A Theory of the Trial

Princeton University Press
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Anyone who has sat on a jury or followed a high-profile trial on television usually comes to the realization that a trial, particularly a criminal trial, is really a performance. Verdicts seem determined as much by which lawyer can best connect with the hearts and minds of the jurors as by what the evidence might suggest. In this celebration of the American trial as a great cultural achievement, Robert Burns, a trial lawyer and a trained philosopher, explores how these legal proceedings bring about justice. The trial, he reminds us, is not confined to the impartial application of legal rules to factual findings. Burns depicts the trial as an institution employing its own language and styles of performance that elevate the understanding of decision-makers, bringing them in contact with moral sources beyond the limits of law.

Burns explores the rich narrative structure of the trial, beginning with the lawyers' opening statements, which establish opposing moral frameworks in which to interpret the evidence. In the succession of witnesses, stories compete and are held in tension. At some point during the performance, a sense of the right thing to do arises among the jurors. How this happens is at the core of Burns's investigation, which draws on careful descriptions of what trial lawyers do, the rules governing their actions, interpretations of actual trial material, social science findings, and a broad philosophical and political appreciation of the trial as a unique vehicle of American self-government.

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About the author

Robert P. Burns is Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law, where he teaches evidence, legal ethics, and procedure. He has practiced law for twenty-five years and has published widely in law journals and reviews.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Oct 8, 2001
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Pages
264
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ISBN
9781400823376
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Language
English
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Genres
Law / Jurisprudence
Law / Legal History
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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The Trial is actually closer to reality than fantasy as far as the client’s perception of the system. It’s supposed to be a fantastic allegory, but it’s reality. It’s very important that lawyers read it and understand this.” Justice Anthony Kennedy famously offered this assessment of the Kafkaesque character of the American criminal justice system in 1993. While Kafka’s vision of the “Law” in The Trial appears at first glance to be the antithesis of modern American legal practice, might the characteristics of this strange and arbitrary system allow us to identify features of our own system that show signs of becoming similarly nightmarish?

With Kafka’s Law, Robert P. Burns shows how The Trial provides an uncanny lens through which to consider flaws in the American criminal justice system today. Burns begins with the story, at once funny and grim, of Josef K., caught in the Law’s grip and then crushed by it. Laying out the features of the Law that eventually destroy K., Burns argues that the American criminal justice system has taken on many of these same features. In the overwhelming majority of contemporary cases, police interrogation is followed by a plea bargain, in which the court’s only function is to set a largely predetermined sentence for an individual already presumed guilty. Like Kafka’s nightmarish vision, much of American criminal law and procedure has become unknowable, ubiquitous, and bureaucratic. It, too, has come to rely on deception in dealing with suspects and jurors, to limit the role of defense, and to increasingly dispense justice without the protection of formal procedures. But, while Kennedy may be correct in his grim assessment, a remedy is available in the tradition of trial by jury, and Burns concludes by convincingly arguing for its return to a more central place in American criminal justice.
The Trial is actually closer to reality than fantasy as far as the client’s perception of the system. It’s supposed to be a fantastic allegory, but it’s reality. It’s very important that lawyers read it and understand this.” Justice Anthony Kennedy famously offered this assessment of the Kafkaesque character of the American criminal justice system in 1993. While Kafka’s vision of the “Law” in The Trial appears at first glance to be the antithesis of modern American legal practice, might the characteristics of this strange and arbitrary system allow us to identify features of our own system that show signs of becoming similarly nightmarish?

With Kafka’s Law, Robert P. Burns shows how The Trial provides an uncanny lens through which to consider flaws in the American criminal justice system today. Burns begins with the story, at once funny and grim, of Josef K., caught in the Law’s grip and then crushed by it. Laying out the features of the Law that eventually destroy K., Burns argues that the American criminal justice system has taken on many of these same features. In the overwhelming majority of contemporary cases, police interrogation is followed by a plea bargain, in which the court’s only function is to set a largely predetermined sentence for an individual already presumed guilty. Like Kafka’s nightmarish vision, much of American criminal law and procedure has become unknowable, ubiquitous, and bureaucratic. It, too, has come to rely on deception in dealing with suspects and jurors, to limit the role of defense, and to increasingly dispense justice without the protection of formal procedures. But, while Kennedy may be correct in his grim assessment, a remedy is available in the tradition of trial by jury, and Burns concludes by convincingly arguing for its return to a more central place in American criminal justice.
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