- Hardcover: 608 pages
- Publisher: Warner Books; First Printing edition (May 14, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0446520586
- ISBN-13: 978-0446520584
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #779,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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America on Trial: Inside the Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation Hardcover – May 14, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Harvard professor and prolific author Dershowitz takes readers on a tour through some of the most celebrated-and intriguing-cases in the U.S. during the past 300 years. He begins with the most famous case in American colonial history-the Salem witch trial, which resulted in the deaths of 19 people-and continues through the current day, with the not yet decided case of the 9/11 detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Many of the 60 or so cases are famous (the Dred Scott decision, the Rosenberg trial), but others have been forgotten. Not surprisingly, the number of cases increase as he approaches recent history, and while there are some scandalous cases from the past, the majority of headline-grabbers, such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the Jean Harris-Scarsdale Diet doctor murder, are contemporary cases. Although the book has a cursory feel at times (each case runs only about six pages), Dershowitz displays a keen sense of history to go along with his knowledge of the law: he features cases that highlight changes in American history, and he misses little. He follows a simple format: listing the basic facts of the case, then offering his critique. Regarding the current Supreme Court, for example, he says he is "angry" that in the Bush-Gore decision, the court "took it upon itself to elect anyone at all." Those curious about the history of law will find this primer a good place to start.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"As with all his books, this one is stimulating and enriching."
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This book was compiled with the assistance of many people (p.xi), and makes for interesting reading of these sixty plus cases. You will be educated in reading this book, but do not assume these stories to be complete and accurate. They are the equivalent of a TV show, meant to be entertaining.
The Boorn Case gets a fuller discussion in Edmund Pearson's “Studies in Murder”, who does not discuss the story of a “conspiracy”. It defies common sense for a poor farmer in Vermont to have access to a man in New Jersey! The main point is there was no proof of any murder, or that the bones belonged to Russell Colvin. The hanging of a Harvard Professor was based solely on circumstantial evidence, a first in America. The Judge’s instructions were in favor of the prosecution (pp.105 6). His story about Lizzie Borden is in error. Edmund Pearson's book was shown in error by Edward Radin’s 1961 book, and his in turn. There were no bloodstains on Lizzie or Bridget, and no murder weapon found. Neither were a likely suspect, except they alone were present. David Kent’s “Forty Whacks” gives a better treatment of this unsolved murder puzzle. The Judges’ instructions correctly favored the defendant. Any story about the “Black Sox” and Shoeless Joe Jackson should refer to Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book “Eight Men Out” which covers this story better.
The Alger Hiss trial divided America, “but not along class or party lines”. Hiss was convicted of perjury in saying he did not recognize Whittaker Chambers. But a picture taken around 1935 shows Chambers (under his false name) to be around 145 pounds, sandy haired, and with a mustache. Compared to the 1948 Chambers, 300 lbs gray and bald, they do look like two different men. See for yourself. Chambers claimed these papers were a “life preserver”, but were worth little without his corroboration. And Hiss, unlike real Soviet spies, never left America after his release. There are problems with the evidence (p.316).
The book “Tainting Evidence” has a chapter on the evidentiary problems in the Jeffrey MacDonald case. This is mentioned on pages 435 6. There is no evidence of any payoff to get MacDonald convicted. One of the most publicized and yet unknown case is the OJ Trial. The limousine driver picked him up at 11pm and drove him to the airport. OJ could not have personally murdered his ex wife and the visiting waiter. The Medical Examiner who did the autopsies testified that the forensic evidence said they were murdered after 11pm. [The red, liquid blood suggests murder after 11:30pm, just before the bodies were found.] These facts trump manufactured evidence like the planted glove and fabricated blood evidence. In June 1996 the ‘Los Angeles Times’ reported that the lead detective took away blood samples of the victims before the evidence was turned in for DNA testing. O.J. Simpson escaped the fate of Dr. Sam Shepard (or Tom Mooney). Isn't it true that murders by organized crime are rarely solved by the police (unless they convict the innocent)?
- The introduction is incredibly well written and does exactly what an introduction is supposed to do. It made me excited to read the book. It talked about ancient, historical and global influences on the American legal system.
- Dershowitz has a great handle on American history and how it affected the legal cases at each step of history.
- I appreciate that it's not always about the big cases. For every Dred Scott, Lizzie Borden and OJ Simpson, there's John Webster, Stanford White and Abrams vs. United States.
What I didn't like
- Later introductions are less about legal history than they are about general US history. That's not useful to me. It became boring and began to drag.
- Discussions of the cases are too short, quotations are too long and too frequent. Dershowitz relies too much on what the principals says and less on his interpretation. For cases that I'm not familiar with, he doesn't bother to state the facts of the crime.
I love love love old legal cases and Dershowitz knows his stuff. He's been involved in a lot of the best current cases. He shines when discussing legal complexities of the early 20th century and I really enjoyed the earlier chapters. I just wish the case discussions had been more in-depth and there had been more of them! I feel like it was too brief, and he really only skimmed the surface. It could have been so much better.
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by Alan M. Dershowitz (Warner Books).
© Marc Wickert October 1, 2008