Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Review: Rough Justice: Days and Nights of a Young D.A.

In Rough Justice: Days and Nights of a Young D.A., David Heilbroner chronicled his three-year stay at the Manhattan's DA in the mid-1980s.

Coming from the comfy confines of Harvard and then Northeastern's law school, Heilbroner realized early in his career that law has an underbelly.

Instead of engaging in ivory-tower, pristine discussions of jurisdiction and preemption, Heilbroner was thrust into a world of shared cubicles, bolted-down furniture, corkboard decorations and other insults to one's senses. His practical education didn't just assault his senses but also his sensibilities.

Heilbroner learned that witnesses can lie, judges can manipulate, and rules can be mangled for expedience. Heilbroner often wanted to dismiss charges, decline to prosecute, or diminish punishment to "time served." Heilbroner summarized his exasperation: "And in every direction innumerable aspects of the justice system cried out for reform: police misconduct, defense attorneys' delays, meaningless paperwork, the rubber-stamp grand jury, rigid strictures on sentences, incarceration of psychiatric patients, insufficient numbers of judges and courtrooms, to name just a few of the more egregious problems." (p. 284.)

Heilbroner seemed ill-suited to prosecution, and much of this story seemed to be a "fish-out-of-water" variant. To his credit, Heilbroner fulfilled his informal three-year commitment to the D.A.'s office, despite an ostensible desire to bail out at the outset.

On the other hand, I suspect Heilbroner became a D.A. as an avenue to write this book. At his first opportunity, he "upgraded" from prosecuting subway "farebeats" to working in the department dealing with the insanity defense. This assignment provided book fodder, detailing some of the more colorful folks in the government's care. But these exercises amounted mostly to psychiatric testimony about whether the patient/prisoner should be released. Almost invariably, they weren't. Sometimes the D.A.'s office wouldn't even ask any questions, leaving the work to the hospital's attorney. Hardly the glamorous stuff of television courtroom dramas.

It seems that Heilbroner was really toiling to fill enough pages for a book, as opposed to one of those nearly endless essays in the Atlantic Monthly. Surprisingly, Heilbroner would begin a story or subplot only to abandon it without resolution. In one instance, he set the bait about a credit card scam ostensibly engineered by a civil attorney only to finish it with mere conjecture. Why and how did this unfinished story survive the editing process?

Nevertheless, Heilbroner is a gifted writer. In fact, the book indicates that he left the law to become a writer. Since several years have passed following Rough Justice's publication, I investigated whether he fulfilled his dream. He did publish another book shortly thereafter, but more recently has entered the film industry. According to, he and his wife Kate directed a 2006 DVD entitled, Pucker Up, a study of whistling. I can't make this stuff up.