Blog Posts: Tamar R. Birckhead

Tamar R. Birckhead

A Former Public Defender Weighs In On "Saving Nelson Mandela"

Saving Nelson Mandela book cover

I am delighted to have been invited to engage in this discussion and to offer my reflections on “Saving Nelson Mandela,” Prof. Ken Broun’s important book chronicling the Rivonia Trial. As a former public defender who has represented clients in highly publicized cases, I was most interested in the ways in which the trial was not that different from even the most routine criminal cases. Like my third-year law students who represent children in the juvenile delinquency courts of North Carolina, the defense team, led by Bram Fischer, had to make strategic decisions regarding pre-trial motions, whether to have their clients testify, and what approach to take during sentencing. They also had to master the art of cross-examination — not only to soften the impact of damaging testimony by exposing a witness’s bias but also to demonstrate that hearsay was unreliable in order to convince the judge to exclude it. As Prof. Broun noted, these basic trial advocacy skills were critical in shaping the way in which the evidence came in as well as Justice de Wet’s attitude toward the defendants; in fact, the lives of Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants may have been saved because the defense attorneys were such “devastating cross-examiner(s).”

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2 Comments | Posted by Tamar R. Birckhead on Mon. July 14, 2014 10:00 AM
Categories: Book Club

"A Civil Action" and Procedural Justice

A Civil Action book cover

In my last post, I highlighted several themes that resonated with me while reading “A Civil Action.” Now I will continue the conversation with a discussion of the concept of procedural justice, as it touches upon the questions that I posed regarding the purpose of the litigation process and the lawyer’s duty to her clients.

One of the most striking aspects of the book for me was the complete absence of the plaintiffs from the bulk of the narrative. After Jonathan Harr chronicles the illnesses and subsequent deaths of the Woburn children in the first few chapters, the plaintiffs aren’t mentioned again in any meaningful way for hundreds of pages. It is not until p. 316 that we hear of them again, when it is noted almost in passing that the lawyers provide the families with daily copies of the trial transcripts, which few of them read consistently. In contrast to the total immersion in the litigation by Schlichtmann and his associates, we learn that “as the weeks dragged on and the daily transcripts mounted into a towering pile, [the plaintiffs’] lives settled back into the normal daily routine of work and school. The trial — their trial — became a distant echo.”

The next mention of the families is not until p. 441 when they are beckoned to a meeting with Schlichtmann to discuss settlement and their options.

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6 Comments | Posted by Tamar R. Birckhead on Wed. July 17, 2013 10:00 AM
Categories: Book Club

Prof. Tamar Birckhead Offers Insight on "A Civil Action"

It's my pleasure to join the conversation that Dean Boger recently started, exploring Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action." Although I read it long ago, I welcomed the opportunity to read it again, as my perspective on the story has shifted after many years of practice. I graduated from law school 21 years ago, and, aside from a year clerking for a judge on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, I've spent the intervening years practicing criminal defense -- a decade representing indigent adult defendants as a public defender in the state and federal courts of Massachusetts and the past nine years representing kids in the juvenile delinquency courts of North Carolina as a faculty supervisor for the UNC Juvenile Justice Clinic.

My third-year law students represent children who are 15 years old or younger who are charged with criminal offenses that are typically the result of minor misconduct at school or in their neighborhoods. The students travel to the homes of their young clients to interview them about their lives and to gather information in order to investigate the pending charges. They speak with parents and guardians, visit middle and high schools to talk with teachers and review school records, and do legal research in order to file and argue motions and advise their clients as to how best to resolve the case.

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4 Comments | Posted by Tamar R. Birckhead on Thu. July 11, 2013 10:00 AM
Categories: Book Club

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