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A Trial by Jury First Edition Edition

47 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375413032
ISBN-10: 0375413030
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Editorial Reviews Review

Historian D. Graham Burnett writes about his experience as the foreman of the jury in a murder trial in New York City, what he calls "the most intense sixty-six hours of my life." There was nothing especially spectacular about the case; it was not a famous one, and while A Trial by Jury holds interest, it's not a John Grisham potboiler. Yet Burnett uses the experience to illuminate the heavy responsibilities of jury duty and all the maddening frustrations associated with determining something as deceptively simple as reasonable doubt.

"The jury room is a remarkable--and largely inaccessible--space in our society, a space where ideas, memories, virtues, and prejudices clash with the messy stuff of the big, bad world," Burnett writes in this elegant chronicle. His primary characters--his fellow jury members--come alive on these pages: "a clutch of strangers yelled, cursed, rolled on the floor, vomited, whispered, embraced, sobbed, and invoked both God and necromancy." He grows to like some, and "loathe" others. ("Are there some citizens not clearly able to distinguish daytime television from daily life?" he asks at one point.) Parts of the book are funny, as when he describes the small steps he took to encourage the trial lawyers to strike him out of the jury pool: "I promised to give any healthy prosecutor hives. I brought along a copy of The New York Review of Books just in case." Alas, Burnett found himself in the courtroom, and eventually he became foreman. This allows him to wrestle through the contradictory evidence presented by both sides--and forces him to conclude that even the truth can resemble a muddle when presented in court. He has trouble making up his own mind about the case--this is no Twelve Angry Men update, though its insights on jury-room dynamics are just as instructive. Burnett also ruminates on his own profession: "I realize now that for me--a humanist, an academic, a poetaster--the primary aim of sustained thinking and talking had always been, in a way, more thinking and talking. Cycles of reading, interpreting, and discussing were always exactly that: cycles. One never 'solved' a poem, one read it, and then read it again--each reading emerging from earlier efforts and preparing the mind for future readings." Jury duty, of course, demands an awesome finality--and the conclusion to the trial involving Burnett is one that haunts the author after the gavel falls. --John Miller

