New Books In Law Features “The Big Trial”

9780700620777New 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.

Publisher’s Pick: Lizzie Borden on Trial

9780700620715August 4 is the 123rd anniversary of the brutal murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, an event which captured widespread public attention in the United States especially when Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, was charged with the crime. Although acquitted, the question of her responsibility for the murders has continued to fascinate the public. Joseph A. Conforti’s book “Lizzie Borden on Trial: Murder, Ethnicity, and Gender,” recently published by Kansas, is the latest and most thorough exploration of the murders, their investigation, and Lizzie’s trial. Setting the case in the social context of its time, Conforti shows how assumptions about gender—could a woman do such a violent act—and class—would a woman of Lizzie’s wealth and status murder her father and step mother—powerfully influenced the investigation and the trial.

Why do we still care about this case? Conforti, who grew up in Fall River with the legend of Lizzie Borden, says that he decided to write about it because “I came to realize that what happened in the Borden house in the summer of 1892 amounted to more than a murder mystery, that events surrounding the tragedy and encompassing the trial revealed much about late Victorian life in Fall River and well beyond.” We become fascinated by a trial because it offers a window into part of our society we don’t really know, in this case an affluent class that assumed the respectability of old New England Protestant stock in a time of rapid change and immigration. Lawrence Friedman, in a recent Kansas book “The Big Trial: Law as Public Spectacle,” says “the Borden trial is a prime example of a group of trials to which I apply the phrase ‘the worm in the bud.’ These trials catch the public fancy because they expose, or threaten to expose, the sleazy underside of prominent or respectable society.” We will never know whether Lizzie Borden was an axe murderer. But we can use the story to explore and expose the life and pretenses of a part of our society.

–Written by Chuck Myers, Director of University Press of Kansas