From Publishers Weekly
Kadri's history of the criminal trial in the Western legal tradition presents representative cases, many famous, some little known, to illustrate the approaches, both rational and not, that organized societies have used to deal with law-breaking. One theme is the role of evidence in criminal prosecutions. Medieval trial by ordeal, for example, relied on the direct intervention of God to reveal guilt or innocence. In later epochs, confessions were accorded decisive weight, even if they were extracted by torture, as in the Inquisition and Stalin's show trials. Today, of course, we apply an intricate code of evidence, but, the author says, we still have verdicts based on ignorance and hysteria, and we have celebrity trials where evidence is subordinated to publicity. Much more serious is Kadri's summary of war crimes prosecutions stemming from atrocities in WWII and in Vietnam. Not many of the trials discussed reached objectively just conclusions, but these judicial failures tend to illuminate the dynamics (secrecy vs. transparency, hatred of crime vs. fear of mistaken verdicts) underlying criminal prosecutions. This thoughtful survey by Kadri, a prize-winning travel writer and criminal lawyer in England, helps us understand how far our system has advanced and how far we still have to go. B&w illus.
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Unexpectedly lively for a legal history, Kadri's study of the trajectory of the modern Western jury trial bounces from the Inquisition to Nuremberg to O. J. Simpson with an eye for the fundamental (the crucial importance of obtaining a confession, for example); the perennial (political power struggles played out in court); and the absurd (trying corpses, animals, and inanimate things). At times, the author's penchant for the ridiculous threatens hilarity; a passage on "trial by morsel," a medieval ordeal revealing legal truth through swallowing prowess, rivals any Monty Python skit. Yet beneath all the courtroom oddities, Kadri makes a set of deadly serious points about the trial's social function as a public morality play that, through spectacle and perhaps superstition, preserves order by publicly reiterating precepts key to a society's self-image. Nor are his points solely bound to medieval jurisprudence: as shown by Stalin's show trials, the Scopes trial, the Bernhard Goetz case, and others, spectacle is alive, well, and, these days, on Court TV. Entertaining, sociologically perceptive, and highly recommended. Brendan DriscollCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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