Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Historians Turned Jurors: Katz on "The Death of 'Shorty'"

I’ve talked to a few historians recently about their experiences sitting on juries. Both mentioned their desire, during the trial, to ask questions. Both seemed happy to do their civic duty, but unhappy that they had to make a decision about someone’s life without the benefit of greater context. After the trial, they had difficulty walking away – not because they wanted to know “what really happened,” but because they sensed how much the legal proceeding obscured.

Michael Katz actually did what every historian-juror has probably wanted to do: he followed up. After serving as juror number three in a murder trial in Philadelphia, he mined tax, census, housing, and police records to find out everything he could about the incident and the people involved. Ultimately, he met the defendant for lunch. In a recent magazine piece, titled “The Death of ‘Shorty,’” Katz combines his observations about this experience with his deep knowledge of U.S. urban, social, and political history to tell “the story of the trial, what it meant for [him], and what it signifies about marginalization, social isolation, and indifference in American cities.”
You can read the full article here.


Shag from Brookline said...

This reminds me of the decades ago TV series "The Naked City." Each episode started with this voice message: "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City; this is one of them."

There may be interesting stories behind many of the jury trials that take place in America's legal system. But finality is important. Will observations such as those of Katz improve justice beyond his own personal role as an attorney? Might his observations lead to depression with the system? Might the response to sensing "how much the legal proceeding obscured" prolong trials?

Alfred Brophy said...

Thanks for this, Karen. It's a great article.