Simply, this is one of the most interesting, compelling, and best works of non-fiction that I have read in some time. While my interest in the book ceSimply, this is one of the most interesting, compelling, and best works of non-fiction that I have read in some time. While my interest in the book certainly stems from my own legal work, this is a book worthy of a wide audience.
The author, Bryan Stevenson, is a death row attorney - he represents men and women who have been convicted and sentence to death. Ultimately, this is an over simplification of his work, as Stevenson also represented many who received life sentences with no option of parole; but one gets the idea. While he discusses his work and cases, including one in particular, Stevenson comes back to and reiterates many themes.
First, a severe underlying systemic issue with the criminal justice system. Through his work on and retelling to the reader of the Walter McMillian case, we see how, truly, easy it was to wrongfully convict someone of murder, the methods utilized by police and prosecutors to obtain convictions in response to public pressure, and in this case, how easy to sentence someone to death. In contrast, Stevenson shows how difficult and burdensome it is to overcome those wrongful convictions, ultimately costing McMillian several years. Stevenson rightfully hits on some of the causes - access to lawyers, which in part has to do with more state funding for public defenders, both at a trial and appellate level; each local community desire to have gruesome cases revolved neatly and quickly, regardless of any lack of evidence; and policies that promoted not only mass incarceration - more crimes becoming subject to prison time - but harsher and lengthier sentencing. In particular, in Alabama (where Stevenson worked primarily), the election of judges who could never thus appear to be soft on crime, also led to the increased imposition of the severe sentences involved.
Stevenson not only drives home these points through his retelling of McMillian's case, but in many other cases as well. It could be the women who was sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole as a result of a baby born stillborn - which, when combined with faulty evidence from a forensic pathologist (who was repeatedly shown to fabricate causes of death and later had his medical licensed revoked) and an automatic life sentence with the victim under the age of 14, was all it took. Or the many, many juveniles who responded to years of abuse, either done directly to them or to their mothers, and when they responded violently in the moment, received a life sentence. Or many, who not only suffered abuse but also had untreated intellectual and cognitive disabilities, receiving life sentences (sometimes for crimes that did not involve death of the victim). The consistency of these cases - all of the defendants were poor and had little access to any legal representation, let alone quality legal representation. Further, he demonstrates, through these cases, how we have come to not treat all victims of crimes as equal - some victims are more equal than others when it comes to punishing the offender.
Which hits on another theme of Stevenson's work, the balance and tension between the justice system working for punitive measures or rehabilitative measures. The conditions of many of the prisons Stevenson goes into, the treatment of the inmates - whether it be the constant cloud of assaults and rape at a women prison or years of solitary confinement for many suffering from mental illness - shows what we, as a society, want from our criminal justice system. Punishment, not rehabilitation; as I like to say, it seems that when it comes to criminal justice, everyone, regardless of political ideology, seems to be okay with big government.
The other, and perhaps most important theme discussed in Stevenson's work is that of mercy and humanity. While McMillian was innocent of his crimes, and some others discussed in the book were as well, many did commit the crimes for which they were convicted. But what Stevenson does so well is stressing that the individuals he is representing are more than a single act; they should not be defined by one violent act. And through his compassion and mercy for the individuals he works with, he allows readers - many who, it should be said, will never meet anyone in the life circumstances of his clients - to see people's humanity despite troubling actions. As a result, it is difficult to read this book without developing greater empathy for people in different walks of life, and perhaps gain a sense of understanding and patience that will cause a moment of hesitation and reflection before rendering an all-encompassing judgment on an individual based on a single action.
