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review 2017-07-02 21:10
Unfair by Adam Benforado
Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice - Adam Benforado

This is a thought-provoking critique of the American criminal justice system based on psychological research. It is more of an overview than a deep dive: in 286 pages of text (excluding the bibliography), the author discusses everything from snap judgments in investigations, to false confessions and erroneous eyewitness identifications, to the reasons some lawyers behave unethically, to misleading expert testimony, to judicial bias, to the workability of prisons. These are all important issues and the author, a law professor, has many interesting proposals to improve on the problems. Unfortunately, he undermines his message by failing to source his facts, leaving readers with no authority for his arguments; any lawyer should know better.


There is a lot of interesting material here: the studies showing how common interrogation techniques, such as offering leniency for a confession, induce students to falsely confess to cheating; the correlation between more stereotypically African features and longer sentences; the tendency of the public to view third parties as biased against their side (Republicans and Democrats both believe the Supreme Court leans to the other side, by approximately equal margins); the way the point-of-view of a camera can affect viewers’ opinion of events (when interrogations are taped, viewers are more likely to see them as coercive when the camera is above the suspect, and as non-coercive when it’s above the officer).


The author discusses a number of psychological shortcuts that can lead to ugly results in the justice system: for instance, “narrow bracketing,” in which if your experience is that, say, two-thirds of the claims of a particular type are valid, and you just granted two, you are more inclined to deny the next one to keep the numbers balanced. And there’s a good discussion of how people identify dishonesty: you really can’t tell through body language – at best you can tell someone is nervous, but in a high-pressure situation like a courtroom, this likely has more to do with the person’s comfort in that setting and ability to project confidence than their honesty.


The book also discusses the reasons for criminal behavior, which often have less to do with deliberate moral choice than one might imagine. There’s a fascinating story of a man who suddenly becomes obsessed with sex, collecting porn, molesting a young girl, and propositioning everyone – until a tumor is discovered on his brain and removed; then he’s fine until the tumor returns, at which point he starts up all over again. Brain damage may be a less isolated cause of criminality than one might imagine; apparently, while less than 9% of the general population has suffered a traumatic brain injury, around 60% of incarcerated people have. Less dramatically, physical environment also influences one’s actions: wearing a mask makes people more aggressive, while holding a gun biases people to perceive images as more threatening.


Rather than simply detailing problems, Benforado does have plenty of suggestions for change. Some of these are relatively small and seem like excellent ideas. For instance, officers should be trained in cognitive interviewing (asking few open-ended and non-suggestive questions) of witnesses of crime to avoid tainting their memories, while witnesses about to view a lineup should be told that the suspect may or may not be included (to prevent their simply choosing the one who looks most like the perpetrator). In fact, having lineups administered by a computer may be even better, to prevent officers’ unconsciously influencing a witness’s memory through their approval or body language.


Some of the suggestions are much more global, and I give Benforado credit for thinking big and outside the box. One intriguing idea is virtual trials: record the trial in advance and give jurors just the information, presented through avatars. This would eliminate biases based on physical appearance and performance, and allow a trial to be shown to multiple juries at little additional cost.


Meanwhile, the author shows discomfort with many aspects of the adversarial system, though his alternative proposal isn’t quite clear. He correctly points out that the procedural safeguards we build into the system in an attempt to prevent error often become ends in themselves, frustrating their original purpose. Take Miranda warnings for instance: if an officer fails to give them, a perpetrator’s confession can be excluded and therefore a criminal may go free, while on the other hand, judges rarely entertain the idea that a confession might be coerced once an officer has recited those lines – even if we’re talking about a highly suggestible suspect who was questioned for many hours, falsely told that the police had evidence against him, and promised leniency in exchange for a confession. And there’s simply not time, based on the many procedural safeguards built into our system of trials, for more than a tiny percentage of cases to be fully heard; the vast majority plead guilty, in a system the author sees as highly suspect. But what could we do instead? – it’s difficult to decipher Benforado’s ideas on this point, aside from idealistic notions of truth-seeking and vague references to Germany’s having a different system.


But the book does have its drawbacks. Rather than endnotes to which one can refer for specific facts and studies, the author simply includes a bibliography for each chapter, with no indication as to which of the dozens of works cited include which information. This shows off the author’s reading while offering no help to his readers. This is particularly unfortunate on the topics for which he provides only vague information: for instance, he tells us that solitary confinement alters the brain in observable ways, but not what part of the brain is affected, what this part does, and what changes are seen once prisoners are freed. Ultimately, the book leaves readers with the choice between taking the author’s word for his claims or doing their own research, starting more or less from scratch. This is an incredibly poor decision for someone who wants to profoundly change entrenched parts of officialdom.


