Saturday, December 07, 2019

99. Courtroom U.S.A. 2 by Rupert Frumeaux

I was planning on following up the Canadian dog book double rock block with another animal-themed book, but Fifteen Dogs saddened me enough that I need a little break.  What better than to jump into these odd, informative and sometimes entertaining trial books put out by Penguin.  I can imagine in my mind the editors and writers at Penguin coming up with this idea, figuring out they would make a few quid and saying something like "let's give Rupert a swing at this."  Each essay is in some ways like a Wikipedia page on the subject, but more artfully written and structured chronologically.

I found this one to be more engaging than Famous Trials 4.  It focused more on the actual story of the crime and wasted little time on the esoteric contortions of legal theory.  Unfortunately, I still have Famous Trials 5 to read instead of another Courtroom USA.  I actually found this one good enough that I will seek out the first one and any following editions.

There are 4 trials documented here, as you can see on the cover.  All of them were quite famous at the time (the theme of the role of the media in these trials is a constant sub-text).  Only Leopold and Loeb and Alger Hiss I had known roughly about.  The Leopold and Loeb story is really dark.  Several movies and plays were based on it and it is seen as the harbinger of a new kind of crime, a manifestation of the sins of the 20th century:  the crime for crime's sake by an immoral youth.

The Alger Hiss story is also fascinating to read in light of today's new cold war with Russia using cultural disruption tactics on the internet.  Even today, the truth behind the Alger Hiss accusations is unfound and being argued.  He was accused of having been a communist by a pretty sketchy character with super sketchy evidence, yet because it was the height of the cold war, the accusations had to be addressed.  The accuser, Whitaker Chambers, who seemed if not a traitor and liar than at least insane.  And yet after the trial, he ended up becoming a luminary of the American right wing, with Reagan considering him an important mentor.  To my mind, the whole thing felt like the kind of dirty tricks that Nixon did and the fake news strategy of the Republican party today.  Say something until it sticks, even if you are actually destabilizing the country and building up Russia's strategic power.

The Hoffman trial was interesting, though slight compared to the other three.  A projectionist is accused of murdering a woman as he fits the description seen of the man who gave her a ride.  Because he was Jewish, he panicked and tried to make up an alibi and get rid of his gun, which made him seem even guiltier.  He took the risk of appealing his sentence and pleading not guilty and ended up being exonerated by the excellent work of his lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz.  I felt the anti-semitism was underplayed in the telling here, as well as the side fact that the most obvious culprit was the brother of a local Republican official.  I would love to know the rest of the story.

It was the story of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray that really got to me.  As I was reading it, I suspected that it had been the basis of Double Indemnity and it turned out to be correct (also possibly The Postman Always Rings Twice).  Ruth Snyder married an older, succesful man and they moved to a house in the nice part of Queens.  He became quite domestic and she became quite bored.  She ended up meeting Judd Gray, a lingerie salesman, who was actually quite milquetoast.  They had a torrid affair and she convinced him to kill her husband.  It was an argument in the trial, whether he had been the instigator or she, but it really does seem like she pushed him to it.  It's a crazy, nasty murder, messy and amateurish and altogether pathetic.  They collapsed and gave each other up as soon as the slight pressure was put on them.  Both ended up getting the chair.  Her execution was famous because of the hype of the trial, because she was the first woman executed in a long time and finally because a report for the NY Post snuck an ankle camera into the execution chamber and took a picture of her at the moment of death that they blasted on the cover (and probably made a killing, pun somewhat intended).

Nice work, Rupert

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