Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works…and Sometimes Doesn’t
by Mark Geragos, Pat Harris
Copyright October 2013
Paperback, 288 Pages
An exceptionally entertaining book that beautifully concludes on an inspirational note. Replete with engaging legal anecdotes, this book provides a pricelessly candid look at the American criminal justice system. This book is delightfully hilarious at times and fittingly interjected with personality. Most importantly, the defense attorneys’ indomitable dedication to, and unrelenting pride toward, the practice of their profession, and their insistence upon the upholding of principles, along with their electrifying mission to meaningfully serve society through the law, would turn out to be very much indispensable to the narrative of the book.
This book is perfect for the general reader; it is easy-to-read, straightforward and enjoyable. Given the range of consequential issues pertaining to the criminal justice system as addressed in the book, every American citizen would almost have a civic duty to read the book, to be acquainted with and to educate themselves about the related pertinent issues, and if possible, to even venture beyond into conducting independent research or actively engaging in awareness-raising activism.
The empowering messages delivered in the book with regards to the defense attorney profession make it unsurprising should any aspiring lawyer thereafter wish to emulate the authors and even seriously consider specializing in criminal law and becoming defense attorneys. This book has definitely piqued my interest in criminal law. Seasoned legal practitioners could surely enjoy this book; their presumed familiarity with the cases and matters discussed however might mean time better spent on more challenging, educative and unfamiliar material.
Of the multitudinous legal anecdotes told in the book, several cases are decidedly intriguing. The Scott Peterson case is fascinating but heartbreaking. One indeed cannot imagine the harrowing circumstances that befell the defendant; he not only tragically lost loved ones, but also had to grapple with an unrelenting tsunami of public opinion campaigning against his innocence. To add fuel to flames, and as a poignant exemplification of the dubious qualifying criterion of “he didn’t act right,” the defendant got convicted and put on death row for a murder conspicuously lacking in concrete evidence implicating him. The “Japanese O.J.” case was also particularly engrossing. In addition to an eventual unexpected twist of events concerning the possibility of police misconduct and brutality, the case also necessitated the consideration of a foreign jurisdiction. The People of California v. Will Lynch case is also markedly the most touching case in the book.
The book lucidly addressed an eclectic range of issues pertaining to the criminal justice system. The jury is one of the most interesting subject matters discussed. The recommendation in the concluding chapter pertaining to professional jurors and jury schools is assuredly refreshing. The reader would also probably not require extra prodding to be convinced of the immense challenges involved in jury selection particularly for highly-publicized and highly-charged trials. One might find oneself puzzled however by the supposed legal procedure and mechanism related to jury nullification. Despite the availability for the jury to exercise the finding of jury nullification, apparently “under the law, its existence is not to be acknowledged. The lawyers are not allowed to argue it, and the court cannot tell the jury it has the right to do it. If the jurors ask about it, the court is to tell them that it goes against their oath as jurors.”
As with any reasonable attempt at furnishing an unvarnished behind-the-scenes look at the criminal justice system, it necessarily implies an unavoidable discussion of rather unsavory and even disheartening flaws that plague the system’s workings. One can only imagine the tenacity displayed by defense attorneys in their continual confrontations with the myriad scenarios of prosecutorial immunity and privilege, in witnessing the unjustified rewarding of prosecutorial misconduct, and even facing instances where remorseless prosecutorial unethicality resulted in wrongful convictions. As one of the authors poignantly expressed, the prevailing legal climate seemed to indicate that “it is better that ten men be wrongly convicted than that one guilty man walks free.”
The authors also rightly highlighted the poignant burgeoning trend of the “angry blond white women”—an embodiment of “faux hysteria”—that disproportionately target the defendants of criminal cases. The book also lucidly illustrated the concept of the politicization of the criminal justice system, and effectively exemplified instances of forced false identification and forced confession through compelling anecdotes. Included in the narrative as well are firsthand accounts of the overblown hubris and display of arrogance of personalities within the criminal justice system.
The book remains greatly inspiring. The signification of such principled utterances—“You don’t become a defense attorney to win Miss Congeniality;” “We are defense lawyers. We represent people who are not popular;” and “the day we quit taking cases because the defendant is not popular is the day we shut the firm’s doors”—to the reader should not be underestimated. A personal lesson one of the authors learned as a young lawyer also feels undeniably invaluable, that “the worst single thing a judge can do is to wound your ego a little and make you walk out of the courtroom a little embarrassed,” nothing more.
Humor is suitably and occasionally effectively utilized in the book. One cannot help but chuckle with amusement upon reading a strategically humorous episode where the authors shrewdly engineered the ensnaring of a third and particularly cunning stealth juror during the jury selection process of the Scott Peterson trial. The lighthearted manner to which humor is injected into the discussion of a very real problem within the criminal justice system also made the issue that much more palatable for those involved—the clever dubbing of the term “police memory syndrome” (PMS) along with the use of highly suggestive words “magic” and “spell” in describing it. Humor is similarly rather shrewdly used in another instance to comment on snippets of truth that might be especially hard for veterans of, and those highly vested in, the industry to stomach. In outlining the ironic counterproductive effects of the hardline stance of being tough on crime, the authors wrote, “The rest of the country looks at California and wonders how it is that whatever current Hollywood ‘it girl’ gets in trouble and is sentenced to jail, she instead ends up at home within days of sentencing. Why? Because California is tough on crime.”
The authors could have expanded upon certain promising observations or statements made with further evidence or corroboration. The statement “there is a definitive correlation between a dry wit and judicial excellence” is indeed intriguing and represent a potentially riveting area of research-driven exploration. The lack of follow-up corroboration however, in addition to the lack of supporting evidence makes the assertion rather forgettable and even dubious. The book could also have been improved or made even more instructive should the authors actually furnish appropriate substantiation upon making interesting statements such as “cops are allowed by law to lie to suspects,” or “we, on the other hand, mock Texas, where a death penalty case is shorter than most California traffic ticket trials.”
Sarcasm is employed considerably in the book. Only at one particular instance at the beginning of the book that the sarcasm used seemed to overstep the boundaries and chip away at the authors’ credibility. Consider the following, “The capper (we hope) was when [Keith Ablow] announced in 2011 that parents should not let their children watch Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars because they might turn gay. Parents should probably be more worried that their children might watch Dr. Ablow on Fox News and turn stupid.” This particular instance of sarcasm seemed unduly blunt and on the offensive, but it surely would not seem to be too perturbing considering the plentiful merits observed in the rest of the book.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.