Book Review: The Big Trial

The Big Trial:the big trial coverLaw as Public Spectacleby Lawrence FriedmanUniversity Press of Kansas, 2015Our foremost living legal historian, Lawrence Friedman, turns his attention in his newest book to that curious phenomenon: the big showy courtroom spectacle; The Big Trial takes a brisk and typically learned look at the many roles such spectacles have played in American public life. It's an enormous subject, and Friedman's book is more like a monograph than a full narrative history; at 150-something pages, it's one of that rarest of categories: a scholarly work of history any reader will wish were four times its current length.Friedman looks at a variety of archetypes of such showy trials, from “tabloid” trials to “celebrity” trials to high-profile murder trials, and he's alive to the ease with which these archetypes blur into each other. “Political trials are often meant to send an explicit message,” he writes. “A lurid murder trial sends a less obvious message, but in every case, some sort of message, some lesson, some idea, is there, hidden perhaps in the dense legal shrubbery or disguised by the overt drama.”Through examples ranging over dozens of famous trials, from Alger Hiss to the Rosenbergs to Sacco and Vanzetti to Timothy McVeigh to Claus von Bulow to O. J. Simpson to Jeffrey Dahmer (and of course touching throughout on the mother of them all, Lizzie Borden), Friedman particularizes what that message is, generally focusing on a reinforcement in the public mind of the rules that govern society, a kind of modern morality play designed to show the social contract in turmoil and then stage its recovery before as wide an audience as possible – a staging that, as Friedman notes, has grown problematically easier as communication technology has improved:

In an age of instant communication, when images an ideas spread around the world in nanoseconds via blogs, tweets, texts, and websites, the headline trial may seem like a kind of dinosaur – a lumbering, awkward form left over from an earlier period. It might seem less important than it was before: as didactic theater, as a vehicle for information, or as an open-air display of basic norms and values of society. The big trial, historically, has had a role in dramatizing the rules, whether they were official or unofficial …

“We feel we have a right to this information,” he writes. “Presidents who have sex with their interns; the love lives of basketball, baseball, and football players; what shoes and robes the Pope wears; the thoughts and feelings of the Queen of England.” And leaving aside the fact that the last items on that list, the thoughts and feelings of the Queen of England, have famously not been made public in sixty years, his point is substantial: these big trials surface periodically in order for a country to dramatize its own legal system.The city of Boston is currently experiencing an intensely baffling example of this 200-year-old procedure, as the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev continues in a federal court in that city, even though the bomber's own lawyers admit he did it, even though hundreds of witnesses say he did it, even though he was filmed from many angles doing it, and even though he himself wrote a statement justifying why he did it … in other words, a case in which there is manifestly no legitimate reason for a trial, nothing for a jury to evaluate or deliberate, only a need for a judge to pass sentence. Where such a farce falls on Friedman's spectrum of didactic theater is doubtless a question Bostonians have been asking as the this particular spectacle lumbers on.