A Trial by Jury
D. Graham Burnett
Alfred A. Knopf
On August 1,
1998, a gay man named Randolf Cuffee was murdered in his small
Manhattan apartment. He had been stabbed more than twenty times,
mostly on the spine and base of the head. The fatal strike, though,
was a single stab wound in the chest.
Initially, police suspected it was a particularly vicious,
anonymous case of gay bashing. But a routine check of area hospitals
turned up someone else altogether: a slim, quiet, twenty-one-year-old
man had a cut on his hand that was so bad it nearly severed his
pinky finger, and his story didn't add up. The young man, Monte
Milcray, initially told police that he had been attacked by five
white men (Milcray, like Cuffee, was black), and he'd received
the hand wound some time during what he claimed was a twenty-five-block-long
An examination of Milcray's clothes and personal effects revealed
they were covered in both his and Cuffee's blood, and under police
questioning, Milcray changed his story. This time, he said he'd
met a long-haired woman on the street and arranged to meet her
at her apartment later that night. After arriving, though, he
discovered that his date was, in fact, a man (Cuffee, of course),
and when he tried to leave, Cuffee forced him to the floor and
attempted to rape him. In self-defense, Milcray drew a knife
and stabbed Cuffee repeatedly before fleeing the apartment.
In the course of Milcray's murder trial, prosecutors produced
witnesses who claimed that Milcray frequented transvestite gatherings
and was even a long-time lover of Cuffee, thereby undermining
Milcray's claim that he had been innocently duped into a rendezvous
with a man (how, precisely, the six-foot-tall, two-hundred-pound
Cuffee could fool Milcray is another issue). Throughout the trial,
the points where Milcray's story was true and the points where
it was false were pointedly muddied. But D. Graham Burnett doesn't
withhold the final verdict from his readers for long in Trial
by Jury. Thirteen pages into his text, he tells us that on
February 19, 2000, the jury for which Burnett acted as foreman
declared Milcray not guilty on all charges. But producing a courtroom
thriller isn't what Burnett is interested in. While he does a
splendid job building tension around both the murder and the
trial, Burnett, who is an historian of science and a professor
at Princeton University, is decidedly more interested in the
trial process itself, with particular focus on the jury.
To that end, he spends the last one hundred pages of this
short book describing the machinations of the jury's four-day-long
deliberation process--the conflicts between jurors, the interminable
sequestration, the unpredictability of both the physical and
mental health among the jurors, etc. Central questions arise.
When is a jury legitimately hung? How, precisely, can a jury
nullify established law when a stern, inflexible judge controls
the courtroom with seemingly absolute power? And how, exactly,
can one simply step away from the process altogether? On that
last question, Burnett offers a darkly comical answer:
She [a fellow juror] asked me directly if there was anything,
anything at all, that I could think of that would get her out
of the whole mess. I thought for a moment and said, "If
you attacked me, right now, or assaulted one of the other jurors,
or possibly one of the guards, that would probably do it--provided
it was a good, hard, sustained attack."
She looked at me skeptically for a moment, then blankly. I
thought it possible she would make a lunge, and I tensed slightly.
The idea of going to the floor with her, in a fury of hair and
nails, was not altogether unappealing--it had been several long
and stiff days.
She walked away.
Burnett is a precise, careful writer, and his voice (a blend
of comic, liberal-tinged cynicism and a heartfelt, irony-free
sense of civic and ethical duty) is perfectly pitched for his
subject. A Trial by Jury's examination of the jury process
should rightly give readers (and perspective jurors) pause, and
it's riveting reading on a variety of levels. But there's something
reassuring about it as well. For all their differences, the jurors
(the majority, at least) approached their task with the appropriate
sense of sober intensity. And Burnett's notion that the state's
immense power must be balanced by an improbably high burden of
proof for the state to earn a guilty conviction seems dead-on
target, whether or not you agree with the jury's decision in
the Milcray trial.
