American trial lawyer James Zirin lost a wealth of cherished career mementoes when his office in One World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11. Among those was a signed photograph from J. Edgar Hoover for Zirin’s work in a bank fraud case. His chapter on 9/11, ‘U.S. v them’, is the most poignant of Zirin’s book.

He argues for holding a trial of the 9/11 plotters in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, of which this book is the subject, asserting that ‘after so many years it would be possible’ to find fair and unbiased jurors.

As an assistant US attorney, Zirin prosecuted criminal cases in the Southern District, or ‘Mother Court’, which has been the locus for some of the country’s biggest trials. Located in the United States Courthouse, near the tip of Manhattan, the Southern District has heard mobster conspiracy trials; libel cases; and, in the febrile atmosphere of McCarthyism, the trial of 11 Communist leaders. The court also heard attempts to suppress James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow)  because of obscenity.

Some of the most interesting chapters are where the vicissitudes of politics colour the pages. As a young deputy US attorney, Zirin fondly recalls his boss Robert M. Morgenthau, who had been made US attorney by president John F. Kennedy. Morgenthau’s ‘insistence on independence from Washington pervaded the office, and took on a religious fervour’, writes Zirin. When Richard Nixon (pictured) became president, Morgenthau was replaced.

According to Zirin, ‘in the 1970s Nixon seethed with hatred of the media’. When the New York Times published the leaked Pentagon Papers – revealing the government’s conduct in Vietnam – the government sought an injunction for national security reasons. Zirin praises Mother Court judge Murray Gurfein, who denied the injunction and supported freedom of expression.

That expression is now found in social media outlets and Zirin tackles this in a chapter on the digital courtroom, concluding that ‘today’s courtroom resembles more the starkness of a computer science laboratory than the thrust stage of old’.

This is a journey through the darker side of US history, with Zirin an engaging guide.

Author: James D Zirin

Publisher: ABA Publishing, £17.99

Nicholas Goodman is a sub-editor at the Gazette