David Hoose reviews When the War Came Home in The Champion

The following review appears in the June, 2014 issue of The Champion:

Bill Newman is a criminal defense lawyer, newspaper columnist, civil liberties lawyer and radio personality, among other things, in Western Massachusetts, where he has lived for the past 40 years. But first among these monikers is "criminal defense lawyer." Any doubts about that are dispelled in the first segment of his book, which is a compilation of columns that Bill wrote for the Northampton Mass., Daily Hampshire Gazette over the past two decades. That first segment is appropriately titled "What Lasts," and readers of The Champion will quickly discern that "What Lasts" is the immutable trait of being a criminal defense lawyer. The first sentences of that segment will resonate with lawyers who do this work." It was 1968, and I hated seeing people locked up in cages. I still do." Bill goes on to describe the defining moment -- surely similar to on e many lawyers had -- when he knew that defending the accused was his calling and his life's work. For Bill it took place in the criminal courts of New York City when he was a college student intern with the Vera Institute. His job was to try to divert defendants from the fast track to Riker's Island -- or worse -- into the Manhattan Court Employment Project. Bill's telling of his time there will warm the hearts of people of a certain generation, and bring back memories of the best social experiments of the 1960s.

Other columns in the collection reflect the wide variety of interesting criminal matters in which Bill has inserted himself over the years. For example, "Protest at Goodell" describes Bill's work in attempting to negotiate a settlement of a sit-in at the University of Massachusetts. "No Clowning Around" is a light-hearted review of Bill's role as standby counsel for JJ Jester, a clown charged with disorderly conduct for among other things dressing up "in a six-foot-high phallic costume" and running for president. Bill and Jester were successful, as Jester laster quipped, "in establishing the right of every American regardless of creed, race, color, age, or gender to put on a penis costume and run for president of the United States.

Other columns take on more serious subjects -- far more serious, like the death penalty. Central to this segment is the story of BIll's work on behalf of Kenny Blanks, a man condemned by the state of Georgia, who had the benefit of Bill's efforts in post-conviction after he was recruited to take on his cause by Bryan Stevenson. Another death penalty column is a reflection on the decision of two governors to kill one of their constituents while campaigning for the highest office in the land. Bill Clinton's decision to pull the switch on Ricky Ray Rector while he was governor of Arkansas and George W. Bush's decision to kill Gary Graham while governor of Texas draw Bill's scrutiny and raise the ever-present question of the role of politics in capital punishment. The death penalty section concludes with a liberal abolitionist's internal struggle over the propriety of death for Timothy McVeigh, a man whose execution, Bill points out, did not raise many of the objections on which death penalty opponents often ground their opposition.

Criminal defense lawyers will surely be drawn to and identify with the many columns in When the War Came Home that pertain to social and criminal justice. But this book offers much more. Lawyers who have done this work know the struggles and sacrifices that are entailed in trying to balance the demands of that jealous mistress they were warned about in law school with the rest of life. Apropos of that, there are columns in this collection that deal with those things that compete with devotion to the law, such as the challenges and joys of raising two daughters and reckoning with aging parents. Other entries are hard to pigeonhole, such as the column about Bill's boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle, a column that he insists is not about baseball. And it's not. It's about so much more. And oh yes, some columns actually do deal with the title of the book -- the wars that have come home.

Whether writing about social justice, criminal justice or more mundane musings about life, Bill moves gracefully from one topic to another, making for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.


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