Again, I tangentially relate to the subject matter of the book (I handle public defender criminal appeals, though rarely anything involving a life sentence), and that certainly drives some of my interest in the book, and Stevenson's work. But ultimately, I think Stevenson's discussions about our criminal justice system, his interweaving of data and statistics with the personal and anecdotal, makes this, independently, a terrific read. Anyone who has an interest in the criminal justice system (and especially anyone wanting to become a criminal lawyer), would do very well and benefit from reading this book. As I stated at the beginning, one of the best works of non-fiction I have read....more
The book provides a very good legal history, particularly the discussions of Ginsburg's early work with the ACLU. There's also a worthwhile discussionThe book provides a very good legal history, particularly the discussions of Ginsburg's early work with the ACLU. There's also a worthwhile discussion and examination of what it means to use recourse to the courts as a mechanism to produce social change. Specifically, understanding what cases to bring and in what order to bring them in order to effectively change the legal standard, and thereby change of the relevant legal precedent in future cases, is interesting for any legal geek to read. It demonstrates the strategy that must exist and plotting the the order of cases to bring, as opposed to just individual strategies to win each particular case.
I think it is evident from the beginning of the book that the author tends to relate, or favor, Ginsburg more than O’Connor. This may be due to a shared legal perspective - Ginsburg was consistently liberal, O’Connor was conservative, but also pragmatic. It could be due to the fact that many of O’Connor’s decisions seemed political; not political in terms of promoting a certain political agenda, but political in preserving precedent and righting certain discriminatory wrongs, but not establishing broad new precedent. Doing so allowed O’Connor to wield more control of the Court’s direction than she may have had otherwise. Understanding this dynamic, which the author does a very good job explaining, provides interesting and insightful information on how the Supreme Court functions and issues decisions.
Except towards the end of the book, the author does a good job of focusing on Ginsburg and O’Connor, and their individual and unique circumstances that led them to the Court. In doing so, we, as readers, are given a fascinating portrait into two of the significant women in the last 40 years, as well as a fresh reminder of how many of our discriminatory ideas and practices against women were still widely prevalent not that long ago.
Near the end of the book, the author leaves some of the focus from O’Connor (understandably, as she left the Court in 2005), but even away from Ginsburg, to take opportunities to discuss and criticize many of the recent Court opinions. In some respects, this makes sense in discussing Ginsburg as the “dissenter” in the most recent years. But in other respects, the author spends a little too much time, I think, attacking certain opinions, particularly those of Justice Kennedy, to the detriment of discussing Ginsburg’s legacy.
That said, it doesn’t detract from an otherwise really enjoyable read, that is packed with information and insight, and shares the story of two remarkable women. ...more
Just finished tonight, and while further reflection may frequently cause slight changes (and sometimes significant changes) in opinion, this is a goodJust finished tonight, and while further reflection may frequently cause slight changes (and sometimes significant changes) in opinion, this is a good book. There is nothing, for lack of better wording, spectacular about the book. But its a book about immigration and its history in the United States, and its impossible for a reader to come away from this book without being better informed and a broader awareness. One of the stronger writing points for the book is how it weaves individual and personal immigration stories into the broader context of the history being told. The author shares the stories and journeys of immigrants from Korea, Libya, and El Salvador, among others, and ties those stories to the overarching immigration history in the country, particularly in the 20th century and the culminating act of the 1965 Immigration Act.
An interesting reality to observe in the book is how the definition of "American" has involved in the immigration debate and thus, consequently, how the definition of outsiders have evolved. It used to be based purely on national origin - which was the basis of the quota system that existed in the early 20th century. Thus, there were limitations on people from Italy, and then from Eastern Europe, as the belief they would diminish the "stock" of true Americans. Yet now, that has evolved where people have decried that decreasing numbers of Americans with any European ancestry as a result of increased immigration from Asia and Latin America. I believe an underlying question in the book is whether America will adjust to the changing nature of the identity of its citizens, or if something less than exceptional will take place.
As a whole, the book also does a good job of discussing the challenges of immigration - not just from a tolerance and integration standpoint, but also how it impacts and has shaped economics and politics, particularly in the last 50 years. This is a timely book that is informative and well-written, and one interested in one of the hot-button issues of today would be well served to give this book a read....more
This feels like one of the most significant books I've read. Taibbi's reporting is thorough and detailed, his writing is accessible, and he relays theThis feels like one of the most significant books I've read. Taibbi's reporting is thorough and detailed, his writing is accessible, and he relays the human impact of so many of the issues he discusses that throughout the book, and definitely by the end of the book, the reader will be mad.
