For 40 years I have collected books about famous historical trials. I have about 400 now and have read almost half of them. One of my favorite fantasies is that after I retire I'll read them all, and then write a book about the most fascinating cases. Alas, I'm too late. It's already been done, and done so well by Bob and Marilyn Aitken that it doesn't need redoing.
The authors group these narratives into broad themes, such as "Making a Nation," "Fighting Nazi Injustice," and "The Prejudice Trials." Each of the 25 cases is concise enough to read in about 20 minutes, which is often as much time as I find in a day to read for pleasure. The short format reflects the fact that these narratives were originally presented as "Legal Lore" columns in Litigation, the quarterly journal of the ABA's Section of Litigation. Here, they are pack-aged with a great bibliography and a comprehensive index.
I thought I knew most of what was known about many of the characters and trials chronicled in this book, but in every case I was surprised by some mysterious or tangential tidbit. The deadly encounter between California Justice Stephen Field's bodyguard and Justice David Terry at the Lathrop rail station in 1889 is one example. Before reading this account, I'd never heard that Charlotte Anita Whitney, a niece of Justice Field's wife, was raised by the couple as a daughter. (That daughter's conviction under California's Criminal Syndicalism Act for organizing the Communist Labor Party in California was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Whitney v. California in 1927.) The book is filled with this kind of fascinating trivia.
My one quibble with the book is its title, which just doesn't capture the treasures it contains. King Charles I, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the Nazi occupation of Rome all produced trials narrated in the book-and nearly all of the poignant stories included involve a momentous tragedy or inspirational event. The Aitkens resist every temptation to editorialize or comment on the twists of fate they chronicle. Instead, they offer an interesting epilogue for each narrative, answering our lingering questions of what became of those whose lives they describe.
As for the describers, Bob Aitken is himself a former trial lawyer of some note, and his wife is a talented journalist. Their book was obviously a labor of love. And you will love it.
-Gerald F. Uelmen is a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.