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Eyewitness to Wall Street: Four Hundred Years
of Dreamers, Schemers, Busts, and Booms
David Colbert (Editor)
It's hard not
to enjoy a book about money. Americans are endlessly fascinated
by it and its occasional byproduct, power. So a collection of
first-hand accounts about Wall Street's famous and infamous moments
has got to be a natural, right?
In Eyewitness to Wall Street: 400 Years of Dreamers, Schemers,
Busts, and Booms, David Colbert follows the same method he
used in two earlier books (Eyewitness to America and Eyewitness
to the American West), drawing his selections from newspapers
accounts as well as books, letters and journals, and he certainly
serves up a stunning buffet of Wall Street dishes. The problem
is that, in some cases, taking just one quick bite of an entrée
before it's whisked away is more frustrating than satisfying.
Sure, another course is being served immediately, but sometimes
you want to linger. While covering the high notes in Wall Street's
history, most of the selections barely approach five pages, and
some don't even make two.
But there are some great stories here. Glances at the legendary
Warren Buffett, Ivan Boesky, and my personal hero, Benjamin Graham,
seem specifically chosen for their impact, and they rank high
on the "great story to retell at a dinner party" scale.
Not a lot of books on business, let alone finance, can make that
claim. Accounts that may have slipped through the cracks of the
casual history buff's knowledge like the unresolved anarchist
bombing of the J.P. Morgan Bank in 1920 have an unfortunate and
eerie current relevance.
I was a disappointed that Eyewitness to Wall Street,
which is obviously aimed at a general audience, didn't have more
simple explanations of how financial markets work or at least
some definitions of the background terminology. It has been my
experience that the majority of people, despite (or perhaps because
of) advanced levels of education in other fields, have a cursory
or almost nonexistent understanding of the financial markets.
This leaves them nodding their heads politely if blankly when
terms like arbitrage, short, futures and bonds come up. I don't
expect an author to subject laypersons to a chapter-long diatribe
on the Theory of the Firm or a tedious dissertation on the Federal
Reserve's definition of the money supply. But some simple background
information could convert slightly befuddled readers into informed,
It's difficult to compete with the herd of popular books on
finance already out there. Charles Mackay covered market mania
in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,
and despite having been published in 1841, it's still the most
riveting account of the fever that periodically sweeps the land.
For dishing the dirt, it's hard to beat 1980's perennial favorites
like Liar's Poker and Barbarians at the Gate. Colbert
finds himself stuck between a measured, scholarly approach, covering
all the bases, and the seductive appeal of more breathless tabloid
journalism. It's a tough road to walk, but Paul Johnson pulled
it off in Modern Times, which was both absorbing and informative.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed Eyewitness to Wall Street.
It is thoroughly researched, and the way Colbert offers his stories
in short, easily digestible chunks makes it a great bedtime reading
book. And although it lacks an overall theme, it more than makes
up for it with its engaging immediacy. But like every investor
who has just plunked down his money on a new book, I was hoping
for a bigger payoff in the end.
--William Shinault, IV
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Lipper / Penguin
of Dante Alighieri's life should be remembered by most readers
who haven't forgotten everything they learned in World Lit 101:
he was a 14th century Florentine poet who wrote The Divine
Comedy in Italian (that's right: not Latin) while
in exile, and he spent his life so obsessed with a girl he first
saw at the age of nine that if they were alive today, she--Beatrice--might
call the cops and report him as a stalker.
Of course, that's not the way Dante would have us describe
his life-long devotion to Beatrice, nor is it the sort of description
offered by R.W.B. Lewis in his resoundingly intelligent entry
in the Penguin Lives series, Dante. As Lewis, whose biography
of Edith Wharton won him a Pulitzer Prize, says, "In the
Dantean scheme...Beatrice is Divine Wisdom, which alone can disclose
the truths of salvation and the life eternal."
