Review of “The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh

If I ran a law school, I’d make incoming students read this book.

Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the crime at the center of the book:

On March 9, 1963, LAPD officers Campbell and Karl Hettinger pulled over a car containing two suspicious-looking men on a Hollywood street. The two men, Jimmy Lee Smith (aka "Jimmy Youngblood") and Gregory Ulas Powell, had recently committed a string of robberies. Powell, the driver, pulled a gun on Campbell and ordered Hettinger to surrender his gun to Smith. The two officers were then forced into Powell’s car and driven to an onion field around Bakersfield . . .

Campbell is murdered in the onion field.

Smith and Powell begin a long stint of spending time in courtrooms. They’re arrested and convicted just as Eisenhower’s boy, Earl Warren, is getting things going. Juries keep convicting them and Judges keep finding reasons why they need new trials. Normally you’d think it would take criminals a while to adapt to a new legal system, but these guys seemed to understand the new system perfectly. They basically stopped trying to prove that they didn’t commit the crimes and instead starting trying to find grounds for appeals. The new possibilities for appeals were basically endless.

Hettinger lapses into severe depression. The aftermath is probably worse for him than for anyone else – obviously it’s best for the criminals, it was the ’60s after all.

The story has a bit of everything: robbery, drugs, the worst (or best) attorney of all time (he drives away a bunch of judges and even gets some other attorneys to quit the practice of law), scandals with the jury, random changes to the law, murder, re-trials, changes in police tactics, etc.

Both men were initially sentenced to death. Of course neither was executed. Unbelievably, Smith was eventually released though he ended up back in jail a bunch times and he eventually died there. Powell is still alive in prison, I think.

Both the criminals are completely worthless, but in interestingly different ways. Powell is a sociopath, while Jimmy Smith just seemed to go along with Powell. I still can’t decide which is worse.

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4 Responses to Review of “The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh

  1. rightsaidfred says:

    My passive contact (jury duty, witness, routine civil actions) with the courts has been wholly negative. I’m up for an alternative (Sharia?)

    The adversarial system is too prone to devolving into (metaphorical) violence

  2. Tschafer says:

    “They’re arrested and convicted just as Eisenhower’s boy, Earl Warren, is getting things going.”

    Just had to take one more shot at Eisenhower, eh? I still don’t understand the animus here. Why Eisenhower rather than Truman or Kennedy or Johnson or Nixon or Ford or Carter, all of them much more liberal than Ike? Well, for what it’s worth, I agree about Warren, appointing EW and Suez were far and away Eisenhower’s greatest mistakes, and yes, the criminal justice system in the 1960’s was surreally bad, I remember it well…

    • Handle says:

      Eisenhower made no mistake whatsoever in appointing Warren, who was originally going to be his Solicitor General. They were very similar figures with entirely compatible political views who were, in reality, only nominally “Republican” and were actively courted by both teams. In 1946, Warren got the nomination of both parties simultaneously and won the Californian Gubernatorial election with over 90% of the vote.

      Even Lukashenko in Belarus doesn’t pretend to steal elections with that high a portion of the population – it would be seen as even more obviously “flawed”. Can you really imagine 91 out of 100 Californians agreeing politically on anyone in 1946, even though there was a Roosevelt on the ticket?

      The whole generational cohort of folks born in the 1890’s and who came of age in the Wilsonian Progressive era didn’t have anything like the view of the two parties that we have today – there was much more consensus and overlap among their elites than is generally admitted. There’s a reason the stars fell on the class of 1915.

    • Foseti says:

      Heh. Take it as a joke.

      I’m reading “The Politician” now, so I see Eisenhower conspiracies everywhere . . .

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