Americans have always been fascinated by courtroom argument. Courtroom arguments, at their best, feature skilled advocates for two sides putting forward two competing narratives.
In his new book "In the Interest of Justice: Great Opening and Closing Arguments of the Last 100 Years," Joel Seidemann eloquently describes the transcendent quality of truly great courtroom arguments, describing them as moments in which "[t]he courtroom seems to float in an eternal time zone, with the jury of the ages looking on."
Mr. Seidemann's book compiles some truly great, technically skillful and moving examples of courtroom advocacy. Everybody -- lawyer and non-lawyer alike -- can appreciate the skill of the attorneys whose speeches Mr. Seidemann has collected. Advocates display their widely divergent gifts in this book. One can, for example, appreciate the flamboyance of Johnny Cochran, who successfully shifted the focus of the O.J. Simpson trial from the events that led to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman on the night of June 12, 1994 to a scathing indictment of the Los Angeles Police Department and Detective Mark Fuhrman, a man who Cochran described as "a lying, perjuring, genocidal racist."
On the other side of the spectrum is attorney Gerry Spence, who, in a civil trial concerning the death of nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood, charmed the jury with his considerable schmoozing and storytelling skills. At one point in his speech, Spence humorously apologized for the length of the trial by conjuring up images of the judge, jury and attorneys for both sides growing old and moving to Sun City together, straining even in their old age to resolve a never-ending legal dispute.
Mr. Seidemann's book allows the reader to appreciate not only these highly-skilled attorneys who are at the very top of their game, but also those who crash and burn, sometimes to hilarious effect. In this book, the spectacular failures are those defendants who chose to represent themselves pro se in criminal matters. Congressman James Traficant -- charged with bribery, tax evasion and racketeering -- mounted a hilarious yet completely ineffective defense, in which he focused almost exclusively on his hatred of the IRS and neglected to respond to the actual evidence implicating him. Perhaps his best line is his classic assertion, "The prosecutors have the testicles of an ant."
And a gruesome example of pro se representation is Colin Ferguson, who began shooting at passengers aboard the Long Island Rail Road in December 1993. Early in his opening statement, Ferguson firmly established himself as a raving lunatic by analyzing the fact that there were 93 counts in the indictment against him: "Ninety-three counts only because it matches the year, 1993. Had it been 1925, it would have been twenty-five counts."
But beyond the skills -- or lack thereof -- of the courtroom advocates featured in "In the Interest of Justice," one of the most fascinating aspects of Mr. Seidemann's book is the extremely relevant snapshot it provides of the 20th century, through the lens of courtroom argument. Virtually all of the cases featured in the book touch upon vital social issues of the past century, and the reader can view these issues through the incisive narrative frame provided by trial lawyers.
The O.J. Simpson trial, which makes up the book's opening chapter, centered on issues of racism and police corruption, and the vicious police beating of Rodney King loomed not far in the background. Although Mr. Simpson was found not guilty in his criminal trial, the victims' parents managed to prevail in the civil case against him. The reader can witness how plaintiff's attorney Daniel Petrocelli countered the potentially compelling counter-narrative of racism and police corruption in the civil case by carefully weaving together all the strands of evidence that demonstrated Mr. Simpson's culpability in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
The book's second chapter touches upon our society's obsession with celebrity culture, putting forth argument from the criminal trials of rapper Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and sports announcer Marv Albert. Readers may be intrigued by the prosecutors' descriptions of Marv Albert's peculiar sexual habits and Puff Daddy's night out at the club.
Equally fascinating is the way the defense attorneys managed to counteract the potential jury biases caused by their clients' fame by using the background of the case to their advantage. Marv Albert's attorney Roy Black did this by painting Mr. Albert's accuser as a celebrity-obsessed tramp who wanted to extort money from Albert because she knew their relationship was on the skids, while Combs's attorney Benjamin Brafman persuasively argued that Mr. Combs was targeted by the prosecutor's office only because of his celebrity.
The book also touches upon the most important issue that our society is currently confronting: the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism. One of the pro se plaintiffs that the book features is Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States for having a connection to the September 11 attacks. The book records Mr. Moussaoui's oral request to fire his lawyers and proceed with his defense pro se.
Mr. Moussaoui proudly proclaimed that he wanted to fire the federal public defender assigned to him. Quoting by memory from the Koran, he stated, "O you who believe, take not as your Bitanah, adviser, consultant, friend, those outside of your religion, pagan, Jew, Christian, and hypocrites, since they will not fail to do their best to corrupt you. They desire to harm you severely. Hatred has already appeared from their mouth. But what their breast conceals is far worse."
And even though Mr. Moussaoui requested a bench trial, he also viciously insulted the federal judge assigned to his case, Leonie Brinkema: "I will not entertain the illusion that a U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema is an honest broker. Reality tells me that this judge is here as a field general, entrusted with the mission to get this matter over quickly. Every general has a commander in chief, and I know how much the U.S. commander in chief wants me to be over quickly."
Mr. Moussaoui's plain contempt for the U.S. legal system and the defiant way that he has been able to make a fool of the court by openly mocking it may raise another question for readers: when it is appropriate to use the courts as a primary vehicle to respond to wrongdoing. Mr. Moussaoui's trial -- and his defiance an lack of contrition -- strongly suggest that in the war on terror, something more than the courtroom is needed as a first line of response to our enemies.
Thus can Mr. Seidemann's book be appreciated on at least two levels. Readers may marvel at the courtroom theatrics lawyers are capable of. On a deeper level, they will grasp the truths that are intertwined into the advocates' speeches, learning not only about courtroom argument, but also about the century itself.
Steven Emerson is the executive director of the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based terrorism research center, and the author of "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us." Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project.