Monday, May 19, 2014

"Taking the Stand" by Alan Dershowitz (2013)

If you have enjoyed any of Alan Dershowitz’ previous books, then you’ll love this one. While the other books were concerned with specific aspects of his life, this book is a real literary accomplishment; it’s his autobiography. But, get ready to be challenged; and even a bit angered; as you read it. Some of his views are extreme; even by my own standards. If you are not prepared to “agree to disagree”; then this book may not be for you.

For instance; I am somewhat of an absolutist on free speech; with the exception of speech which leads to violence. Mr. Dershowitz draws no such distinction; choosing instead to focus on the difference between an action and speech. That is a distinction I can understand, although disagree with in some cases. To me, when speech is designed to incite violence; and succeeds in doing so; it has crossed the line of protection. It can be argued, though, that our own Revolution was founded upon such rhetoric. See what I mean about this being a complex book?

I am for capital punishment in extreme cases and with all protections; as far as science and evidence are concerned; so I cannot really understand his absolutist stand against it; and which I also found a bit confusing. For instance, he would let a person go free when involved in a killing which they themselves did not do, but provided the guns for. This is not the same as buying a gun at the gun store. To me, that is completely different and not something for which I can really hold the merchant responsible. But when you provide the weapons to a known violent offender to commit a crime in which you yourself participate, that is entirely different; in my opinion.

But this was the case; in Tison vs. Arizona; when  3 brothers were convicted of bringing weapons to the prison where their father was being held for another violent crime; and breaking him out using those weapons. They then accompanied him in his escape towards Mexico, transferring the weapons to their father and his friend en route. Those men, in turn, used these weapons to kill a family who had stopped to help them with a flat tire.

Mr. Dershowitz claims that they are innocent of the actual murder since they did not do the killing. I agree that they are not responsible to the degree that the actual trigger man is; in the sense of firing the shot. But, they did supply the weapons; which were actually wielded on the guards during the initial breakout. Had anything gone wrong at that point, their intent was obviously to use those weapons. Then, by giving their father the weapons with which to kill; knowing of his past propensity for violence; I believe that they bear some responsibility for the ensuing events.

By leaving the death penalty on the table, the prosecution has a tool with which to divide the suspects; offering clemency to the non-trigger men. Having removed the death penalty from the table for all removes that tool, making the prosecutor's job more difficult and at the same time lowering the standard for what we expect in a civilized society. It is also interesting that Mr. Dershowitz rarely refers to his clients as murderers; choosing instead to refer to the actual crime of murder. This has the effect of distancing the killers from the crime in the minds of the casual listener/reader. Of course, it could be argued that his clients are all innocent, and therefore not killers to begin with. See what I mean about this book? It will make you mad; but it will make you think.

In the Tison case he also makes an analogy in which he states that this case is different from the ones involving cold blooded killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. I agree about Bundy, but who did Manson kill? As a matter of fact; by Mr. Dershowitz’ sometimes elusive thinking in connection with freedom of speech; Charles Manson may have merely been exercising a right to free speech. He was, after all, convicted of Conspiracy; a charge which Mr. Dershowitz detests as a "catch all" charge levied when the prosecution has no real evidence. As for me, I believe Manson to be guilty; albeit by telepathy. After all, the only real evidence that the prosecution had was that the girls all claimed that “Charlie told me to.” Yet there was no hard evidence beyond the word of the professed killers used to convict him. I am playing devils advocate her, a role with Mr. Dershowitz would be familiar.

Beyond points such as these, this is a delightful look at Mr. Dershowitz’ early years in Brooklyn, as well as his education at Brooklyn College during the late 1950’s. His budding law career began with clerking for various justices which led him to clerk for the legendary Supreme Court Justice Goldberg. His accounts of the Justices differences will have you wondering how things ever get decided; and then have you marveling at the system which works that way. Mr. Dershowitz' pride in America and its roots in democracy and freedom are evident throughout.

His work; on the MacDonald case, the O.J. Simpson trial, and many others; is legendary. His wit and wisdom; combined with Talmudic reasoning; know no boundaries. Like him; or not; the man is an intellectual acrobat. And in the looming struggle against politically correct speech, he may yet prove to be an asset as he continues his life long fight for freedom of speech. (I'm being facetious- Mr. Dershowitz needs prove nothing.)

For a good example of Talmudic Reasoning; which is the basis for the codification of Jewish Law; read the story “Two Men Come Down the Same Chimney.” It is a perfect example of the complex way in which legal arguments are sometimes conducted, and also why the results can often seem so confusing, or even muddled. I know that; without a doubt; Mr. Dershowitz knows and understands the meaning of this story.

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