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“Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments” by Dominick Dunne Crown, 336 pp., $24 Just as people get the governments they deserve, big-deal trials get the journalists they deserve. H.L. Mencken covered the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of kidnapping and killing the 2-year-old son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It was, he said, the biggest story “since the Resurrection.” He was joined by Edna Ferber, Damon Runyon, Ford Madox Ford, and Walter Winchell. The Hauptmann trial was a scandal and a circus and a travesty and a conversation piece, which is to say it was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. But the celebrities there were the victims of a heart-stopping atrocity. In the Simpson case, the celebrity was the accused, and he walked — thanks to his fame, to his race, to his jury, and, mostly, to his fancy lawyers. The journalistic voice of the Simpson trial turned out to be Dominick Dunne, the crime reporter and professional gossip, who covered it for Vanity Fair. Dunne’s new book, “Justice,” collects 10 uneven magazine pieces about the Simpson case and roughly again as many articles on other trials. All are informed by an overheated sensibility and an undue fascination with celebrity and status, including Dunne’s own. Dunne is not shy about telling you that, at the Simpson trial, he possessed “a permanent seat courtesy of Judge Lance Ito.” It was, he tells you later, “a front-row seat.” Writing about a hearing in another case, he announces, “I was well seated for the whole enchilada, never having to share a seat with anyone.” Dunne is one of those fellows who manages to tell you, no matter what the ostensible subject, that he travels in the front of the plane. His seat at the Simpson trial was certainly the envy of the establishment press. New York Times reporter David Margolick, who filed daily in the face of a brutal East Coast deadline, shared a poorly situated seat with a reporter from the local Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinion. Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and Sports Illustrated made do with a single seat. Judge Ito turned back protests about Dunne’s exalted status, including one from a furious journalist who referred to Dunne as “Judith Krantz in pants.” It was the right call: The Simpson case deserved no more than Dunne. It was a fever dream of fin-de-siecle America, and it was suited to Dunne’s level of seriousness and craft. A tabloid trial is best appreciated through a tabloid sensibility, which is all Dunne brought to the proceedings. Though the Simpson case dominates “Justice,” Dunne’s signal achievement was his earliest work as a journalist, a report of the trial of the killer of his daughter Dominique, a young actress. It is a tour de force of contained rage, presented through fine modest understatement, horrified attention to detail, and devastating vignettes. His steady, controlled account is a small masterpiece. At that trial, Dunne obtained an education in the workaday chumminess of the professional participants in the system, in the casual slander and ultimate dehumanization of murder victims, in the vanity of judges, and in the gullibility of juries. All of this colored the rest of his work in this area. In his later trial pieces, he works these powerful themes a little too hard. Even valid points can only be made so many times before you turn into a crank. That first piece appeared in Vanity Fair in 1984, and it created Dunne as a journalist. He had destroyed a first career — as a Hollywood studio executive — through drinking and drugs and other foolishness. That decline, mentioned here and there in “Justice,” reached its stunning nadir when Dunne sold his dog to raise a couple of bucks. Dunne is absolutely pitiless in his presentation of this period, and you cannot help but admire him for it. Most people see others clearly and save their delusions for themselves. Dunne has it the other way around. He mixes his confessional candor with a world-class fascination with the rich and famous. His recent memoir, “The Way We Lived Then,” bore the subtitle “Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper,” and it captures both sides of the Dunne persona. He is earnestly self-deprecating, and he is a deadly serious social climber. The latter influences his journalism mostly, but not entirely, in a negative way. He gives far too much weight to the opinions and, indeed, the lives of the rich and famous. On the other hand, he gets access. The cocktail of celebrities and murder trials can be a delicious one, in moderation, from time to time. The occasional Dunne piece in Vanity Fair can be a guilty pleasure and sometimes something more powerful. Consumed one after the other, they highlight the reductiveness of what Dunne has to say about the criminal justice system, the uneasy moral center of his own perspective, and his uncertain relationship to the practice of journalism. Dunne has already written his Simpson book. It was published in 1997, when there was still a substantial public appetite for such things, and it was called “Another City, Not My Own: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir.” It was more memoir than novel. The New York Times said that “this ‘novel’ isn’t much more than the substance” of Dunne’s “dishy monthly reports for Vanity Fair.” The Simpson chapters here are verbatim reproductions of those Vanity Fair articles, which means they are a second pass over the same territory and the source material for his novel. They are also dated, repetitive, and unhelpful to the reader in countless ways. Though Dunne has tacked on small italicized codas to a few of the chapters in “Justice” on other topics, he is spent on the subject of O.J. Having the articles in book form has, then, only a kind of historical value: They capture fully a moment near the turn of the century when all of us took leave of our senses and the justice system suffered a body blow. The other chapters are on cases involving people like Claus von Bulow and the Menendez brothers. Some are lazy and confusing; others are well-made true crime reports. Throughout, though, the magazine articles’ texts seem to have been untouched by editing of any sort in their transition to hardcover. Would it have been too much to ask to update facts that have plainly by now been overtaken by events? To correct the typos, which sometimes come two to a page? Dunne is a snob capable of condescension at the oddest moments. He faults Kitty and Jose Menendez, shot literally to pieces by their sons, for an “appallingly furnished” home, “with second-rate pieces.” Kato Kaelin, too, “didn’t go out of his way in the hair-and-clothes department.” In matters of style, Dunne is a hard grader, but he goes easy on Johnnie Cochran. “Personally,” he writes, “I have never liked brown, pale-blue, or mustard-colored suits, or ties with horizontal stripes, but when he wears them, they work.” Dunne was not immune to the substantial charms of several members of the Simpson defense team, particularly as they became celebrities themselves. But he always returned to the rage that has been with him since his daughter’s murderer’s trial. There are only a few absolutes in Dunne’s world, and one of them is that he loathes criminal defense lawyers. This hatred is powerful and vivid, and it is instructive in small doses. Even as he occasionally admires their technique, it is simply beyond Dunne’s understanding that people can make a living saying things to juries that are offensive to common sense and demeaning to the victims and their families. He has especially mixed feelings toward lawyers like Barry Scheck, whom Dunne considered the finest lawyer at the Simpson trial, because he detects in Scheck’s New York sensibility and in his other work an intellectual honesty and human feeling absent in the slick, vacant California members of the dream team. Dunne flies a little low to the ground for most of the book, but when he takes in the larger scene he can pull it together brilliantly. “Watching Scheck,” he writes, “I wondered how he could keep a straight face.” Scheck was in the closing phases of a five-day (five-day!) cross-examination of Dennis Fung, who, you will be pleased to have forgotten, gathered some evidence at the crime scene. “At one moment,” Dunne continues, “the defense was saying that Los Angeles police were so hopelessly incompetent that they had contaminated all the evidence at the crime scene. The very next moment, it was accusing the same hopelessly incompetent officers of masterminding a brilliant frame-up of Simpson, complete with planted blood and glove, all conceived of on the spot.” Dunne quotes a “legal pundit,” speaking “on a guarantee of anonymity,” that “it will be seen as a disgrace to have represented O.J.” Later in the book, Dunne repeats this view: “The lawyers who fought so hard for Simpson’s acquittal have become diminished by their association with him.” This turned out to be right, as a descriptive matter but in a larger sense, too. And something like it could be said about Dunne. Though Dunne was no supporter of Simpson’s, he did build a little career — in television appearances, in Vanity Fair, at society dinners, in a novel, and now in “Justice” — out of gossiping about O.J. Simpson. It must have been exciting at the time. He probably should have resisted the urge to return to this subject one last time. Adam Liptak is a senior counsel in the legal department at The New York Times Company.

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