Trial in American Life

Trial in American Life

Why do certain trials capture the national imagination? To Professor Robert Ferguson, they are barometers of cultural understanding. He developed the seminar Trial in American Life to prepare students for the inevitable contrast between the mundane legal procedures that take place in court and the excitement that reporters both seek and generate in their coverage of the legal process.

Students in the seminar compare the transcripts of actual trials—many of them high-profile—with non-legal accounts of the trial. They read newspaper articles, historical accounts, an anthropologist's account of a murder case, and even Theodore Dreiser's novel The American Tragedy, which is based on the early 20th-century murder trial of Chester Gillette.

Professor Robert Ferguson
Photo credit: Dustin Ross

"I want students to see how different intellectual disciplines interpret legal cases. I want them to understand that the legal angle is not always the angle that will control a general understanding of what took place," says Prof. Ferguson.

Whether or not students will be involved in high-profile trials, Prof. Ferguson argues, as attorneys they will be viewed as community spokespersons during important trials, and should be able to comment effectively on them as they arise. The course also improves advocacy skills, because by reading case transcripts, students learn how a lawyer frames questions to extract given answers and to circumscribe an inquiry.

The class looks at some trials for the hyperbole generated both in the courtroom and in the press. "Advocates reach for extremes," says Prof. Ferguson, "so, we spend one week using melodrama, or storytelling, to talk about which story controls understanding in the minds of the jurors and the community at large."

"Sometimes, a high-profile trial is almost as important as a presidential election," says Prof. Ferguson, who has won teaching awards from the Law School and the University. "One example is the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr, who was found not guilty but remained a villain in the eyes of most 19th-century Americans. The case not only demonstrates how a community comes to a different understanding of a trial than its participants, but how the trial itself fixed the definition of treason that the country would use with important implications for subsequent conspiracy law."

Students also look at the changing representation of women in three seduction-murder trials from three different time periods. Other cases that are studied carefully include the trials of John Brown, Lizzie Borden, Gary Gilmore, the Scottsboro defendants, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Students write an in-depth essay on a trial that has had cultural implications. Paper topics have ranged from complicated issues of corporate wrongdoing to local issues. One student wrote about one of the last lynchings that took place in her own hometown in the American South. Says Prof. Ferguson, "The class empowers students to become legal writers as well as more creative thinkers about the law."

Photo from left, clockwise: John Brown, Gary Gilmore, Aaron Burr, and Lizzie Borden.