Book Review - "America on Trial"

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Book Review - "America on Trial"

Postby WildBill » Mon Nov 08, 2010 7:07 pm

"America On Trial - Inside The Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation"
by Alan Dershowitz

Most people have at least heard of Alan Dershowitz. He is a Harvard Law professor who, among other things, was the lead attorney for O.J. Simpson's appeals team. He has written many books and articles, most of which I have not read. This isn't his best, but I enjoyed it.

First of all, this book is an easy read. It doesn't get deep into the law, but it's an interesting history that follows some landmark cases and trials starting from ancient Greece, Rome and the Bible. The book follows the evolution of the law from England to the colonies through the present time. Some of the cases that are discussed in the book range from the Snopes trial, Brown v. Board of Education, Dred Scott, as well as the Scarsdale Murder and Mike Tyson's trial for rape.

One of the cases that interested me was Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case where the Supreme Court ruled that defendants in state court have the right to counsel during trials for serious crimes. Most people are familiar with this case from reading the book Gideon's Trumpet or watching the movie of the same name. This case was the precursor that led to the Miranda (Right to Remain silent) warning. The interesting part for me wasn't the outcome, but what happened behind the scenes and how the decision was made.

Clarence Gideon was arrested and convicted for breaking into a pool hall. During the trial Gideon did a dismail job of representing himself and was found guilty. On appeal, future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas argued for the plantiff that Gideon should have had effective legal counsel. As everyone knows, the court agreed.

Alan Dershowitz states that, while Fortas did an excellent job arguing this case, it could have been won by any first year law student. He said that the Supreme Court had already made it's decision even before they agreed to accept the case. The Court had decided that the time was right to set precedent, so they selected a case where the public would be sympathic to the petitioner. They picked Clarence Gideon, a poor White man who was convicted of breaking into a pool hall and stealing $5 and some beers and sodas. For such a crime committed by a pathetic character, the Court thought that reversing his conviction and "getting off on a technicality" would be more palatable to the public, than "setting free" a violent criminal such as a convicted murderer or rapist.

Some of the other cases are interesting in that they reveal some of the illegal and unethical actions of judges and prosecutors that led to reversals on appeal.

All in all, I think that it's a good read. Pick it up used or check it out at the library.
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