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Trials of the Centuries
  A discussion with lawyer and barrister Sadakat Kadri, author of 'The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson'
Oct. 11, 2005
 

Court TV Host: You may know about the medieval procedures of trial by fire and water, but did you know that European lawyers once prosecuted dead bodies, inanimate objects and animals? Did you also know that all these practices actually played a role in the development of the world's modern legal systems? Find out how -- chat with lawyer and barrister Sadakat Kadri, author of the new book, The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson.

Court TV Host: He was just on Catherine Crier Live...and now he's here to chat with us.

Court TV Host: Welcome, Mr. Kadri, thanks for being our guest online today.

Sadakat Kadri: Hi. Thanks a lot for having me on.

Question from Alison: How long did it take to research your book?

Sadakat Kadri: I spent about four years, two and a half of them in New York. I decided that if I was going to write on the criminal trial, I should be where it's biggest - and that of course is the US. I spent some time in actual courtrooms, but a lot just researching old transcripts.

Question from kiara: Welcome Sadakat_Kadri....what are the top five trials in terms of legal precedent?

Sadakat Kadri: Now that's a tricky question. So many old trials reflect aspects of the modern system without being actual precedents. The trials of animals and dead people, for example, seem absurd to us nowadays,but there are still plenty of people who think it almost irrelevant whether a criminal knows that what s/he did is wrong - until two years ago, it was constitutional to execute mentally retarded people or people who were children when they committed their crimes. But if you want a list of my top five in terms of their impact on our modern understanding of the trial process, it'd probably be . . . Socrates, Salem, Scopes, Nuremberg and maybe even O.J.

Question from RachelC: Do you think there will come a time when public executions return? I think modern society seems more and more like ancient Rome as time goes on, in lots of ways.

Sadakat Kadri: In my book, I show that the public trial in many ways became the spectacle that it is with the abolition of public executions in the mid-nineteenth century. It was then that court reporting became a feature of the mass media across the U.S. and Europe. Like you, I think the Rome parallel is an interesting one. I use it in my book, when I talk about a ruling down in Texas a couple of years ago - the judge wanted to allow cameras not just into court, but into the jury room And the jury wasn't deliberating on conviction but on whether to execute. The thumbs up and thumbs down might yet return, you're right.

Question from wn: Is our society more or less punitive or "harsh" today than in "olden times?"

Sadakat Kadri: I show in my book that there have *always* been two aspects to the trial. On the one hand, there's been a fear of punishing the wrong person - but there's also been a deep longing to convict the right one. History has seen societies constantly swing between the two poles. I argue that the last fifty years has seen a major swing in the US towards punishment for its own sake. You see it in the movies, apart from anything else. Back in the fifties and sixties, the defense lawyer was always the hero - think Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda. Now, in the days of minimum sentences and three strikes, we've got shows like Law and Order - and it's all but impossible to imagine defendant or defender as hero.

Question from hammy: Why do you think the US has opted to hold on to the death penalty when some of their other western counterparts have abandoned the death penalty?

Sadakat Kadri: I'm personally very opposed to the death penalty, but I have to recognize that it's popular - even, to some extent, still in the UK - and I think the extent of local democracy here has got something to do with it. Judges aren't elected on abolitionist tickets, politicians who want to kill criminals will get more votes than those who think fighting crime requires a little more thought. The *desire* to execute isn't unique to the U.S. however. The urges to be merciful and to execute, like much else in the field of criminal justice, seems to come in cycles though - and I hope that the US might change direction in due course.

Question from PapaJim: Is it true that in Salem that in the Witch trials some were hung some were drowned but none were burned, though many people continue to think that?

Sadakat Kadri: No. All nineteen defendants who were executed were hanged. Giles Corey was pressed to death for refusing to plead. Burning was traditionally used to punish witches on continental Europe and Scotland, which had inquisitorial type systems. It was used for heretics and traitors, but never witches in England; as far as I'm aware, no American colony used it punish witchcraft either.

Question from Alison: do you have a favorite trial?

Sadakat Kadri: That's another really tricky question - there are so many types of answers I could give. I love some of the weirder and more macabre ones I cover - like the trials of werewolves and pigs - but I'm going to say that my favorite is one of those that moved me most while I was researching my book. It's one that Clarence Darrow took on very soon after Scopes - involving a black guy called Henry Sweet, who killed a white member of a would-be lynch mob to protect his brother. The jury members were all white, and the case took place in the racially charged atmosphere of Detroit in the 1920s - but Darrow made what he regarded as the strongest speech of his life, and won a not guilty verdict. Even the judge ended the case in tears. The trial has always had a very dark side, and much of its history is drenched in blood - but that case is a reminder that justice is possible, and always worth arguing for.

Court TV Host: Thanks for being our guest today.

Sadakat Kadri: Thanks again for having me on, and for all the questions that were sent in. It's been a real pleasure.

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