Book Review and Giveaway: Mistrial

When I got a copy of Mark Geragos and Pat Harris’s Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works . . . and Sometimes Doesn’t in the mail, I was primed to be either outraged or bored.

I’ve expressed my view of L.A. legal culture and lawyers who rep celebrities qua celebrities before and clients who hire lawyers who rep celebrities, and I was prepared to be bored, when reading Mistrial, by Mark Geragos and Pat Harris, by a self-adulatory story book about the criminal-justice system for the TMZ set. The publisher sent me the book for free; I resolved to read at least fifty pages of it, no matter how atrociously celebrity-worshipping.

Pat Harris’s intro—in which the fomer Tennessee PD describes meeting Mark Geragos accidentally while looking for a high-profile lawyer to take his girlfriend Susan McDougal’s case for the media coverage, challenged my resolve to read at least fifty pages. A former public defender, of all people, should recognize that some of the best lawyers get the least publicity, and that “for the publicity” is a lousy reason for a lawyer to take a case (on that point, if publicity is the only currency you have, that’s the currency you spend). A former public defender, of all people, should not shy away from taking an unpopular case, as Harris later describes doing with the Scott Peterson case.

But I plugged on, and after I’d read those first fifty pages I tweeted a brief preliminary review: “doesn’t suck.” 

Geragos and Harris see the criminal-justice system through a California lens. They see a couple of things wrong (in what universe are judges “held to a very high standard by judicial commissions across the country”?); they’re narcissistically churlish two or three times (before they were removed from the defense of Michael Jackson, “[t]he case had become such a slam dunk that we doubted it would even get to trial”), but they’re right about the problems with the system, and they illustrate some of those problems well with anecdotes both from the defense of celebrities and from the defense of ordinary clients.

And mostly they’re right about the solutions. They close the book with nine meritorious suggestions for improving the American criminal-justice system, which if adopted would make the system much more fair and just (and one atrociously, hideously, ridiculously bad idea, which deserves to be mocked in a separate blog post).

And here’s a problem that this book solves: if you’re an ordinary trench lawyer and you write a blog or a book—even an eminently readable and entertaining book such as Mistrial—about the problems that slant America’s criminal-justice system unfairly against the accused, then most of your readers are going to be people such as me (and Greenfield, and Lat, and probably you) who already recognize that there are problems that bias America’s criminal-justice system unfairly against the accused. Most Americans, who have been sold by the Angry Blond White Women on the idea that the system gives guilty! guilty! guilty people too many breaks, are going to pass over your book—they’re too busy watching Nancy Grace, and if they’re reading anything law related, it’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Criminal Justice System. This is a function of confirmation bias: most people, having concluded that the world is a certain way, will seek out evidence to confirm their conclusion and actively avoid evidence that might refute it.

So if a little bit of name-dropping by Geragos and Harris will get a few of those folks whose view of the criminal-justice system is informed by the talking heads on TV to read it—if they’ll come for the celebrities and stay for the diagnosis and the prescription—if the book itself helps cure one of the diseases it diagnoses—then godspeed to Geragos and Harris.

Can you think of someone who doesn’t already know that the system is screwed, but who might be open to the idea? Tell me about them in the comments; I’ll send my copy of the book (I resisted the strong temptation to annotate it) to the most worthy recipient.