MARTIN L. FRIEDLAND'S new book on real crime, The Death of Old Man Rice, offers perceptive insights into jurisprudence, and a narrative line with enough curious twists to delight any novelist.
In the preface Friedland, a professor of law at the University of Toronto, writes that he "deliberately set out to find a turn- of-the century American case ... that would enable me to gain an understanding of the administration of criminal justice in the United States." He argues that the case of the murder of William Rice, founder of Rice University in Houston, Texas, reveals the frailty of the criminal process, and the role many other factors -- media coverage and the power of the super- rich, for example -- can play in determining a trial's outcome. On the subjectivity of all trials he comments, "Justice may in theory be blind but in practice she has altogether too human a dimension."
Rice, who was probably the wealthiest Texan of his time, was found dead on a sultry summer's day in New York City in September 1900. When the undertaker arrived at Rice's Madison Avenue apartment, he was met by the valet, Charlie Jones, and a lawyer named Albert Patrick who was apparently in charge of the funeral arrangements. Patrick was keen to have the body cremated as soon as possible. The weather was very warm, and embalming, although increasing in popularity, was by no means in widespread use. However, since it would take the crematorium 24 hours to heat up, Rice was embalmed on the spot. The embalming would later become an important issue in the trial, since it led to difficulties in determining the cause of death.
Over the next few days, several developments made the authorities suspicious. It was revealed that Patrick had in his possession four cheques totalling $250,000 signed by Rice, as well as a letter from Rice requesting cremation. There was also a disagreement as to who was acting as legal counsel for the estate. These circumstances became the centre of a dispute between Rice's Texan law firm, Baker and Botts and Patrick James A. Baker Jr., known as "Captain Baker," was from one of Houston's most prominent families, and had prepared Rice's will in 1896. He left for New York within hours of being advised of his client's death. The fact that another lawyer had presented a draft for a large amount of money, along with all securities then held in trust with Baker and Botts, threw Baker into action. Suspicion of Patrick increased when he claimed to have a later will, signed by Rice. That some people close to Rice didn't even know Patrick also hurt his credibility.
Patrick was soon arrested for murder, and convicted after a sensational trial that included a frenzy of media attention and a confession from the valet Jones that he had murdered Rice -- on Patrick's instructions -- by drugging him with chloroform. Patrick was sentenced to Sing Sing, where he launched an appeal and proclaimed his innocence. He was released many years later.
The full truth will never be known, but Friedland examines the many unanswered questions about this trial in an impartial and objective manner. In sorting out the evidence and missing pieces, he has gone to primary sources, newspaper archives, trial transcripts, and contemporary experts on embalming and handwriting analysis. Nothing is made up or embellished: there are no supposed conversations or interior thoughts presented. Nevertheless, Friedland writes compellingly and sustains a brisk narrative pace that effectively complements his formidable research.
The Death of Old Man Rice is fascinating, for Friedland uses the case to show how the American criminal justice system has evolved since 1900. The type of jury selection in the trial, for example, is not allowable today. The media were influential too; in many ways this was a trial by newspaper. The differences between 19th-century American law and our system, which is based on English common law, are interpreted. On the inadequacies of the justice system in general, Friedland is incisive. He writes that the "constant specter of error" in any trial is a strong argument against capital punishment. His observations about the influence of the press and its manipulation, cosy relationships between various judges, and the dangers of relying on an accomplice's testimony are equally insightful and relevant.
In contrast, Phonse Jessome's Murder at McDonald's, a book about the 1992 slayings at a McDonald's restaurant in Sydney, Nova Scotia, is more visceral. It's primarily a cathartic effort: an elegy written for the victims and their families.
This is a sordid story of ruthless teenagers who were out to make extra spending money and showed almost no remorse after being arrested for murdering three restaurant employees and maiming a fourth. Jessome's tendency to dramatize events is the book's major weakness. (For example, he uses interior monologues where he couldn't possibly know what was going on in the minds of the accused.) His account of the police investigation, however is detailed and effective.
The crime has obviously devastated the once close-knit community, and the trials of the teenagers have raised important questions about the justice system in this country. The families of the victims felt outraged and humiliated by the courtroom procedures protecting the accused, and believed that they, the victims, were being treated as the "criminals." Jessome also questions the wisdom of plea-bargaining; in this case, prosecutors agreed to it to ensure a conviction, but is a lighter sentence in exchange for a guilty verdict actually justice? These are important questions, and although Jessome presents some strong arguments, it would have helped his case more if he had expanded on them and discussed the issues in more depth, rather than limiting himself to the Sydney trial. As it is, this book may only appeal to those already aware of the events it recounts.