The Two-Way Mirror #27: Snape’s Trial

by Dan

Will we have a real full-court trial of Snape in the seventh book? There have been several promises of a huge trial, but never have we had a real trial in the Harry Potter books. I know what you are thinking: what about Potter’s trial? My answer is that Harry’s trial was a masquerade. We know with Dumbledore that the Ministry should not have held a full-court trial for a simple case of underage magic. There was no crime to speak of! But with Snape’s murder of Dumbledore, I think we have the necessary ingredient for holding a full-court trial. And it seems to me that Rowling has promised us one big, juicy trial starting with the memories of trials in the Pensieve. During those trials, there was a hint of the possibility of bringing Snape to court with Karkaroff’s testimony, though Dumbledore intervened at the time on Snape’s behalf. Now Snape has killed his chief witness and Dumbledore will no longer be able to testify in person on Snape’s behalf in the future. Will Snape have a defender? What will Harry’s testimony be?

The Fan Trial

I have to mention Snape’s fan trial that has been raging in editorials and threads on MuggleNet. The sheer volume of the discussion is proof, I believe, that a full-court trial of our favorite character is in order, and we are all anticipating it. I have gathered four main scenarios based on the perception of the crime committed. Did Snape murder, or didn’t he? And these are the main scenarios along with their general loyalty assumptions that are not always logically implied (hence I call them assumptions):

Not guilty: scenario 1: There is no dead body. Snape did not kill Dumbledore. (Editor’s Note: Holy cow! That website really does exist!)Loyalty assumptions: Snape is for Dumbledore and for the Order.

Not guilty: scenario 2: Assisted suicide / Manslaughter. Dumbledore asked Snape to kill him! “Severus… Severus, please…” Severus obliged. Loyalty assumptions: Snape is for Dumbledore and for the Order.

Guilty: scenario 3: Premeditated murder. Snape is EVIL! Loyalty assumptions: Snape is for Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

Guilty: scenario 4: Murder (under pressure). Loyalty assumptions: He is neither for Voldemort nor for Dumbledore, neither for the Order or nor for the Death Eaters; rather, he is for whomeverwhenever it suits him.

I have trouble with all four scenarios, and I don’t imagine any of them would give us a truly interesting and moving trial in the seventh book.

The first scenario seems to me to be wishful thinking to the nth degree… not to mention it contradicts what Rowling has been teaching us about accepting death… But if Dumbledore does shows up alive and kicking in the seventh book, there is no trial necessary, and that’s the end of the Snape discussion. We will all worship Snape along with Santa Claus.

The second scenario also has something of the wishful thinking about it. I don’t think Rowling plans to pull the rug out from under us with the revelation that the murder Snape committed in the sixth book says nothing about Snape’s messed up moral character, which has been a theme throughout the books. Whatever revelations are to come in Book Seven will be, I think, the kind that will provide mitigating circumstances for Snape’s crime but that will not remove Snape’s act from him. I believe Snape’s purpose in the books is to provide a consistent moral character that is complex and that we are supposed to try to understand.

The third scenario feels too simplistic about Snape’s guilt. Snape is, was, and always will be evil? “‘Poisonous toadstools don’t change their spots’ said Ron wisely.” That statement did seem placed in Ron’s mouth to keep us alert, but I don’t think Snape is quite evil through and through, or we would have two Voldemorts. This scenario implies there is no hidden dimension to Snape’s actions in Book Six, but that contradicts the complexity we have come to expect about Snape’s motives. On the other hand, I don’t think the “not guilty” second scenario has found the source of Snape’s complexity either. On the contrary, I think it oversimplifies Snape’s innocence as much as the third scenario oversimplifies Snape’s guilt.

The fourth scenario doesn’t appeal to me because of the narrowness of its scope. It implies that Snape’s ultimate goal is to survive, basically; and perhaps to feel powerful by playing all sides. I just hope Snape’s ultimate goal has a touch more depth and vision and philosophy than that, though it is very possible that personal power is all that matters to him. Of all scenarios, however, the fourth does come closest to my own verdict.

Guilty, but…: scenario number 5: Murder (under pressure). In a sense, my scenario is the same as the fourth, but without the definite assumptions about Snape’s loyalties (or lack thereof). I think Snape really did murder Dumbledore and without Dumbledore’s approval. In that respect he is guilty. But… although the reality of the murder is the basis of my scenario, I don’t believe it has obvious implications about Snape’s ultimate goals. In fact, I think Snape wants to defeat Voldemort. I don’t know how noble his reasons for wanting to defeat Voldemort are. It could be that he does not agree with Voldemort’s agenda. However, I don’t think that implies he is on the side of the Order. I don’t think his motives are completely selfish either.

