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Entertaining stories fill docket in court lore

Special To The Sun
Originally published September 4, 2005


The Trial: A History, from Socrates to O.J. Simpson

By Sadakat Kadri. Random House. 480 pages.

In 1510, priests in Autun, France, learning that rats were destroying the barley crop, ordered all rats to appear in court. Despite numerous legal proclamations, no rats showed up. Nevertheless, the bishop appointed a brilliant young lawyer, Bartholomew Chassenee, to represent the rats, and Chassenee successfully argued that since the rats were so numerous, it was impossible that they had all received legal notice.

Summonses reissued. Again, no rats. Chassenee then asserted the ancient principle that no defendant is required to risk life and limb to come to court, contending that on every byway where there were rats, there were also cats. No rat could be condemned, the priests agreed, "for fearing a cat."

Sadakat Kadri's lively new legal history promises a survey of legal trials from Socrates to O.J., but as the side trip into Autun illustrates, the author's canvas is much larger than the subtitle suggests. Kadri's audacious subject is justice in the Western world, from Hammurabi's Code until now, and the reader's journey is at once blood-soaked and whimsical, and full of unintended consequences.

For example, Pope Innocent III's abolition in 1215 of ordeals by fire or boiling water led directly to the torture-induced confessions of the Inquisition, which morphed into widespread witchcraft prosecutions. The unlikely precedent for the venerated Nuremberg war crimes trials, Kadri contends, was Stalin's 1930s program of brutal "show trials," featuring universal preordained guilt.

Since the Garden of Eden, the quest for justice has been marked by an uneasy tension between the desire to punish and fear of making a mistake. "One of the few things that humanity has agreed upon for most of history," Kadri writes, "is that its laws descend directly from the gods." So it is a volatile, jostling mix of popes and kings, prelates and despots, that sets the stage for this panoramic drama.

A Harvard Law School graduate who practices international criminal law in London, Kadri is a voracious researcher, and his vibrant writing style enlivens a potentially ponderous subject. (Occasionally, vibrant borders on glib: "It was once God who dealt out the cards and stacked the jury pack. In an age when few still believe in a deity who cheats at solitaire, it is to random chance and human wisdom that the hope of justice has been entrusted.") But stylistic quibbles aside, The Trial is a sweeping triumph, a delight for anyone interested in law and justice.

Kadri has a rare knack for uncovering subtle analogies. Criticizing Justice Antonin Scalia for his approval of the execution of retarded defendants, the author reaches back to the Middle Ages practice of "executing" violent farm animals, observing: "The fact that the condemnation [of a retarded defendant] is incomprehensible to the person punished would seem to be no more relevant to judges like Scalia than the mental state of pigs."

Similarly, witchcraft trials would seem to be a grim but irrelevant relic from the 16th century. But Kadri finds their modern resonance in the 1983 prosecutions involving alleged satanic sexual abuse at the McMartin School in California. Citing the extensive reliance on "recovered memories" that later proved to be wholly imaginary, the author concludes that the McMartin case " ... generated accusations of nocturnal flights, orgiastic sex and ritual sacrifice that could have been drawn almost directly from the records of a sixteenth century trial."

The most significant jury trial in history, the author asserts, is not the Lindbergh case or Scopes Monkey Trial, but rather the utterly corrupt and also ultimately unsuccessful Royalist effort to convict William Penn of "addressing a tumultuous assembly" in 1670. The Trial also explores the surprising ironies in the Scopes Monkey Trial (in which the defendant, John Scopes, uttered not a single word). Of more recent interest, Kadri recounts the jury acquittals of New York subway vigilante Bernard Goetz and of O.J. Simpson, viewing the two cases as mirror images of the same racial animus.

In the end, though, Kadri is no misty-eyed romantic extolling the jury trial. Instead, he contends that "irrationality still riddles the jury system," that "wisdom certainly falls far down the list of its attributes," and that juries are "obviously fallible." Still, Kadri reasons that "someone has to resolve the irresolvable ... and the crucial question is whether any alternative is likely to command more confidence and respect." In short, Kadri seems to adopt Winston Churchill's observation about democracy, concluding that jury trials are the worst mechanism for administering justice - except for all the others.

The ultimate fate of the Autun rats, by the way, like that of many un-indicted co-conspirators, is lost to history. But their counsel, Monsieur Chassenee, is remembered as "one of the most distinguished jurists in France."

David W. Marston, a former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia now in private practice, is the author of books on the legal profession and the FBI.

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