Tag Archives: criminal trials

Missing in Action

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The Missing American Jury: Restoring the Fundamental Constitutional Role of the Criminal, Civil, and Grand Juries by Suja A. Thomas (Cambridge University Press, $99.99, 262 pages)

“Juries should decide criminal and civil cases… And grand juries should decide whether charges proceed against criminal defendants in state courts prior to any plea discussions by the government.”

“Blackstone cautioned against establishing tribunals of judges and other persons to decide facts without juries. Other countries had done so, eliminating juries, and eventually devolved into aristocracies.”

University of Illinois law professor Suja Thomas’s review of the functions of the American jury is written in obtuse, legalese, textbook language: “A jury trial will not be required for a new cause of action for which money remedies are available unless the action is analogous to one that existed at common law.” This, and a price of $100, makes it difficult to determine who would serve as the audience for the book.

The premise of the work is that the jury is an increasingly powerless and limited aspect of the criminal and civil justice system; and the role of grand juries has also been eroded. This is definitely true at a time when over 90 percent of criminal cases are settled without a jury (e.g., plea agreements). I suppose Thomas has performed a service in detailing the history of juries in the U.S. and elsewhere, but I doubt that 262 pages was needed to make a single point.

I was on my way to potentially serve on a jury panel when I began to read the work. This led me to realize that there are two groups who might be interested in reading The Missing American Jury (presuming they can find a copy in a library); specifically, those called for jury duty and pre-law students. Law students will learn enough about the topic in their first-year classes.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Three Rivers Press; $16.00; 432 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might well – and should have – been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – lurid accounts of Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and engaging in three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, truthfully, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with the late actor’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under the tons of details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick and specific example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner in the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant and lurid titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400+ pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography, and – it might be said – a bio about tricks.)

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud also misses a great opportunity here.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 373 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this  bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sal Mineo: A Biography was released in a trade paperback version on October 10, 2011.

Note:   We mentioned in this review that the writer did not contact former prosecutor and author Michael Genelin (Requiem for a Gypsy).   We asked him to give us his impressions of the accuracy of the content presented in the book’s Afterward.   Here is his response:

“The facts, as presented by Michaud seemed, in the main, to be correct.   There were a number of things about the case that he was incorrect on, most of them minor; however, he also got much of it right…  with two exceptions.   Michaud said we played tapes of (Lionel) Williams wherein he made numerous boasts of the killing.   Nope!   We had no recorded statements of Williams boasting of the killing.   We also did not, as alleged, bring in the defendant’s past criminal record – commencing with a juvenile conviction when he was 14 – to establish a ‘pattern of criminal behavior.’   That would not have been allowed, and would have been reversible error.”

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The Heart of the Matter

I used to work with a program that trained local prosecutors (deputy district attorneys) and public defenders.   One aspect often covered at these trainings was the importance of opening and closing arguments in a criminal trial, and the point was usually made that these arguments needed to be “tight” rather than rambling and lengthy.   I often see a parallel with book reviews…

To me, book reviews are both opening and closing arguments.   They are an opening argument when it comes to introducing a reader to a book that he/she is considering purchasing.   The review says, “Here is what this book is about, and why it may be of interest to you.”   But it should also warn, “I don’t know about your own tastes, so I’m going to provide you with my perspective on this novel/nonfiction book.”

The same review is a closing argument when it attempts to convince the prospective reader that this is either something worth reading or passing by.   “I think this novel is great because…”   or “I really tried to read this survey book about _____ but I just couldn’t grab on to it…”   The key, though, is that the closing argument is not about TRUTH in capital letters – a review is an opinion piece, and the opinion is only as good as the structure of the argument it holds.

What I love about reading book reviews is not the bottom line – did this reader/reviewer love or hate the book – but the validity of the argument that takes us to the buy/don’t buy recommendation.   Is it logical, is it well structured, is it internally consistent (not a review that praises the author’s writing style at one point while attacking it somewhere else), is it honest?   If I write a review indicating that I love a book, I’m just as interested in other reviews that praise or condemn the book.   Why?   Because I’m not looking to win an argument, I’m looking to see how each and every reviewer made their arguments.

Is there a difference between positive and negative reviews?   Yes, I think so.   It’s much easier to convince the average reader that you, the reviewer, love a book because (as has been said so many times before) everyone loves good news.   If I pick up an interesting-looking new novel at Borders and then use my BlackBerry to find reviews, I’m quite pleased to see 4-and 5-star reviews and flat-out recommendations.   I’m much less pleased to do a digital search only to read that this book is a disaster.   But, wait, maybe it isn’t – maybe I need to see how good a case is made by those who are criticizing it.

Decades ago, I used to read music reviews in every major publication of the time.   There were a number of reviewers that I really admired, including one in particular who never liked the same things I did.   But that reviewer always made a great case for his position, an enlightened and entertaining case.   He wrote a brilliant negative review of one classic album in a single sentence!

So, yes, it’s not the length of the argument that counts.   It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the amount of fight in the dog.   And the next time you read a book review, you may want to ask yourself, “Did this reviewer deliver both an opening and closing argument this time around?”   Don’t forget that you are the juror in the court of public opinion, and it’s your vote that counts each and every time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Good Daughters: A Novel by Joyce Maynard.

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Crown Archetype; $25.99; 421 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might have been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and actresses and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, actually, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with Mineo’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under all of the details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On Friday, February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner at the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400 pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography.)   Sal Mineo, the actor and artist, the person one hopes to learn about by reading this hard R to X-rated tome gets lost in the sad process.