But don't pick up Lewis's biography expecting to read a book-long
analysis of Dante and Beatrice's chaste relationship. Lewis doesn't
devote nearly as many pages to Beatrice herself as our limited
memories of Dante would suggest. For Dante--and even the Comedy--Beatrice
might have played a central role, but Lewis is far too level-headed
and academically disciplined a biographer to allow romantic flights
to cloud his august purpose. Indeed, he expends as many pages
in the first half of his short biography on the historical minutiae
that led to Dante's exile in 1302 at the age of thirty-seven
as he does on Beatrice herself, about whom we know comparatively
little. (Given how little Dante actually said to Beatrice, whom
he studiously admired from afar, it's hard to see how much more
you could actually make of their interactions, even if Beatrice's
biographical record were more complete.)
Regardless of how poetry lovers may feel about his priorities,
Lewis is clearly right to favor the historical elements of Dante's
life in these first hundred pages. Dante was a politically engaged
figure (the Comedy itself is a splendid blend of the universal
and the local), and while he was doggedly educating himself with
the classics and writing poetry in his youth, he was also resoundingly
a Florentine. "Dante associated himself with his native
city," Lewis writes, "to a degree incomprehensible
in modern times. Florence was not merely his birthplace; it was
the very context of his being." Indeed, as Lewis argues,
on one level, the Comedy "is an expression of his
passionate feelings about Florence, his rage against the conspirators
who had him driven out, his longing to return." Some readers
may find the historical elements of the first half of Dante
to be a bit dry, but Lewis's work there is assured and scholarly,
and it stands up well as a short presentation on the political
/ historical context in which Dante operated.
The second half of Dante is another animal altogether.
Here, having taken us to the point where Dante begins his nineteen
years of exile, Lewis slips on his literary critic's hat and
does wonderful work explicating the Comedy--no easy task,
given its complexity and the relatively short space available
in this slim volume. Lewis doesn't neglect Dante as an historical
figure in these exile years, though; for Dante, history and poetry
are too closely entwined to separate them so neatly. As Dante
wrote in De Vulgari Eloquentia, "Of all who in this
world are deserving of compassion, the most to be pitied are
those who, languishing in exile, never see their country again,
save in dreams."
While he is coolly level-headed about Dante's obsession with
Beatrice, Lewis closes his biography with a moving section on
Dante's literary impact on the world at large. "[I]t has
become increasingly evident with the passage of years that Dante
is the universal presence in literature around the globe,
to a degree matched only by Shakespeare." The Penguin Lives
series is a gratifyingly wide-ranging, intelligent undertaking,
and for its authority and precision, Lewis's Dante is
among its most consistently satisfying offerings.
Back to Archived Short
The Coldest March
Yale University Press
It has been
nearly ninety years since Robert Falcon Scott--along with the
two other surviving members of his Polar expedition party, Edward
Wilson and Henry "Birdie" Bowers--perished in a small
tent on the vast, frozen plain of Antarctica's Ross Barrier.
Bested by Norwegian Roald Amundsen in the bid to be first at
the South Pole, the three died on the return journey, only eleven
miles shy of a storage depot of food and supplies that might
well have saved their lives.
In the decades since, Scott's legend has been by turns hailed
and assailed, some calling him a great adventurer and man of
science felled by misfortune, others deriding him as a near incompetent
blinded by fatally romantic notions of the moral value of human
endurance, who led his companions to unnecessary and avoidable
In either case, perhaps the greatest irony is that the legend
of his death has forever since dwarfed the story of Amundsen's
success. In the end, it's the loser in that race to the Pole
that everyone remembers.
Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth was an exhaustive
and engrossing effort to redress that historical imbalance, lauding
the meticulous planning of every detail that won Amundsen and
his men the Pole and then returned them hale and hearty to proclaim
their victory. Huntford's book also stands as the leading proponent
of what Susan Solomon, in The Coldest March, her new examination
of the Scott story, calls the "Scott the bumbler" theory,
and in many respects Solomon's book seems to be aimed square
at countering Huntford's position. (Click here to read WAG's review of The Last
Place on Earth.)