Taibbi's book looks at how economic status, in a variety of senses, effects how the criminal justice system treats individuals. The most glaring example of this, and one that Taibbi uses well, is how poor individuals, often black, are arrested without cause in what amounts to a "fishing expedition" are then charged with "blocking pedestrian traffic" (unbelievably true), while the individuals who knowingly defrauded thousands of individuals of billions of dollars, and knowingly broke laws dealing with financial regulation, faced no arrests or jail time whatsoever, often only paying a fine that was a fraction of what was inappropriately obtained in the first place. This results in communities who have understandably distrustful relationships with police, a police state that finances itself on the backs of poor individuals, and rich business individuals who understand the payment of criminal fines simply as the cost of doing business.
The book is filled with story after story that highlights the inequalities in our criminal justice system, based primarily on race and economics. It's enough to make the most idealistic person about the system and rule of law in the United States feel disheartened, which I often did at times during this book. But the reality is that Taibbi gets at and exposes is something that needs to be addressed. The idea behind the system of law in the United States truly is about equal treatment, regardless of status. To have the system continue on its current path, where so much inequality exists, which necessarily and rightly results in a lack of trust and justice in the system, will result in the system not being sustainable.
Every year, we spend untold amounts of money fighting welfare fraud, worried about the individual who may be getting $400 per month when they don't really meet the requirements; enough so that law enforcement officers actually conduct searches without consent that should be considered violative of the Fourth Amendment, to bring those individuals to justice, but the system does nothing criminal in nature to those that truly have defrauded individuals of billions of dollars.
Its a book that will make you very angry, but even more than that, saddened that the injustices Taibbi relates are allowed to occur so frequently. Highly recommend....more
The story of this memoir-ish book is compelling = the daughter of a maintenance man and telephone operator, in rural Oklahoma, becomes the first womenThe story of this memoir-ish book is compelling = the daughter of a maintenance man and telephone operator, in rural Oklahoma, becomes the first women senator from Massachusetts. But beyond that story is insight into the workings and underlying philosophy of the U.S. financial and political system, and how significantly it favors and bends to the will of the wealthy elite. Honestly, I don't know how anyone reads this book without becoming angry. Angry that we, as society, so blindly and willingly allowed so many of our citizens to be taken advantage of for additional profit. Angry that we, as society, bailed out those responsible without safeguards and protections to make sure the same economic crises that caused the Great Recession would not happen again. Angry that we, as a society, have seemingly accepted the role of money in politics without regard as to how it affects policy. The number of stories of representatives agreeing with Warren's cause, but not supporting it due to financial support from banking industry lobbyists, has to be infuriating to anyone who loves the system of government the U.S. has, and wants to see it work as intended.
Warren also weaves into her narrative the joys and tribulations of her personal journeys and family life, which succeeds in giving the book a more intimate feel, and helps it be very readable. All in all, I very much enjoyed reading this book....more
This is an incredible book about a little known case from Tennessee that the circumstances eventually led to a contempt trial before the United StatesThis is an incredible book about a little known case from Tennessee that the circumstances eventually led to a contempt trial before the United States Supreme Court. Being one hundred years ago, it is amazing to read this and realize how substantively our laws have changed, and our society. One will be appalled that such things - like a lynching - could happen such a short time ago. Being in the legal profession, its also appalling to see so many in that profession allow such travesties as a mockery of a trial occur. While I think the book is superbly written, and engrossing as can be for non-fiction history, I imagine lawyers, particularly those that deal with either constitutional law or criminal defense (or both), will find this book incredibly fascinating. Terrific read....more
A nice read, particularly for anyone interested in some of the more legal history surrounding the First Amendment's religious clauses and the dual proA nice read, particularly for anyone interested in some of the more legal history surrounding the First Amendment's religious clauses and the dual protection of free exercise of one's religion and freedom from the government imposing a particular religion. I tend to do a fair amount of constitutional law work, particularly with the First Amendment, so there wasn't much in the book that surprised me, but its a definite read for anyone wanting to understand the legal history of the issues that are more often coming to the forefront of our modern political debates....more