Less damaging but also unfortunate is the fact that, while Benforado presents information in a clear and readable style, his storytelling is less than stellar. He begins each chapter with a few pages of introductory fluff, which is a great opportunity to tell compelling human-interest stories related to the topic at hand – but more often than not he squanders it. For instance, the chapter dealing with physiognomy begins with rambling about how people are fascinated by mugshots. Okay.


Finally, while the book’s portrayal of the justice system as almost medieval – snap decisions are based incomplete information and the gut feelings of those making them, without scientific basis and generally without oversight – is fairly accurate, in some ways the book does present an overly gloomy picture. I suspect some readers might be unduly horrified, not realizing that most criminal cases aren’t based on eyewitness identification by strangers or police pushing for a confession from whatever black or Hispanic man happened to be near the crime scene. Most people plead guilty because they are, and the evidence against them is good. This in no way excuses the miscarriages of justice that go on every day, but I hope readers don’t come away with the idea that courts and police produce utterly random results.


Overall, I’m glad I read this book: much of the information it contains is fascinating, and it’s presented in a clear and concise way. These are issues people should be thinking about. However, the lack of sourcing is a serious limitation; I can only hope it will be corrected in future editions.

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review 2017-06-14 04:16
Manic by Terri Cheney
Manic: A Memoir - Terri Cheney

This is an intense memoir by a lawyer with bipolar disorder. Terry Cheney is very smart and successful but also very ill, and this book throws the reader into some awful experiences from page one – where she’s manic, determined to kill herself, and momentarily thwarted in her suicide plan when she’s locked out of her apartment; she unintentionally flirts with the locksmith, who sexually assaults her and then saves her life. Not all events in the book are this extreme, of course, but it is a memoir of how Cheney’s illness shaped her adult life: her most out-of-control highs and suicidal lows, her many attempts at treatment (with varying success), her fraught relationships and struggles to maintain a normal façade at work.

It is a harrowing ride, but the most horrifying episodes are the ones in which the author winds up “in the system,” and in parts of the system with the least excuse for their failings. In one chapter, a traffic stop leads to an arrest and ultimately a beating by police; in another, she overdoses and is briefly committed to a facility where patients receive some of the most dehumanizing treatment imaginable (how this is meant to prevent suicide is unclear). The book doesn’t get into policy arguments, but if this is what happens to someone who carries most privileges that exist in American society (an educated, well-off, gender-conforming, attractive white woman), then somehow either most people in the author’s position must be treated even more abominably or we have conceived the notion that mental illness abrogates one’s humanity. Yikes.

At any rate, Cheney’s writing is clear, direct and compelling, pulling the reader right into her life, and the book is a quick read. The organization is deliberately jumbled, and for the most part this works, creating a sense of immediacy and disorientation. It does have a minor drawback, which is that each chapter needs an independent justification for its inclusion: in a few of them not too much happens, or we see something the author has already shown in a slightly different context. But it is a fairly short book and the chapters do fit together into a larger whole.

(Actually the oddest thing, to me, was that the relationships the author describes in her acknowledgements are so absent from the text. Most jarring was the glowing thanks to her mother, who appears nowhere in the book despite the many personal and family crises depicted. I’d concluded that either she was dead or they were estranged. Maybe this would make more sense if I'd read Cheney’s other book.)

Other readers have pointed out that Cheney is privileged and a snob. This is true and she acknowledges it, in some ways clinging to status symbols as a defense mechanism. But the book isn’t about issues of poverty or race, and I did not find these traits to permeate the writing or otherwise affect my experience of it in the way I expected after reading reviews.

Anyway, this book is well-written and intense and brutally honest; it both draws the reader directly into the author’s experiences and explains those experiences, all while telling a gripping story. I recommend it.

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review 2016-01-24 03:31
Where the Hell is Tuvalu? by Philip Ells
Where The Hell Is Tuvalu?: How I became the law man of the world's fourth-smallest country - Philip Ells

For a book that, according to Worldcat, cannot be found in a single library in the U.S., this isn’t half bad. It’s another memoir from an expat on a Pacific Island; I read it shortly after the much more popular Sex Lives of Cannibals and liked it a bit better. Troost is a better storyteller than Ells, but Ells has more interesting stories to tell. This is unsurprising, since Ells’s job allows him to see firsthand how people and their society function – as the People’s Lawyer of Tuvalu, he is both public defender and civil law consultant for the entire country (which works because Tuvalu has only about 10,000 people, and also, family law apparently doesn’t exist).