From Publishers Weekly

Combining an ethical examination of civic obligation with a meticulous character study, Princeton historian of science Burnett (Masters of All They Surveyed) dramatizes his experience of being selected for jury duty in a capital case. Told as two parts of the same tale (trial and jury deliberations), the story is appropriately navigated between several Scylla-and-Charybdis pairings the court and the jury room, the truth and lies of the case, the application of laws and the fiery desire for justice. While the murder trial delves into sordid details of transvestism, male prostitution and rape, the tale takes its potent turn when Burnett is unexpectedly moved into the position of jury foreman (the original foreman simply disappeared one day) and must play a critical role in the jury deliberations. Holding other jurors' wide-ranging emotions in check while staying focused on the case himself, Burnett ultimately brings readers face-to-face with the stultifying bureaucracy of American law in praxis. Drawing on an academic and intellectual background, he builds an impressive melodrama and tense, emotionally exhausting scenes in the jury room that surely will recall Twelve Angry Men. But while the ruminations are articulate and engrossing, readers may wonder how Burnett plays a key role in the story while managing to remain distant enough to render the facts of the jury room as easily as he does. (Sept. 19)Forecast: Knopf is taking a big position on this, with a first printing of 100,000, a 10-city author tour and national advertising on CNN and Court TV, where Burnett will also make appearances. If he comes across as personable, his glimpse behind the closed doors of justice could tempt a wide range of curious readers.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 11, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375413030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375413032
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,859,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Leigh Lewis on June 20, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As the defense attorney who actually tried the case described in this book, I think this book is valuable just to see how Manhattan juries consider and decide criminal cases. As my wife, a writer, said when the book first came out, " He wrote the book, so he got to make himself the hero." You would think from reading the book that all the evidence fell from the sky and that I played no part in presenting the defense. An interesting read if you read it only to learn how juries work.
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33 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Amy Sterling Casil on August 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I found this book in the library and at the time, had no knowledge of its publisher's heavy push, its substantial hardcover printing, or the author's 10-city book tour as mentioned in the PW and other reviews.
It seemed interesting, and the jacket blurbs referring to "Twelve Angry Men" were appealing.
Other reviewers have stated simply the differences between what the book jacket promises, and what's in the book. Literature, especially this type, responds to the world; it does not direct it.
I've heard dozens of people complain about jury duty, and dozens more say that it's pointless. Despite Professor Burnett's statements to the contrary (after these pages of complete self-obsession and disrespect for his fellow jurors, and every living being in the courtroom with the possible exception of the sommnolent history-loving bailiff) - his "affirmations" that the jury system still works, although men like his fellow juror Felipe should not be allowed to sit - this book tells the story of a jury of one. One man who is no better than, and perhaps a bit worse than all those other people who want to weasel out of jury duty, who don't take it seriously, or who think the system doesn't work.
Those who read this book will learn what the professor ate during sequestration (fruit, nuts, cheese, bread, fennel bulbs). Blood oranges! A dozen blood oranges in New York City. A blood orange is insipid, an expensive luxury that appeals to the eye, but tastes far less rich than an ordinary Navel. They will learn that men who wear large belt buckles that say "Rodeo" are usually knee-jerk conservative "good 'ol boys." Except sometimes they're not.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By steve davis on December 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
I've been a trial lawyer for more than 30 years. I've tried both civil and criminal cases. Currently I am a prosecutor. So I was interested in Burnett's book because it promised to give me a glimpse of how a jury conducts itself in deliberations. If the jury Burnett served on in Manhattan is any indication, it's like the saying that it's better not to see how sausage is made.
I don't fault all the members of this jury... A more alert prosecutor would have struck him at the outset when he observed him segregating himself from the rest of the jury panel, nibbling his fruits and nuts and reading his newspaper in the corner.
It is not the verdict the jury ultimately reached that is offensive. If the jury wanted to entertain a reasonable doubt whether or not the defendant acted in self defense, that was its prerogative. But to sit around and debate justice vs. the law for four days was simply a jury out of control, led by an academic who apparently operates on such a high intellectual plane that common sense is alien to him.
I'd be interested in what his fellow jurors make of Burnett's account of their common experience. My surmise is that they would not recognize his account. He was so off base that in the end, this is simply one man's subjective and distorted view of how the legal system functions.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By James E. Carroll on November 23, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Kudos to this insightful portrait of the trial by jury. Very few books have revealed the inner workings of a jury's deliberations with such clarity and detail. The author sat as the foreman of the jury in the criminal trial of the People vs. Monte Milcray for murder in the second degree held in New York City. In just 183 pages, the author takes the reader through the jurors and their backgrounds, the trial and the evidence and then reveals how all of this plays together for four days during the jury's deliberations and sequestration. You cannot come away from this text and not better appreciate the power of a jury and the valuable service it performs in our system of "justice." For this alone, you will be glad you read this book.
This book, however, is not without its flaws. Early on in the text, the author refers to Ockham's metaphorical razor as the philosopher's tool used to excise all but the most essential to arrive at the truth. This book's editor obviously misunderstood this concept, and allowed what is a good book to be lessened with the author's ruminations that do nothing to illuminate what this book is about except to reveal the author's intellectual prowess and his penchant for affected behaviors. Maybe that's the way the Princeton University history department likes its assistant professors (the book's jacket identifies the author as one) to appear in print, but since other reviewers on this site have also complained about how the author's smugness gets in the way, I cannot help but think that this book could have been so much better if a stronger editor had been assigned.
If you live in Manhattan or work in its court system, you will particularly appreciate this book. If you're a lawyer, you'd better listen to what the jury actually thinks is important. And if you're a casual reader who appreciates a book about trials and the legal process, I predict you'll like this book, but you probably won't invite its author to your next party.
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