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  • Mike Martinez

The Greatest Criminal Cases: Changing the Course of American Law

I am pleased to announce that Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, recently published my eighth book, The Greatest Criminal Cases: Changing the Course of American Law. Copies are available for sale online.

As with all of my work, the idea originated from my academic pursuits. I intend to use the book as a supplemental reader in a criminal procedure course I teach online once a year for the University of South Dakota.

In the field of American criminal procedure, the system of legal rules governing the relationship between the individual and government quickly can become complex and difficult to comprehend, especially for the novice student. I have taught university-level courses for more than 18 years, including a basic course in criminal procedure for undergraduate criminal justice students for the past five years. During that time, I have found that students sometimes become confused and despondent about the multitude of rules and cases. “I would not recommend my worst enemy to take this class,” a student once wrote to me in a parting email. Referring to the voluminous (and occasionally convoluted and contradictory) readings and cases, he said the material “only made me feel like an idiot,” which in turn made him believe he “did not deserve to be in your class.”

I was alarmed by the student’s experience because criminal procedure can be a fascinating topic if one can delve beneath the complex legal rules and discover the human element played out in criminal cases. Often that individual drama is part of a larger perennial debate over the freedom of the individual and the authority of government. Criminal procedure textbooks focus heavily on landmark court cases that depend on crucial factual nuances, as they should, and yet such texts typically provide only a cursory, abbreviated summary of the facts behind the court cases. It is unfortunate that the rich, evocative context of the stories is lost or neglected.

Cases and legal doctrines can be turgid and boring, especially for undergraduates, but the human drama embedded in the stories sometimes awakens a dormant interest. As an example, when my classes discuss Powell v. Alabama, I have found that the case comes alive when I stream an American Experience documentary, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, for students to watch. They see the faces of the defendants, hear stories about how the case became a cause célèbre, and understand the facts as well as the biases prevalent in the legal system of the Depression-era South. After watching the documentary, students have told me how much they learned in the class when we discussed the context leading up to the legal cases. “I wish all of the cases we discussed could be told as a story,” I have heard many a pupil remark. “Most of the time, it’s just a bunch of boring legal doctrines with Latin phrases and complicated legal tests and formulas.” From these simple origins, I decided to tell the stories behind major cases in the American law of criminal procedure.

At the outset, I hoped to discuss dozens of cases and the stories behind them. It quickly became apparent that such an endeavor was hopelessly ambitious. Aside from consuming most of my natural life to explore the hundreds of cases on point, the resultant book would balloon into a 1,000+-page tome resembling a standard criminal procedure casebook and would become another hulking behemoth that remained largely inaccessible to students. Therefore, I pared it down to what I considered to be the crucial criminal cases in American criminal procedure. Most of the selections were obvious choices. Mapp v. Ohio, Gideon v. Wainwright, Miranda v. Arizona, and Terry v. Ohio are landmark cases. If a student opens any textbook on American criminal procedure published since the 1960s, each of these cases will be prominently discussed. They are the sine qua non of American constitutional criminal procedure.

I used discretion in choosing other cases. Many court cases involve the exclusionary rule, for example. Although Silverthorne Lumber Company v. United States contains the famous “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, I chose Weeks v. United States because it predates Silverthorne. Accordingly, in Chapter 2, I discuss how Weeks first articulated the doctrine and later cases refined it. In short, I chose what I believed to be an emblematic case that captured the essence of the issue. The purpose here is to produce a short, fast-paced, interesting supplementary text.

One last criterion was whether the facts of a case were dramatic and “teachable.” I am thinking here of Powell v. Alabama, Brown v. Mississippi, and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. The first two cases involve the treatment of black defendants in courtrooms of the Old South during the Great Depression while Hamdan involves the war on terror and whether Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur could be tried before a military tribunal in lieu of being remanded to a civilian court. Other cases cover similar issues, but I believed the facts of these cases to be suitably dramatic.

In this book, the reader will meet many unsavory characters — adulterers, gamblers, bootleggers, murderers, and terrorists, among others — as well as ordinary citizens caught up in the legal system, desperately trying to comprehend the situation. Enjoy!

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