Snape’s thinking and morality might be a bit twisted. He acts like a Slytherin in that “those cunning Slytherins use any means to achieve their ends.” And I think Rowling wants us to ask this philosophical question about whether the ends justify the means, and whether sometimes it is necessary to “get our hands dirty.” The answer will be, I think, that the ends do not justify the means, but that perhaps once we understand the ends of a character, we can try to understand and forgive him for using unforgivablemeans. I do think that Snape will do one major noble act before the story is over, but I don’t think it will be in a twisted weird way like murdering Dumbledore on the tower “for the greater good” (although perhaps in his mind this act, too, was done for a good purpose). I think that when Snape will truly act in a noble way, we will know it. We will unanimously realize what he is doing and that it is either good or necessary. Maybe Snape won’t quite end up handing out sweets on Christmas like Scrooge, but like his literary precursor I expect he will have an awakening of some sort. I think his awakening will be linked to his relationship with Harry, and perhaps Harry will also demonstrate his own awakening by his testimony in court. Harry might take over Dumbledore’s role of defending Snape. He might even refuse to give the crucial testimony of having witnessed the murder…

The (pre)Trial in Absentia

The reason I have been thinking that a real trial might be in order and may actually take place in the seventh book is that a mock trial took place at the end of the sixth book, a trial that Rowling proved to be biased and unfair by playing the silent cross examiner…

Part 1: Whodunit?

Courtroom: The hospital wing

Witness against the defense: Harry

Question: “How did [Dumbledore] die? How did it happen?”

Harry: “Snape killed him. I was there, I saw it. We arrived back on the Astronomy Tower because that was where the Mark was…. Dumbledore was ill, he was weak, but I think he realized it was a trap when we heard footsteps running up the stairs. He immobilized me, I couldn’t do anything, I was under the Invisibility Cloak ? and then Malfoy came through the door and disarmed him ? more Death Eaters arrived ? and then Snape ? and Snape did it. The Avada Kedavra.” “Snape killed Dumbledore.”

You can already see a complication. This trial might be a lot bigger, involving whoever else involved in the plot is still alive, Draco, the Death Eaters…

Part 2: Presenting / Collecting Evidence

McGonagall: “Snape. We all wondered… but he trusted… always… Snape… I can’t believe it….”

Cross-examination for the defense (implied): None of you really wanted Snape in your midst, did you? You never gave him a real chance.

Lupin: “Snape was a highly accomplished Occlumens. We always knew that.”

Cross-examination for the defense (omniscient narrator): “said Lupin, his voice uncharacteristically harsh.” We understand how you feel, Mr. Lupin, having found yourself, as you think, fooled by Snape… But aren’t you letting the possibility that you might have been fooled make you judge Snape a bit more harshly than you might have otherwise? Is Snape’s talent as an Occlumens relevant to our discussion? Are you going to convict a man on his talents? You either trust, or you don’t. Trusting is about knowing character, not reading minds. Did you know Snape’s character? Did you even ever try to read Snape’s mind, now that you accuse him of practicing Occlumency against you? Do you know for sure Dumbledore tried to read Snape’s mind that you think he might have used Occlumency against him?

Tonks: “But Dumbledore swore he was on our side! I always thought Dumbledore must know something about Snape that we didn’t….”

McGonagall: “He always hinted that he had an ironclad reason for trusting Snape. I meant… with Snape’s history… of course people were bound to wonder… but Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine…. Wouldn’t hear a word against him!”

Cross-examination for the defense (I think): Snape’s history? What exactly do you know about Snape’s history? Do you know anything else Snape did as a Death Eater before he joined our side besides spying on Dumbledore that one night? Being a Death Eater is, in principle, of course, awful, but we know of other misled youth who repented, like Regulus Black…

Tonks: “I’d love to know what Snape told him to convince him.”

Harry: “I know. Snape passed Voldemort information that made Voldemort hunt down my mum and dad. Then Snape told Dumbledore he hadn’t realized what he was doing, he was really sorry he’d done it, sorry that they were dead.”

Cross-examination for the defense (implied): Mr. Potter, aren’t you “inventing wildly?” Aren’t you twisting the facts and writing your own incriminating version of the story? Snape passed information about a Prophecy. Could Snape have been aware it was the Potters the prophecy meant and that Voldemort would proceed to murder them? And when did Snape return to Dumbledore and express regret? Before or after the murder of the Potters? Your quick version of the story jumps over a crucial part, which is that Snape may have actually tried to save the Potters. You make it sound like Snape planned the murder and then, after mission accomplished, went to shed his crocodile tears to Dumbledore. Aren’t you being a misleading witness, Mr. Potter?

Lupin: “And Dumbledore believed that? Dumbledore believed Snape was sorry James was dead? Snape hated James….”

Harry: “And he didn’t think my mother was worth a damn either because she was Muggle-born…. ‘Mudblood,’ he called her….”

Cross-examination for the defense (omniscient narrator): “Nobody asked how Harry knew this. All of them seemed to be lost in horrified shock, trying to digest the monstrous truth of what had happened.” How exactly did you gather that information Mr. Potter? Can we accept your piece of evidence obtained by spying, by invading the most intimate and most painful private memories of your professor?

Harry: “So when he arrived at the fight, he joined in on the Death Eaters’ side?”

Cross-examination (omniscient narrator): “Harry […] wanted every detail of Snape’s duplicity and infamy, feverishly collecting more reasons to hate him, to swear vengeance.” We certainly don’t want you on the jury, Mr. Potter. Not that you could be on it, technically… This is one biased witness if there ever was one…

McGonagall: “… I just assumed that he was in a hurry to chase after the Death Eaters who’d escaped up to the tower….”

Harry: “‘He was, but to help them, not to stop them…”

Cross-examination for the defense (omniscient narrator): “said Harry savagely.” Mr. Potter, your attitude is out of order. Do try to moderate your manner or I will have to write you up as being in contempt of court…

Tonks: “I thought I heard Snape shout something, but I don’t know what–”

Harry: “He shouted ‘It’s over.’ He’d done what he’d meant to do.”

Cross-examination for the defense (implied): Just the facts, Mr. Potter. We don’t need you to add your own reflections on the matter. We don’t know what in fact Snape had meant to do…

Part 3: Pretrial follow-up. A key witness for the defense

Slughorn: “Snape! Snape! I taught him! I thought I knew him!”

Examination for the defense (implied): Tell us, what is it that you thought you knew about Snape, Mr. Slughorn? Give us your memories of Snape the student you thought incapable of murder and betrayal. I presume you are aware of his previous Death Eater activity. How come it still surprises you what Snape did? What is it that you knew about him? What did you foresee in Snape’s future?

Part 4: Pretrial follow-up. More pieces of evidence

Hermione: “I was going through the rest of the old Prophets and there was a tiny announcement about Eileen Prince marrying a man called Tobias Snape, and then later an announcement saying that she’d give birth to a–”

Harry: “–murderer”

Cross-examination for the defense (Hermione): “Well… yes.” Yes and no.

Cross-examination for the defense (omniscient narrator): “spat Harry.” I must caution you again, Mr. Potter, to moderate your emotions… And honestly, accusing a baby of being a murderer is going a bit far, don’t you think?

Harry: “I should’ve shown the book to Dumbledore. All that time he was showing me how Voldemort was evil even when he was at school, and I had proof Snape was too–”

Cross-examination for the defense (Hermione): “‘Evil’ is a strong word.”

Harry: “You were the one who kept telling me the book was dangerous!”

Cross-examination for the defense (Hermione): “I’m trying to say, Harry, that you’re putting too much blame on yourself. I thought the Prince seemed to have a nasty sense of humor, but I would never have guessed that he was a potential killer….”

It is interesting that Hermione phrases the blame Harry puts so willingly on Snape as blame that he is putting on “himself.” Perhaps the author is trying to get us to think of Harry’s and Snape’s “blame” together, in particular with respect to the potions book.


I think the evidence I have presented shows that Snape’s trial has already begun, and in many ways Rowling thinks that we should not jump to conclusions about Snape’s guilt; we should make every effort to give him a fair trial. It is true that Snape was not ready to do the same for Sirius when he was going to send him straight to the Dementors, but then, that was a special case, as Sirius had sent him straight to the Werewolf when he was a student… Sirius was sent to Azkaban without a trial once, as were so many other people innocent of the murders they were charged with (Hokey the house-elf, Morfin Gaunt’s son…). Let us hope that the Ministry of Magic has learned something from history. Let’s hope that in Snape’s case we will get a full-court trial that will consider objectively all evidence, motivations and mitigating circumstances.

Stay tuned for Snape’s Trial Part II: The Full-Court Trial.

Note: the quotes come from the chapters “The Phoenix Lament” and “The White Tomb” in the Half-Blood Prince.