The Agony of Injustice: The Adversarial Trial, Wrongful Convictions and the Agon of Law


  • Claudio Colaguori


This study examines the relationship between the adversarial legal system and wrongful convictions. Understanding the shortcomings of legal procedure as a contest, (especially in cases involving marginalized defendants), can be illuminated through a critical agonal analysis that reveals power imbalances and rule breaking. The paper addresses the trial of William Mullins-Johnson, a Canadian aboriginal man who spent 12 years incarcerated for a crime that never took place. The court is examined as an agonal space of contestation where victory in the adversarial trial is equated with factual, actionable truth. The analysis invokes the critical theory of agonism prefigured in Foucault’s under-explored theory of power as a ‘clash between forces.’ Although the adversarial system is premised on the value of fair play, the winner-loser structure can invite rule-breaking and violations of due-process to the gross disadvantage of the accused thereby reproducing forms of systemic discrimination and horrific miscarriages of justice. The aim of the study is not to provide a full synopsis of the Mullins-Johnson case but to suggest that agonistic theory can make critical contributions to understanding of the relation between adversarial legal contests and wrongful convictions.