What gives Solomon's book particular merit in the growing
number of recent Polar books, however, is that Solomon brings
a new element of scientific detail to the story. Solomon is a
senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,
and she led the National Ozone Expedition in Antarctica to study
the growing Antarctic ozone hole. She knows Antarctica's unfathomable
cold and its unpredictable weather. She marshals a wide range
of scientific and historical details both from the Scott expedition's
own records and from more recent research to paint a more nuanced
picture of Scott and the factors that led to the death of all
members of his Polar party.
It is clear that Solomon thinks Scott deserves considerable
credit for what he and his party accomplished, and indeed when
evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the Scott expedition
from the cozy comforts of an armchair, one does well to keep
in mind the astonishing courage and fortitude of men willing,
even eager, to plunge into a desolate, trackless unknown raked
by howling blizzards, where midwinter temperatures can drop into
the minus-70s, for the sake of an almost entirely symbolic quest.
Scott's Polar party trudged and skied more than nine hundred
miles to the pole, and almost all the way back, hauling hundreds
of pounds of equipment and supplies behind them on wooden sledges.
Arguably, Scott's prejudice in favor of the grueling and exhausting
manhauling was his greatest error (Amundsen used dogs, to great
success), for the simple reason that a man who couldn't walk--whether
from injury, illness or frostbite--was a dead man. Solomon suggests
the possibility that at the end, eleven miles from that life-saving
depot, it was Scott, his foot so severely frostbitten that he
had written "amputation is the least I can hope for now,"
who was the one who couldn't walk, and that his companions nobly
refused to abandon him there, and thus shared his fate.
More importantly, however, Solomon argues that the most significant
element contributing to the fateful end of the Polar party was
an unexpectedly and unpredictably bitter cold--temperatures plunging
as low as below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, during the final
days of marching on the Ross Ice Barrier, where Scott had expected
to encounter warmer temperatures. Their clothes were ragged,
their bodies wasted, their fur sleeping bags nightmarish encasements
of ice offering little in the way of comfort or welcoming sleep,
and the snow surface on which they dragged their sledge had,
at these low temperatures, a consistency more like sand than
ice, so that each mile was arduously won.
Solomon is balanced in her approach to Scott. Where the evidence
she has compiled suggests his shortcomings, she is candid in
analyzing them, and thus she cannot altogether vindicate the
man to his critics. She shows us a man dedicated to scientific
principles of careful measurement and evaluation--but prey to
fateful errors of judgement. Amundsen built wide margins of safety
into his plans and scrupulously oversaw essential details in
the outfitting of his Polar expedition. Scott cut things close
in too many ways, and the one critical thing he didn't seem to
plan for was the unexpected. In a harsh and unforgiving climate,
he pinned his party's success on things going smoothly according
to the expected. Under the circumstances, the truly amazing thing
isn't that he and his companions died, but that they came so
close to surviving.
For those endlessly fascinated by tales of Polar exploration
(this reader being one of them), Solomon's book offers an interesting
new examination of the Scott expedition, and it even questions
some long-standing details of the Scott story, such as the theory
that the Polar party was suffering from scurvy at the end, and
that it was a days-long blizzard that pinned the three surviving
explorers in the tent until their deaths.
The odd element in the book is the series of chapter openers
in which we follow the thoughts, experiences and mishaps of a
hypothetical individual known only as "the visitor,"
at the modern-day McMurdo and South Pole research stations. If
a contemporary perspective was necessary, I would argue that
Solomon's own experiences would be more engaging than the exploits
of this fictional no-name. Still, Solomon's book has added new
depth to the mystery and romance of one of the last great feats
of exploration, and putting aside the questions and criticisms
surrounding the leader, it only furthers our respect for the
truly stalwart and courageous men who followed him down to the
bottom of the Earth.
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