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.  

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud misses an opportunity.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 372 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Freedom Rules

Unbillable Hours: A True Story by Ian Graham (Kaplan)

“Mario’s case was my personal salvation…”

This is a nonfiction story of a person finding freedom.   Initially, it appears to be the story of one Mario Rocha, convicted of a murder in the Los Angeles area and sentenced to life in prison.   But it is actually the story of Ian Graham, a lawyer who worked for five years in the white shoe law firm of Latham Watkins.   Graham was one of a class of 47 first-year associates hired by the L.A. firm.   Only three of them remained working there after five years.

Graham’s telling of the overwrought work environment at Latham Watkins brings John Grisham’s The Associate to real life.   Experienced and new attorneys find themselves pulling all-nighters, sometimes wearing the same clothes for three days.   Much of the work involves looking through truckloads of documents, and responding to interrogatories in major corporate litigation cases.   Graham comes to see that he is “simply unsuited” to working in this environment, where one’s professional life is dedicated to “resolving the problems of, or enriching, corporations.”

To Graham’s good fortune, Latham is committed to pro bono work.   “Pro bono public – for the public good – is a tradition of the legal profession focused on the idea that every lawyer should devote at least a portion of his or her time to representing indigent clients or worthy causes for free.”   The young attorney Graham volunteers to work with two senior, experienced attorneys on the case of The People vs. Mario Rocha.

At 16, Rocha attended a night-time party that was crashed by at least two gang members.   A young man who was celebrating his college admission was killed that night.   This happened at a time when there was pressure from all levels (federal, state and local) for the City of L.A. to do something about its gang problems.   The two shooters are identified pretty quickly, but Rocha is also arrested after being identified in a photo lineup by attendees of the party.

There are multiple issues with the evidence against Rocha, but he is nevertheless arrested and charged with homicide.   He is tried with the two known gang members, the presumption being (although Graham argues that it was never proven at the trial) that he was also a gang member.   Rocha’s family members are confident that he’ll be acquitted, but they hire an attorney with minimal experience who devotes just eight hours of preparation to Mario’s defense.   As a result, Rocha is convicted by a jury and sentenced to life behind bars.

This is the background to the events covered in Unbillable Hours.   Graham finds himself driving to Calipatria State Prison to meet with Rocha and, surprisingly, discovers that he’s developed a “goddamned conscience.”   In other words, he’s found a cause that offers rewards greater than the mega bucks he’s getting at Latham (where the garage houses so many new Mercedes and BMW automobiles that it is said to look like a German automobile dealership).   But overturning a criminal conviction in California is virtually impossible, so Graham’s going to have to move Heaven and Earth to do so.   They also may need a miracle, which comes in the form of a Catholic nun’s efforts.

It’s no surprise that Mario Rocha is eventually freed, and this telling of how that is accomplished is fascinating.   Yet, again, Unbillable Hours is more about Graham than it is about Rocha.   When Graham initially visits Rocha at Calipatria he begins to ponder what a “loss of freedom” means.   He also comes to see that Rocha is a very intelligent young man who was not privileged to get the same breaks in life as Graham, the son of a lawyer.

This reviewer had just two concerns with this nonfiction account.   Although most of the story is told in layman’s terms, there are times when the language will be difficult for a typical reader to follow:  “It is clear no witness exists who could have proven Petitioner’s innocence as he claimed.   The testimony failed to raise credible evidence of Petitioner’s innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.”   Yes, this is language from a court document, an order, but it would have been well to translate it into simpler terms.

Graham also fails to ascribe the best of motives to the actions of prosecutors and others in this account.   Prosecutors must act on the information gathered and provided to them by law enforcement and/or their own investigators.   In general, they are very talented and skilled individuals who do not work to get rich.   (Graham, by his own admission, did not know how to draft motions when he became involved in the Rocha case.)   It may have been beneficial to have included an addendum giving the assigned prosecutors a chance to express their views and perspectives on this case.

Mario Rocha today is an undergraduate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.   Ian Graham is experiencing a different kind of freedom, speaking at law schools and to public defenders.   He no longer makes a six-figure salary, but he is unshackled enough to “see a world and a life beyond the confines” of a large corporate law firm.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Preview of a True Story

Unbillable Hours: A True Story by Ian Graham will be released by Kaplan Publishing on May 4, 2010 (256 pages, $24.95).   The sub-title of this non-fiction book is:  A Young Lawyer, Big Law and a Murder Case That Saved Two Lives.   Here is the publisher’s synopsis:

The story – part memoir, part hard-hitting expose – of a first-year law associate negotiating the arduous path through a system designed to break those who enter it before it makes them.

Landing a job at a prestigious L.A. law firm, complete with a six-figure income, signaled the beginning of the good life for Ian Graham.   But the harsh reality of life as an associate quickly became evident.   The work was grueling and boring, the days were impossibly long, and Graham’s sole purpose was to rack up billable hours.   But when he took an unpaid pro bono case to escape the drudgery, Graham found the meaning in his work that he’d been looking for.   As he worked to free Mario Rocha, a gifted young Latino who had been wrongly convicted at 16 and sentenced to life without parole, the shocking contrast between the greed and hypocrisy of law firm life and Mario’s desperate struggle for freedom led Graham to look long and hard at his future as a corporate lawyer.

Clear-eyed and moving, written with the drama and speed of a John Grisham novel and the personal appeal of Scott Turow’s account of his law school years, Unbillable Hours is an arresting personal story with implications for all of us.

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