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A Gripping Trial Story Marred By Too Much Exegesis:
The Flaws and Virtues of Thomas Geoghegan's In America's Court


Friday, Aug. 2, 2002

Thomas Geoghegan, In America's Court: How a Civil Lawyer Who Likes to Settle Stumbled Into a Criminal Trial (The New Press 2002)

In his recent legal memoir, civil attorney Thomas Geoghegan tells the story of how he second chaired his first criminal trial - at 26th and Cal, the imposing criminal courthouse in Chicago.

There, Geoghegan and his friend Scott, a public defender, defended Rolando, a black 14-year old boy accused of felony murder. The prosecution claimed Rolando had assisted two older youths in holding up a bar, and that the older boys had committed murder in the course of the holdup. (While Rolando had not killed anyone, the "felony murder" doctrine still allowed him to be charged with murder, because he had allegedly assisted in the commission of a felony that had included murder by others.)

The story of the trial is a compelling one - with more than enough narrative tension for the reader to urgently want to find out what the young defendant's fate will be. Moreover, Geoghegan is an honest writer, willing to reveal his weaknesses where another writer might not.

His candor allows the reader to feel she is privy to an insider's view of the court. Geoghegan is not be afraid to come across as embittered or dissatisfied - or to admit that he did not want to do the cross-examination in the trial, and preferred to observe. He also openly discusses his dissatisfaction with the law, and even with his salary.

Unfortunately, however, this story fills only two-thirds of Geoghegan's book. The remaining one-third consists of his ruminations on inequality and the law, and is much weaker. Geoghegan should have stayed with narrating the trial, rather than resorting to rhetoric and ruminations about the law.

Early in the book, Geoghegan presents us with a compelling image: years ago, in the French criminal courthouse, the Palais, he saw a boy, a defendant in the courtroom, "standing in a golden light": "It was like the light of the Louvre, the light of the French Enlightenment, and the light of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the way it was streaming all over this boy, I knew it was like a vision."

Geoghegan declares that this golden light, and the boy and his lawyers bathed within it, symbolized for him "the idea of Justice." But twenty-one years went by, Geoghegan tells us, during which he never argued in a criminal court for the Rights of Man - until Rolando's case.

This image provides a wonderful beginning to the tale: Will Geoghegan be able to find this golden light at 26th and Cal?

A similar moment in which Geoghegan confronts his lost innocence and idealism about the law occurs later in the book. Geoghegan - while waiting for the jury to return its verdict - sees a girl, a law student, "rocking on her toes" with excitement at working on her case.

That sight makes him reflect on how when he was in law school, he had felt much the same way, but then had been unable to preserve that enthusiasm.

As Geoghegan later explains, he went to law school in the 1960s, when "equality was hot" and civil rights were the rage. But working as a lawyer over the last forty years, he has realized that he cannot effectively use the courts as a vehicle to effect equality in the way he once had dreamed he might.

Can Geoghegan's experience in Rolando's criminal law restore his innocence and enthusiasm? This - along with the question of what the verdict will be - is what has the potential to create much of the book's suspense.

Exegesis that Interrupts and Weakens the Narrative, and Fails to Persuade

As mentioned above, however, the suspense flags when Geoghegan interrupts his narrative to provide commentary. Sometimes his insights are interesting, but often they merely raise the question: Doesn't this guy have an editor?

Not only is Geoghegan's rhetoric distracting, it is also frequently unpersuasive. He makes the valid and worthy point that the law perpetuates inequities - between rich and poor, and between blacks and whites, for example. But his solution is dubious.

Why U.N. Treaties Are A Poor Model For American Law

To solve entrenched inequities within the law, Geoghegan looks to U.N. treaties. One is the U.N. International Convention on the Rights of the Child - which, he notes, would have resulted in Rolando's being tried as a minor had it been applicable in the U.S.

Another is the U.N. Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Race Discrimination - which, he argues, should be applauded because it "goes much farther than our Fourteenth Amendment, or civil rights law."

Unfortunately, as recent events have shown, the U.N. and its treaties are often meaningless, and the U.N.'s critiques of human rights violations (which in recent years have seemed geared towards obsessively and exclusively faulting Israel) can be highly biased. To hope that the UN will forge a new international law that will rectify the inequities within American law - or that American law can fix its inequities simply by mimicking the U.N. - is naive at best.

Moreover, Geoghegan should acknowledge that American law, in truth, is much more civil and humane than the law of many of the countries that ratify U.N. treaties like the Convention on the Child. He writes that in the present day, "it's our love of inequality that makes America. . .well, so different from Europe." But is this really true?

Geoghegan likes to talk about the problems with American justice. But in fact, our Constitution and our courts often serve as an example to others in countries that lack civil liberties even remotely comparable to ours.

A Trial Book That Is Unnecessarily Trying For the Reader

When Geoghegan sticks to the trial, he is compelling and interesting. But in the end, the problem with In America's Court is that Geoghegan tries to straddle the line between being a writer and being a lawyer. His narrative ends up as an uneasy compromise between telling a story and commenting on the state of the law, and he falters in this difficult balancing act.

Laura Hodes, a 2000 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a frequent FindLaw guest columnist and book reviewer, is an attorney and freelance writer living in Chicago. Her work can be found on this site's guest columns archive, as well as in Slate and The New Republic Online.

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