New Books In Law highlights Lawrence M. Friedman ‘s most recent work, The Big Trial: Law as Public Spectacle, explaining, “The Big Trial combines the scintillating narrative style that he employs as the author of several mystery novels with the keen insights about law and society that he has revealed time and again in his numerous cornerstone works of legal scholarship.”
Are the headline trials of our period different from those of a century or two ago? And what do we learn from them, about the nature of our society, past and present? To get a clearer picture, Friedman first identifies what certain headline trials have in common, then considers particular cases within each grouping. The political trial, for instance, embraces treason and spying, dissenters and radicals, and, to varying degrees, corruption and fraud. Celebrity trials involve the famous—whether victims, as in the case of Charles Manson, or defendants as disparate as Fatty Arbuckle and William Kennedy Smith—but certain high-profile cases, such as those Friedman categorizes as tabloid trials, can also create celebrities. The fascination of whodunit trials can be found in the mystery surrounding the case: Are we sure about O. J. Simpson? What about Claus von Bulow—tried, in another sensational case, for sending his wife into a coma.? An especially interesting type of case Friedman groups under the rubric worm in the bud. These are cases, such as that of Lizzie Borden, that seem to put society itself on trial; they raise fundamental social questions and often suggest hidden and secret pathologies. And finally, a small but important group of cases proceed from moral panic, the Salem witchcraft trials being the classic instance, though Friedman also considers recent examples.
The Big Trial: Law as Public Spectacle demonstrates how the headline trial reflects a critical aspect of modern society. Reaching across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the latest outrage, from congressional hearings to lynching and vigilante justice to public punishment, from Dr. Sam Sheppard (the fugitive) to Jeffrey Dahmer (the cannibal), The Rosenbergs to Timothy McVeigh, the book presents a complex picture of headline trials as displays of power—moments of didactic theater” that demonstrate in one way or another whether a society is fair, whom it protects, and whose interest it serves.