Five Best: Robert Tanenbaum – The former assistant district attorney for New York County and author of the novel “Tragic” recommends books on the pursuit of justice.

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PhotoContempt of Court

By Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips Jr. (1999)

1. This compelling history lays out the facts of the case that led to the establishment of a defendant’s right to seek federal-court redress if his constitutional rights had been violated during state-court criminal-trial proceedings. It is a richly detailed history—the story of Ed Johnson, a black man falsely convicted of rape and sentenced to death in 1906 in Chattanooga, Tenn. So fevered was the trial atmosphere that, according to the official transcript, during the proceedings a juror rushed toward Johnson screaming: “If I could get at him, I’d tear his heart out right now.” Johnson’s defense counsel, having exhausted all other relief after his conviction, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene directly in a state criminal trial—something it had never before done. The court agreed and, concluding that Johnson had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, ordered his execution stayed. States-rights activists reacted with rage—and an infuriated mob snatched Johnson from his jail cell, beating him and hanging him from a bridge. Neither the local sheriff nor his deputies had attempted to prevent the break-in or the lynching. The Supreme Court charged them all with contempt of court. They were convicted after a trial conducted before the justices—a first in the history of the court.

It’s Not About the Truth

By: Don Yaeger, with Mike Pressler (2007)

2. Here’s a hard-eyed account of Duke University’s infamous rush to judgment over a sexual accusation involving its lacrosse team. It’s a case whose facts still have the power to enrage and disturb and one with which the authors are intimately acquainted, especially Mike Pressler, Duke’s lacrosse coach at the time. In March 2006, a stripper who had been invited to a team party alleged that she had been raped by team members. The book’s strength is its vivid documentary like recounting of events. We see the Duke campus roiling with instant demonstrations. Faculty and students alike vilify the team before anything remotely resembling an investigation has taken place. A large segment of the Duke faculty, self-described as the Group of 88, publishes a scathing statement castigating not only the lacrosse players but capitalism and various institutions they hold to be responsible for the oppression of women and minorities. Eventually, the accuser recants, and the prosecutor is removed from office. In short, justice prevails. But not before the nation gets a searing look at a world governed by the politically correct.

Act of Vengeance

By Trevor Armbrister (1975)

3. On Dec. 31, 1969, three contract killers entered the Clarksville, Pa., home of Jock Yablonski, an aspiring reformist leader within the United Mine Workers union, and executed him along with his wife and daughter. Trevor Armbrister’s “Act of Vengeance” is spellbinding in its evocation of the search for justice that followed, headed by Richard Sprague of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. A brilliant prosecutor, Sprague would ensnare not only the three killers but also the intermediaries who carried out the “open-hit contract” to kill Yablonski; it had been issued by Tony Boyle, the United Mine Workers president. Boyle had feared that Yablonski would expose his corrupt practices and overturn the tainted recent election in which he had defeated Yablonski for the union presidency. The book provides vibrant re-creations of the prosecutor’s quest, which ended with Boyle’s conviction.

Mr. District Attorney

By Barry Cunningham, with Mike Pearl (1977)

4. As reporters for the New York Post, Barry Cunningham and Mike Pearl covered the city’s criminal courts for years, giving them real-life expertise in the daily functioning of the criminal-justice system. That expertise is on display in this portrait of the legendary New York district attorney Frank Hogan. Elected to nine terms (1941 to 1974), Hogan prosecuted mobsters, labor racketeers, corrupt public officials and rogue cops. Cunningham and Pearl deliver a detailed account of Hogan’s ministry of justice, but it isn’t the cases alone that provide the drama. This is the story of a D.A. determined to ensure the exoneration of the unjustly accused, one who made it clear that prosecutors were to provide the defense with exculpatory evidence as soon as they had any. He made it clear, too, that crime required appropriate punishment. There would be no “lesser pleas” for heinous acts of criminality.

State Trials of Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Captain William Kidd

Edited by Charles Edward Lloyd (1899)

5. To know of the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh, held in 1603, is to grasp the point of Charles Kingsley’s famous if hyperbolic quote: “To this one man, under the Providence of Almighty God, the whole United States of America owe their existence.” The procedural unfairness of that trial so haunted the Founders that it helped lead to the creation of a pillar of the Bill of Rights—the Sixth Amendment guarantee of an accused’s right to confront adverse witnesses. Drawing on a vast archival compilation, Charles Edward Lloyd presents a record of the Raleigh trial (with two others), allowing us to experience firsthand the moment when jurors sat in judgment of the famous explorer, aristocrat and public official, charged with conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy. Framed like a Shakespearean drama, the account details the Crown’s prosecution and Raleigh’s eloquent defense protesting the uncorroborated hearsay testimony of an incriminating letter by one Lord Cobham. Since he could not cross-examine the letter, Raleigh demanded that Cobham be produced: “I beseech you my lords, let Cobham be sent for . . . let Cobham be here, let him speak it. Call my accuser before my face.” Cobham was never called. Raleigh was convicted and sentenced to death.

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