James Morton, longtime Gazette columnist and former editor of the Solicitors Journal is, in the flesh and on the page, a raconteur par excellence.
One of the delights of the old-fashioned Law Society conferences was the chance to meet in the press room and listen to an inexhaustible stream of stories – some from arcane areas of his past like the world of wrestling; many from his wide reading and experience of the law; quite a few about stipendiary magistrates once legendary and now long departed. This is a collection of the stories of nigh-on 70 miscarriage cases.
The range of material is broad. At one stage, we are with the witches of Salem in a chapter broadly titled ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’. By the end of the chapter, we have watched Ethel Rosenberg (pictured) twitching in the electric chair at the height of the McCarthyite terror and contemplated the horrific murder of three cub scouts in 1993.
The publisher lists 30 other titles at the front of the book which are clearly a series. They range from The Mammoth Book of Shark Attacks to The Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies and, indeed, The Mammoth Book of Losers to The Mammoth Book of Air Disasters and Near Misses. Clearly, they jibbed at calling this one The Mammoth Book of Injustices. But the list shows where they are coming from.
Given what must have been the brief, Morton does well and each chapter is concisely written and readable. As far as I could judge from the cases I’m aware of – the Salem witches, for example – the main issues are well covered; the major facts are correct; and any remaining controversies fairly raised. This would be a good book for someone generally interested in the criminal process to dip into and acquaint themselves with the difficulties that arise.
Author: James Morton
I struggled – not with the writing, which is concise, flows well and masters with ease an amazing amount of underlying detail – but with the format. I am sure that Morton has more to say in answer to the question with which he opens the last chapter – ‘How can miscarriages of justice be eliminated?’ – than the four pages he is allotted. And I was surprised to see no mention of some of the miscarriage cases that dominated much debate about criminal justice and Irish terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s. In its turn, that would have taken the book into a topic which should not be forgotten, though it would not really have fitted into the publisher’s conception.
This is the role played by heroic solicitors such as Alistair Logan and Gareth Peirce in the painstaking dismantling of the prosecution in cases such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. The Salem witches burnt and the Birmingham defendants spent considerable time in prison.
But, in the end and at considerable cost, the miscarriage of justice that the later cases represented was uncovered by lawyers working on unpopular causes and with unsociable hours, rather than left to the apologies of historians. Time, surely, for Morton to turn his hand to The Mammoth Book of Great Solicitors.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice