A peek into centuries-old notions of crime, punishment and justice through the Judicial Historical Archives.

By Laxmi Murthy*

A body lies collapsed in a heap, a sinister looking man stands over him with a smoking gun. Who is he? Why did he murder the man on the floor? The answers lie in documents dating back to 1895, painstakingly written in ink, which accompany exquisite ink drawings of the crime scene and suspected murder weapon. Besides the police, artists were highly in demand to document violent deaths and crime scenes.



The Exquisite Ink Drawings at the Archive

Housed in a section of the National University of Medellin, the Judicial Historical Archives are a treasure house of material which allow an understanding of notions of crime and punishment in 19th Century Colombia. Court proceedings related to various crimes from robbery, assault and murder to forgery and breach of promise to marry, which was a crime until the first half of the 20th Century are archived and catalogued. These crime records provide a fascinating glimpse into social relationships and codes of what was considered acceptable and prohibited in colonial Colombia. Court utterances on infanticide, abortion, rape and other forms of violence against women reveal much about the status of women at the time. Conflict resolution and shifting notions of punishment and justice can be traced through these documents.

Ironically, while present-day Colombia is infamous for extra-judicial killings ordered by top army brass, as
reported by human rights organisations, the country abolished the death penalty more than a century ago. The last execution in Colombia was carried out in 1909, and the death penalty for all crimes abolished a year later by a constitutional amendment, which declares, “The right to life is inviolable. There will be no death penalty”. The debates that led to the abolition of capital punishment would be extremely relevant even today – not only for Colombia which is grappling with its violent past, but for other countries such as India, where stormy debates on capital punishment are ongoing.

Bertha Duque Gomez, the Director (L); Ongoing Preservation (R)

Not all the archival material is open to the public. The archives of the mental hospital maintained since 1903, which mainly comprise of the clinical histories of psychiatric patients, are available only for scientific research. Besides indexing and cataloguing in order to make sense of every bit of paper and ensure it is retrievable through a computerised database, Bertha Duque Gomez, the director keeps up with the latest software. A standardised cataloguing system WIN-ISIS distributed free by UNESCO, allows the archive to be on par with international institutions with whom they network.

Conservation efforts are limited, due to the perennial funds: lack of funds and trained technicians, “We are able to do only preservation, no restoration. What we do amounts only to first aid for injured documents!”, she says. First-aid though is much needed while the art and science of archives are injected with new life.

*Laxmi Murthy, Director - Hri, visited Colombia for the Prince Claus Fund Network Partner Meeting in the summer of 2015. The meeting was hosted by our Network Partner, Museo de Antioquia