The Trial in American Life

Robert A. Ferguson, Author
Robert A. Ferguson, Author University of Chicago Press $29 (400p) ISBN 978-0-226-24325-2
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Courtroom trials-from Scopes to O.J. Simpson-are dramatic, multi-layered events that do much to define and redefine American life, addressing questions far beyond that of a defendant's culpability. Ferguson offers an expansive and meticulous examination of American trials, covering everything from courtroom players to the role of television and the press, giving over much of the work to case studies of five of the most notorious trials in American history (including Aaron Burr's, Mary Surratt's and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's). Ferguson, a law professor, fills readers in on the basics of the courtroom as well as little-known facts about it; jurors, for example, were originally intended to have intimate familiarity with both the accused and the crime, the opposite of the tabulas rasas that make up modern juries. His case histories are vivid and colorful, especially in his account of John Brown's calculated courtroom martyrdom following his failed raid on Harper's Ferry, but his otherwise pedantic approach can grate, blighting a meaty observation or argument with numbingly academic digressions.
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