The marketing for this book is way off, suggesting that it is an Eat Pray Love, inspiration for career change kind of memoir. Not only is that off-base given that the author was only in his 20s (this is more youthful adventure than midlife crisis), but I doubt many people would want this career change. Ells is isolated on a tiny island with poor housing, bad food, regular gastrointestinal distress and other illnesses (when it gets serious he has to be medevac’d to Fiji because the local facilities are inadequate), bug and rodent infestations, and no modern conveniences. Oh, and he works hard, which makes sense when there’s an extremely limited social circle and no dating pool to speak of. Sure, swimming in the lagoon is a perk, but this book is unlikely to inspire much travel to Tuvalu.

I’ll get the negatives out of the way first: Ells is not the world’s greatest storyteller, and the book occasionally bogs down in boring descriptions of, for instance, expat social events. Especially in the first half of the book, there are numerous gross-out moments (and it isn’t just the setting; there’s a gratuitous turd story from Ells’s life pre-Tuvalu). Also, the writing uses British slang to the point that I – an American who’s spent several months in England – couldn’t always decipher his meaning. Finally, the author’s habitually flippant tone and his callous behavior toward his seasick assistant make him seem like a jerk for much of the book.

But I warmed back up to him when he showed genuine horror toward domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as an understanding of the societal pressures faced by victims. (He sees little of either type of crime in Tuvalu, where domestic violence is not taken seriously, but deals with a number of horrific crimes while on several weeks’ loan to Kiribati.) And it is definitely an interesting look into a tiny and remote country. Much of the island’s life appears to take place on and around the airport runway, and of course everyone knows everyone else – during a trial for pig stealing, Ells’s assistant can’t stop laughing during his client’s testimony, but then the magistrate lives down the road from the parties and so is unlikely to be fooled anyway. People come to the author with everything from defamation by their neighbors to constitutional crises, giving us a more complete picture of island life than most foreigners are likely to ever see. There is also some humor, though it’s not quite laugh-out-loud funny.

In sum . . . for the only book known to Goodreads to be set primarily in Tuvalu, this is an adequate read. In the end I rather liked reading it, so I'm rounding up to 3 stars on those sites that require me to round, but my copy is headed for the donation bin.

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review 2015-12-23 20:02
Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogira
Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse - Steve Bogira

This is a fascinating book about the workings of the criminal justice system in Chicago. The author spent a year in a felony courtroom, not only observing its public business but interviewing the judge, the prosecutors, the public defenders and private attorneys, the defendants, the families of the victims and accused.

Bogira is an excellent storyteller, and brings suspense to the story of each trial he highlights: the parade of small murder cases (which excite no media interest), the burglary case in which the judge and his staff take a field trip to the crime scene, the high-profile attempted murder trial for a racially-motivated attack on a young boy. We also see a probationer who, despite good intentions, can’t kick his drug habit and keeps returning to court; we learn about the legacy of judicial corruption and police torture in Chicago; we see what a difference having money makes and the influence of judicial elections. Bogira is observant and incisive, and his writing even-handed. Although this project was possible because Judge Locallo welcomed Bogira into his courtroom, the judge’s portrayal is far from fawning; though dedicated, hardworking and generous with his time, he’s also a media hound who refuses to acknowledge his own mistakes or any flaws in the system. I never got the impression that the author chose sides or had an agenda, though certainly many of his observations speak poorly of the system: public defenders have less than a minute to speak to their clients before their bond hearings; tens of thousands of dollars go to prosecuting and incarcerating people for possession of drugs worth $20 or less; possession of minute amounts of cocaine and heroin is a far more serious crime than beating a wife or girlfriend (the former being a felony and the latter almost always a misdemeanor).

There are some drawbacks to this book – not flaws, but drawbacks. Though it was published in 2005, the author’s year of observation was 1998, and while many of the trends he observes have become even more pronounced, it is nevertheless a bit dated. Also, it is set in Chicago, which is described even in the blurb as having the nation’s “busiest felony courthouse” – so not everything we see here is applicable to the rest of the country. For instance, at one point Bogira tells us that a public defender demanding a jury trial on a “mere” burglary would be in flagrant breach of court etiquette, and might see the judge retaliating against his or her other clients. You wouldn’t see that in a typical American courthouse, though it’s true across the country that a tiny percentage of cases go to trial. Finally, the justice system is made up of people, with enormous differences between judges; Bogira certainly notes this, but in focusing on a single judge, has little room to illustrate how different the results can be.

