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The Devil's Advocates.

Michael S. Lief H. Mitchell Caldwell Scribner 448 pp., $28

As trial attorneys, we often hear that oratorical skills no longer matter--that only CSI-style forensics and sophisticated PowerPoint presentations can sway juries. For those of us who bristle at the notion that passion and persuasion no longer matter, The Devil's Advocates, by Michael Lief and H. Mitchell Caldwell, is a welcome contribution to the literature of trial advocacy and legal history.

Each chapter tells the story of a lawyer who represented an unpopular defendant in an American criminal case. The cases range from John Adams's defense of despised British troops after the Boston Massacre to Gerry Spence's defense of white separatist Randy Weaver after the Ruby Ridge incident.

The book provides a detailed historical background of each case--so much so that readers anxious to move on to the courtroom action must either be patient or skip ahead. For example, in the chapter about the prosecution of Aaron Burr for treason, the authors trace his contentious relationship with George Washington during the Revolutionary War, his vice presidency under Thomas Jefferson, his duel with Alexander Hamilton, and the preparations for what historians believe was a conspiracy against the United States.

Many chapters remind the reader how different the world was at the time of the case by providing detailed sociological background. For example, one chapter tells the story of Ossian Sweet, an African-American doctor in Detroit during the 1920s. He was charged with murder after shooting into awhite mob that had surrounded his home, its members throwing rocks and yelling racial slurs. The authors discuss African-Americans' migration to Northern cities and the attitudinal and structural barriers people like Sweet confronted even though they were educated and highly motivated to succeed.

This kind of background is vital. It reminds the reader that the attorneys and judges in these cases did not operate in a vacuum--that in a hostile climate, they were not afraid to defy popular opinion and do the right thing. In Burr's case, the judge dismissed the treason charge because no evidence proved Burr was actually or constructively present during the conspiracy. Sweet's attorney, the legendary Clarence Darrow, channeled the racial realities of the time to present a self-defense argument to the jury and secure an acquittal for his client.

Although the book is part of a series called "Greatest Closing Arguments in Criminal Law," it provides scant information on some of the cases' closings. In the chapter that traces the evolution of Miranda rights, for example, there is virtually no mention of the summation in Ernesto Miranda's trial. Instead, the chapter focuses on his criminal history, the law of police interrogations before Miranda, and the case's journey to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of the closing arguments the book does include, those of John Adams and Clarence Darrow are a treat for 21st-century lawyers to read.

The Greek philosopher Longinus said that the mark of good literature is that it serves to teach and to delight. The Devil's Advocates does both, and it also inspires. For example, the authors relate how the Supreme Court intervened in one case when local law enforcement, in a deliberate effort to thwart the appeal of an African-American man convicted of assaulting a white woman, failed to prevent his death by lynching.

This book hails great heroes of the law: lawyers like John Adams, Clarence Darrow, and Gerry Spence. And it reminds us that as advocates ourselves, we are part of a grand tradition, and that notwithstanding technological advances and jurors' changing expectations, there will always be a place for passion and persuasion in the courtroom.

Elizabeth Kelley is a criminal defense lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio.
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Author:Kelley, Elizabeth
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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