Book Review: Book of Famous Cases offers Context and Closure

Abigail WhiteUncategorized

Originally Featured in NH Bar News

Trials of the Century
By Mark J. Phillips and Aryn Z. Phillips
Prometheus Books (2016)
Paperback, 332 pages

In Trials of the Century, father-daughter author duo Mark Phillips and Aryn Phillips chronicle the most sensational criminal trial in each decade of the 20th century. Readers may recall closely following a few of these cases at the time they occurred. Who of us, for example, were among the 90 million people watching live coverage of a white Ford Bronco on Interstate 405 in June 1994 as the precursor to an infamous murder acquittal? Most of the cases, however, are the stuff of legend in 20th century American jurisprudence – Harry Thaw’s murder of Stanford White, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the like.

Limiting their work to just 10 trials, the authors were forced to omit countless cases of comparable fame from the book. For example, the 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti trial is not included, nor is the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, nor Ted Bundy’s trials of the 1970s and early 1980s. But the cases which made the cut are top-notch and render the 332-page chronicle (including references) a very manageable read.

The authors provide biographical accounts on a wealth of players involved in each case – not just the accused. Details on the careers and motivations of defense counsel, prosecutors, judges, key witnesses, newspaper publishers, and political figures go well beyond what is remembered in the public consciousness or readily available in the history books. Plus, what transpired after the verdict… when media attention had moved on to the next sensation?

Thankfully, the authors include rarely-seen biographical postscripts in each chapter for those of us who place a premium on narrative closure. (Spoiler alert: Most of these cases do not have happy endings).

Readers will find far more than merely a play-by-play of each prosecution in the court of law. A great deal of attention is paid to how each case was tried in the court of public opinion. How was the crime covered by the press? How were members of the jury pool influenced by media coverage and editorializing? How did each era’s technology and chosen medium of mass communication play a role in the trial or its aftermath? Each case is also placed in its historical context. For instance, as the authors observe, the Sam Sheppard trial in the 1950s wasn’t simply an indictment against a suspected murderer, but was also a window into the newfound and seemingly-perfect suburban American lifestyle.

The book provides superlative case studies in yellow journalism, class conflict, implicit bias, more than a bit of explicit bias, and political criticism. Each case sheds light on the limits of one or more aspects of our criminal justice system. The book provides real-world examples of how the confluence of socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors can affect a trial’s outcome just as much as the legal tactics and efforts of those in the courtroom.

Squeamish readers may not favor the sometimes-gory details of crimes committed by Texas drifter Richard Speck, the Manson family, and others. Moreover, each case does have its fair share of sex, drugs, other vices, and palace intrigue. Such details aren’t gratuitous though, and are strongly supplemented with behind-the-scene factoids about trial strategies and tactics.

This is more a book for history buffs than for practicing attorneys. As there are more than a few of us who identify as both, I highly recommend Trials of the Century as an easy and thought-provoking read. It’s a fine read for anyone who merely enjoys sensational stories as well. Notwithstanding discussion of trial strategies and tactics, non-litigators and those wholly outside the legal profession would also enjoy this book.