The Florida Bar
The Florida Bar Journal
January, 2017 Volume 91, No. 1

Page 51

Trials of the Century: A Decade-By-Decade Look at Ten of America’s Most Sensational Crimes
by Mark J. Phillips and Aryn Z. Phillips
Reviewed by George Waas
Perhaps nothing stokes the fires of human emotion more than the ultimate crime committed by one against another — murder. When that crime involves raw passion driven by love, wealth, celebrity, sex, race, or scandal fed by a frenzied media driven by increased circulation or ratings, the result is a candidate for “crime of the century.”

So say the father/daughter authors, attorney Mark J. Phillips and social and behavioral sciences graduate student Aryn Z. Phillips, in their recap of 11 murder cases — one from each decade beginning in 1900. The authors tell each story in relatively short chapters through the lens of the prevailing mood of the country at the time, together with the media’s insatiable desire to increase readership or viewership and thereby satisfy the public’s equally insatiable desire to be titillated and emotionally aroused.

In short, it is this cyclical desire of the public for more information — accurate or not, fact or opinion — and the media’s desire to provide more and more information — again, truthful or not — that keeps the flames of passion, anger, hatred, etc., burning.

The writers are most clear as to the core message of their book: Today’s “fascination with violent crime in American culture is slaked by the media.” This, however, is nothing new. They note that this fascination with the prurient, lurid, and highly inaccurate descriptions can be traced to at least 18th Century England and the rise of the printing press.

The term “crime of the century” is, in the words of the authors, “an overblown bit of media hype...the frequency and selection of which are limited only by the prurient taste of Americans and the imagination of editors.”

Thus, the first case — the 1906 murder in New York’s Madison Square Garden of famed architect Stanford White by Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of White’s wife and Thaw’s former girlfriend, actress Evelyn Nesbit — had all of the elements necessary for the “yellow journalism” media fronted by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, to dub this “the crime of the century,” even though the century was only six years old.

Similarly, the Orlando trial of Casey Anthony for the 2008 murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, is included in the book as its final chapter because of Anthony’s bizarre, carefree behavior after the disappearance of her daughter. She offered contradictory stories ranging from kidnapping to blaming her father for the child’s death. An acquittal and ensuing lynch mob calling for “justice for Caylee,” once again fanned by the media, made this a candidate even though the century was only eight years old at the time.

Some of the stories in the book are familiar to us and are presented in a virtual “Whodunit” fashion: O.J. Simpson and the Bloody Glove; Jean Harris and the Diet Doctor; The Tate-LaBianca Murders and a Man Named Manson.

Others may not be as familiar as they recede further and further into history: Eight Dead Student Nurses and the Texas Drifter (Richard Speck); Who Killed Marilyn — The Sam Sheppard Case; Wayne Lonergan and the Bludgeoned Heiress; Bruno Hauptmann and the Lindbergh Baby; “Fatty” Arbuckle and the Dead Actress; and The Death of Mary Phagan — The Trial of Leo Max Frank.

The book is a fast-paced, compelling read because, although these stories are about murder and media, in the last analysis, they are about us — our emotions, our passions, our desires. As long as human nature is what it is, we will continue to be consumed by the fascination of the “crime of the century.”

George Waas of Tallahassee is a member of The Florida Bar.

My Own Words
by Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Reviewed by Edward Comey
A series of strong dissents earned Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the moniker, The Notorious R.B.G. Those dissents — starting with Fisher v. University of Texas and Shelby County v. Holder and culminating with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby — thrust her into the spotlight as a fierce civil rights proponent. They also illustrate the truth of advice she received from Vladimir Nabokov, a Cornell professor of European literature: Justice Ginsburg could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or idea by choosing the right word. By choosing an array of her own writings for My Own Words, Justice Ginsburg provides a fascinating and more complete image of the second woman to sit on the highest court in the land.

To be sure, no book about Justice Ginsburg would be complete without discussing gender equality. My Own Words — compiled with the help of her authorized biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams — does exactly that. By relying almost exclusively on her own words, however, the book provides a fresh perspective on a topic that risks becoming stale. Through a series of thoughtful speeches and essays, as well as other writings, Justice Ginsburg pays tribute to “waypavers” and “pathmarkers” (Bela Lockwood, Myra Bradwell, and Emma Lazarus, to name a few); charts the progress women have made in the legal profession; and indirectly makes the case for the substantial role she has played advancing gender equality. But for readers looking for more than Justice Ginsburg as social justice advocate, the book has much to offer.

Early on, Hartnett and Williams offer an interesting glimpse into Ginsburg’s childhood. She was a gifted and dramatic storyteller and an avid fan of Nancy Drew detective books. Hartnett and Williams also highlight two points Ginsburg’s mother repeatedly drilled home: be independent; and always “be a lady,” meaning act civilly and don’t be overcome with emotions — the latter of which is a hallmark of her approach to judging. Hartnett and Williams’ brief recounting of Ginsburg’s childhood provides valuable insight into the Justice Ginsburg we know today.

Later in the book, Ginsburg’s writings explore her thought-provoking approach to judging and the importance of an independent judiciary in a way that is approachable by the casual reader not interested in a dissertation on originalism versus a living constitution. Along the way, the justice’s writings highlight the importance collegiality plays in enhancing public confidence in the judiciary; offer poignant tributes to Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; and provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the Court conducts its business. Of course, My Own Words includes lighter moments sure to please Supreme Court aficionados and trivia buffs: like the time Justice O’Connor gave the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team a tour of the basketball court at the top of the Supreme Court (the real “highest court in the land”) and promptly sank her second shot, or the time Chief Justice Rehnquist volunteered to preside over a jury trial, only to see the judgment he entered reversed on appeal, per curiam.

In her book, Justice Ginsburg recounts how Justice O’Connor once made a surprise appearance in a production of Henry V, speaking the famous line: “Hap’ly a woman’s voice may do some good.” After reading My Own Words, readers interested in a fuller understanding of Justice Ginsburg will undoubtedly remark, to paraphrase Isabel in Henry V: Hap’ly a woman’s voice has been heard.

Edward Comey of Brandon is a member of The Florida Bar.

[Revised: 12-27-2016]