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Friday, August 24, 2018

Recent Rare Books Acquisitions: Criminal Law

Over the late spring and summer, the Riesenfeld Center has added notable titles to its collection, several of which fall in the area of criminal law. Our most important active collecting area related to criminal law is the Clarence Darrow collection, which not only includes the nationally preeminent trove of Darrow letters, but writings by and about the famous American trial lawyer, who championed criminal defendants facing great odds throughout his career. At the same time, other areas of the collection touch significantly on notable criminal trials, criminal law reform, and the philosophy of punishment. 

Among works of philosophy, we recently acquired the Essays (1824) of the English barrister and jurist Basil Montagu (1770-1851), a friend of William Wordsworth and James Mackintosh, who rejected the harshness of the death penalty in England, wrote to reform bankruptcy law, and advocated for his beliefs in a range of published works and as a member of several societies. Montagu's essays add to key reformer Jeremy Bentham's Traités de législation civile et pénale (1802), a recently-acquired first edition published first in French, which lays out Bentham's revolutionary utilitarian views on law and punishment. 

Another acquisition, a copy of the Report from the Select Committee on the Criminal Law of England, bound together with the Further Report (London, 1824), is among the very few copies listed in institutions. The parliamentary committee that authored the reports contributed importantly to the movement for 19th-century English criminal law reform, begun under the influence of Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, and figures like Samuel Romilly and James Mackintosh in Parliament. In 1819-20, popular support for reform led to a more urgent awareness among lawmakers, and in 1823 the death penalty was made discretionary in cases not involving treason or murder for the first offense. In 1824, Parliament took up forgery, which became the focal point of death penalty reform efforts and of our reports. The committee treated in an analytic way what kind of crime forgery was, and its relation to fraud; and surveyed the history of forgery legislation in England. The work was the product of extensive legal expertise, and the reform of forgery law became a key precedent for 1830s reforms, which saw many of the over 200 capital offenses in England abolished by the end of the decade. 

A more recent work, the Hand Book of the Minnesota State Prison (1910), is a very rare edition of a handbook published to describe and tout Minnesota's new prison complex in Stillwater, then still under construction. The pamphlet outlines the prison's principles and objectives, organization, features, and finances, and is based generally on a utilitarian approach to the rehabilitation of its inmates. Arguing for the necessity of the new prison, it proclaims that the prison will be one of the most modern in the country, if not the world. Adding to the interest of the manual, and certainly meant as an additional advertisement, are two fold-out illustrations of the floor plan of the prison and an artist's bird's eye view of the prison and its grounds.

Even more recently, in the late 1940s and early 50s, the trials of the "Trenton Six" raised key issues of due process, in a murder trial that captured national attention and helped to catalyze the civil rights movement. Six young African-American men were convicted in 1948 of the murder of an elderly shop-keeper in Trenton, New Jersey, and sentenced to death. The men came to trial based on coerced confessions resulting from days of interrogation without access to attorneys, and were arrested without warrants in a wide sweep of the city. After a publicity campaign, the convictions were reversed on appeal in the New Jersey Supreme Court, for failing to specify what degree of murder the defendants were guilty of. After a new 13-week trial, four of the six defendants were acquitted, while circumstantial evidence resulted in convictions for the remaining two, one of whom died soon after, while the other was paroled in 1954. From these significant trials, we acquired a pamphlet published by the NAACP that formed part of the publicity effort to bring the case to a national audience; and a typed, signed censure by the judge in the first trial, which faults several of the defendants' attorneys for violating the New Jersey Bar's code of ethics. The censure sheds light on contemporary issues: the attorneys were reprimanded for speaking publicly about their clients' innocence and campaigning for it locally and nationally during the trial. Among other things, the judge also suggested that the attorneys, from New York, were raising money through their representation for other causes. The documents vividly bring the circumstances and sensation of the case to life, and encourage discussions about defendants' rights and the role of the media in trials, issues that are of continuing importance.

- Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections