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One Judge's Verdict: Reform Criminal Justice System

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Guilty: The Collapse of Criminal Justice

By Judge

Harold J. Rothwax

Random House

238 pp., $23

Just as it often takes a tragic accident to bring about needed new health and safety regulations, perhaps the bizarre twists and perfunctory verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial will be a catalyst for essential reforms in America's criminal-justice system.

The Simpson trial in Los Angeles was unique in terms of the defendant's celebrity status, his "dream team" of defense lawyers and consultants, and the trial's saturation media coverage. But according to Harold J. Rothwax, a New York state trial judge for 25 years, the Simpson trial all too typically exemplified the grotesqueness that permeates criminal proceedings throughout the nation.

In "Guilty: The Collapse of Criminal Justice," Judge Rothwax calls for sweeping reforms in a formalistic criminal-justice system that, in his view, has buried common sense and has dangerously lost touch with Americans' "core values."

The book's harsh indictment of the system is all the more arresting because it comes not from a flinty-hearted, lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the key judicial conservative, but rather from a former legal-aid defense lawyer and self-described "card-carrying-member" of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I was always driven by idealism," he writes.

Judge Rothwax's primary charge is that the purpose of criminal proceedings no longer is to discover the truth ("verdict," he notes, means "to speak the truth"). On the contrary: "Our system is a carefully crafted maze, constructed of elaborate and impenetrable barriers to the truth."

The judge acknowledges that the system must serve other values in addition to truth-seeking, including fundamental fairness and decency, and that we properly impose restraints on police and prosecutors. But, he asserts, "The weight of other considerations has actually made truth subordinate and even irrelevant."

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