The topic of justice as determined in the courts is central to The Crucible. Arthur Miller presents information that could be used to support both pro and con positions in regard to whether it is “better determined.” That is because Miller is very critical of corruption and hypocrisy. That criticism, however, need not mean that Miller thinks there is any mechanism superior to a court trial in carrying out justice.
As the number of witchcraft accusations mushrooms, a decision is made to formally evaluate the guilt of those accused: it become a matter for the courts. Clerk Cheever and Marshall Herrick serve warrants and bring the accused to trial; every day, more townspeople are accusing the others, using witchcraft for all manner of problems and hoping for vengeance on their enemies. The presiding judges, including Judge Hathorne and Deputy Governor Danforth, seem disposed toward accepting the guilt of all those accused. One key problem here is that the accusers are girls and young women, and the judges seem to have difficulty believing that that these young people are capable of making up such evil stories.
The judges are in principle dedicated to the propriety of the court; Judge Hathorne, for example, demands proper rules of evidence be followed. The quality of the “evidence,” however, is highly questionable. A doll, or “poppet,” is alleged to show proof of intended harm through a needle stuck in its belly—even as it becomes clear that Abigail had mutilated herself. Shrieking about seeing a bird in the rafters, Abigail throws the court into disarray and, as she gains control over the judges, effectively turns the proceedings into a farce. The judges consider those who do not follow the rules of evidence, such as Giles Corey, to be in almost as much trouble as the accused. And those opposing the validity of the charges, notably Francis Nurse, are found in contempt.
The situation disintegrates further as Judge Danforth, apparently worrying that things are getting out of hand, aggressively asserts his authority, denying the accused legal representation by attorneys—if they were innocent, they would not need defending, he rationalizes. Finally, in carrying out justice through hanging those found guilty, Danforth reveals that his concern for appearances outweighs any compassion he might feel. When the Reverend Hale asks him to postpone the last group of hangings, Danforth refuses because news of the postponement might indicate doubt of all the verdicts, including those for which people had already been put to death. He wants the larger public to equate civil law with religion and righteousness, what he calls “God’s law.”