However, for those interested in the court system, this book is an excellent choice. The writing is clear, readable, and informative, with a flair for storytelling. We get a real behind-the-scenes look at how things work, the strategic decisions made by lawyers on both sides of a case and all the evidence the jury doesn’t see. For instance, there’s the murder case in which the victim was actually the defendant’s boyfriend, but both sides present the case as if the two were strangers: the prosecution because it doesn’t want to draw the woman’s confession (in which she claimed they were strangers, but admitted shooting the guy) into question, and the defense because it doesn’t want the killing to look premeditated. We also see what happens to the people involved once the trials are over and the media interest (if any) dies down – who gets out of prison after serving a fraction of their sentence, who gets arrested again on a similar charge, who dies in jail when the guards don’t bother to call for medical help. This is a book about the business of a courtroom that also shows us the real people involved – those who work in the system and those caught up in it – and so it isn’t always easy to read. But it is worth it.

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review 2015-11-12 03:36
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson

This is the memoir of a lawyer who has spent 30+ years representing people on death row, and more generally, poor people whose treatment by the criminal justice system is egregious. It is a tough subject, but the book makes for compelling reading: the storytelling is strong, making you itch to know what will happen next (even as you may dread it, because Stevenson’s clients so often get the short end of the stick), and the writing is clear and concise. It does an excellent job of raising awareness, bringing readers into contact with a system most Americans never see. I didn’t find myself as bowled over as most readers evidently were, though; certainly Stevenson deserves accolades for his extraordinary dedication, passion and commitment, and certainly this is a good book, but the astronomical average rating would have you believe it is one of the best books ever written and I don’t believe that’s the case.

We follow one case throughout the book, of a man condemned to death on the flimsiest of evidence; one would think anyone could see Walter McMillian had nothing to do with the murder, given that his professed accomplice couldn’t identify him, that there was no physical evidence, no motive, and, oh, that he was at a fish fry surrounded by dozens of people at the time of the crime. Somehow, none of this stands in the way of Alabama law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and jurors determined to convict. It is unsurprising that McMillian is black and the victim white; in an ironic twist, this all happens in Harper Lee’s hometown, where the locals see no contradiction in cashing in on To Kill a Mockingbird even while participating in exactly the sort of injustice condemned in that book. Alternating chapters tell the story of McMillian’s experience and Stevenson’s efforts to free him. This makes for very strong writing, and the depth of Stevenson’s involvement means that it isn’t just a story of courtroom machinations, but about McMillian’s life and his family and community.

The other chapters highlight a number of other cases and issues the author has worked on, mostly involving people sentenced to death or children sentenced to life without parole. These stories are all sad and sometimes absurd. One woman is convicted of murdering her child, who never even existed; she made up a pregnancy to escape jail time on another offense, then was arrested on suspicion of killing the baby when it never materialized. Facing the death penalty, she pled guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Turns out she’d had her tubes tied several years before, so couldn’t even have conceived. This, of course, doesn’t happen to those with the means to defend themselves, and much of the book deals with the way the system fails the disadvantaged: the poor, people of color, the mentally ill, children. For all the injustice, though, this isn’t a relentlessly depressing book, as Stevenson and his organization have great – though belated – success in obtaining some measure of justice for their clients.

My reservation about the book is that it is, naturally, a piece of advocacy; this is much less the author’s reflection on his work than his argument in the court of public opinion. It is a brilliant public-relations effort, and accordingly, the author cherry-picks the most compelling cases, the most sympathetic clients. Either they’re innocent, or they were acting stupidly and dangerously but without the intent to kill anyone, or they are abused and neglected children, or they suffer from severe mental illness. Stevenson mentions representing everyone on death row whom he has the resources to help, so presumably he’s advocated for plenty of people who deliberately murdered another person and did so as adults, but there’s not a whisper of it here. That feels disingenuous to me, and makes the book seem incomplete.

So, do I think this book is worth reading? Yes – it will certainly make you think, and people need to be aware of injustices in the criminal justice system. It has its limitations; Stevenson chooses for mass consumption those cases that best illustrate his points, which are unlikely to be representative of the system as a whole. But these stories are still important and deserve to be told, and Stevenson tells them well.

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