatively minor sentence for disclosing privileged information in his defense, when the judge orders the execution.

"The court finds as follows," the judge says. "The Regional Eminence Fallett was a heretic. The assassin Merefirs killed him. But by his choice of weapon, Merefirs, standing upon the precedents cited by his counsel, is found not guilty of assas­sination, although he did assassinate. So much for that.
"Azulno, the common statutes of the planetis forbid disclosure by a civic servant of material made known to him in the course of his duty. To breach this statute is, upon the arguments and precedents here cited by Terravan, clearly heretical. Thus, Merefirs is a heretic. He should therefore be indicted upon that charge, tried and macerated. However, in the light of what we have learned today . . . Warder, do you understand the workings of this weapon, this crossbow?"
"Me, O Judge?" the bigger of the two warders says.
"You, idiot!" the judge says.
"Yes, O Judge, in a way I do un­derstand how the thing works."
"Good. You may demonstrate," the judge says.
The warder takes the crossbow from the exhibition rack. He stands it on the floor, puts his right foot into the stirrup and his hands on the string.
"If it please the court," Merefirs says, "May I speak? The warder should put one hand on each side of the string, not both hands on the one side."
The warder changes his grip, pulls up with all strength until the string falls into its notch.
"Now," Merefirs says, "you lay the arrow—it is properly called a bolt, or a quarrel—into the groove, the blunt end tight against the string." The warder does that.
"Stand across the room," the judge says, "and let us see if you can strike the assassin Merefirs in the middle of his chest. Have no fear. As Terravan has so convincingly proved to us, you will be committing no crime."
The warder lifts the crossbow, peers down the length of it. Suddenly, almost without a sound, the arrow, short and thick as your thumb, flies across the room, nearly faster than the eye can follow, and buries itself Thump! in Merefirs' gaudy chest. His chin drops. The vio­let light on the life-support box winks out. A yellow light comes on briefly, and then, the red. The second warder reaches up and flicks off the switches.


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