Law Religion Culture Review

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

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Review: Death Benefit.

It takes one to know one.

In this case, it took a lawyer to recognize and write about the heroic work of a fellow lawyer, Steven Keeney.

David Heilbroner followed up his book, Rough Justice: Days and Nights of Young D.A. (reviewed here on August 27, 2007) with Death Benefit.

Death Benefit chronicled how Keeney transformed essentially a pro bono case involving his client's claim to a $3500 insurance policy for burial expenses into a first-degree murder conviction.

A defense attorney in the subsequent murder case questioned Keeney's motives and demanded that he be cross-examined. "I think this idea that a pro bono lawyer could, out of the goodness of his heart, prosecute and investigate this case needs to be destroyed as a myth." (p. 275.)

Keeney took the stand and testified: "I came into this case believing it was an accident. I hoped it was an accident. It looked like an insurance claim for burial insurance...

"As I sit here and look at my wife in the back of the courtroom, sometimes I wish I hadn't done it, but I think it was the right thing to do.


"But you all didn't want to stop there. You also wanted to see if you could slur my character. It's not material to this case; it has no relevance. But if you wanted to go further ....

"We teach by example. And in this merry-go-round of pleadings and hearings and pitiable subpoenas, we have not taught the law that we have dedicated ourselves to. My client's daughter is dead. And if the meticulous care that I have shown to the rights of the defendants were extended to my client, that would be one thing. But it has not been so here...." (pp. 275-76; emphases in original.)

At great personal cost, with little prospect for reward, Keeney bulldogged this case when no one else cared or perceived any wrongdoing. After a woman in Keeney's Presbyterian church asked him to help her get burial expenses paid following the death of her twenty-something daughter, Keeney's persistence uncovered a much larger pattern of death and destruction surrounding the woman who was present when Kenney's client's daughter died off a cliff in Big Sur, California. (Keeney and Heilbroner even suggest she is a serial killer). Monterey's DA even passed on prosecuting anyone over this death.

Keeney got this prosecution into the hands of the San Diego DA, who agreed to pursue the case despite the fact the death occurred about 500 miles outside of its jurisdiction. This jurisdictional issue as well as many others makes the book especially good for trial and other lawyers (although lay people will also enjoy its mystery and who-done-it aspects).

However, I think Heilbroner got carried away when he made it appear the public defenders' office had some kind of resource advantage over the prosecutors. As a former prosecutor, Heilbroner had to know this purported imbalance is farcical.

As I mentioned in the review of Rough Justice, Heilbroner left the law to pursue writing. Death Benefit displayed some flourishes suggesting Heilbroner was angling for novels. An example:

"As Keeney left his office, he caught a last glimpse of the city going through its nightly transformation. Street lamps and steeple lights came on. White and red car lights ran in streams along the avenues, and offices in nearby skyscrapers glowed in Mondrian strips and squares against a sunset that modulated from orange embers at the horizon to a magenta velvet sky." (p. 22.) Does Heilbroner expect us to believe that Keeney reported this scene to him? And if Heilbroner wasn't there (which he wasn't) why is he writing it as a percipient witness?

Mercifully, Heilbroner didn't indulge in such unnecessarily baroque language throughout the book. They were circumscribed to only a few other passages in the 350-page text.

On balance, Death Benefit is an entertaining explication of an intricate story where an attorney does the right thing for the right reasons and to the right result.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation (2006).

Despite the title, Sam Harris' book isn't really directed to Christians or even an apocryphal Christian nation. It's targets are essentially two concentric circles on a bulls-eye relief.

The larger target--the outside ring--is essentially all those holding deistic belief. This is a classic agnostic or atheistic debating trick--raise the level of abstraction so that each religion is somehow responsible for all. My proof? Harris spends considerable pages disparaging Islam in his indictment of Christianity (pp. 83-87.)

Nevertheless, Harris is correct to link the two religions in this respect: both incorporate the view that a deity created the heavens and earth. This link exposes Harris' larger objective--to contend for evolution as the origin of humankind (not just microevolution within species).

In this regard, Harris reserves his sharpest criticism for the intelligent design (ID) crowd. Harris writes: "If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of 'intelligent design' would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design." (p. x; italicization in original; bolding supplied.)

I've learned in the legal arena that when an attorney states a sweeping proposition so confidently he or she is actually covering something not so settled (a similar example is when an attorney or judge asserts something is "clear" when its clarity approximates mud's.)

Harris' other target is the "Christian Right," as if that equates or defines Christianity. "The beliefs of conservative Christians now exert an extraordinary influence over our national discourse--in our courts, in our schools, and in every branch of government...." (p. ix.) Harris continues: "I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do." (p. ix.) Even if true (which is debatable) how does political affiliation or action undermine the truth of any religious belief?

It's odd that Harris engages in the very "eerie certainties" for which he rejects religious conservatives. Example: "The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply the admission of the obvious." (p. 51; emphasis added.)

So, reduced to its essence, Harris disagrees with those who reject complete evolutionistic belief and who are actively conservative in the political culture. Neither compels the proverbial baby to be discarded with the bathwater.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reality Meets Reality.

In court today, I encountered yet another reality tv personality. This attorney appeared on the reality show for lawyers called, The Partner. He continued his fame when he represented the frat bros against the makers of Borat (see November 26, and December 12, 2006, posts.)

I don't know why I attract these quasi-celebrities. I'll add this latest sighting to the winner of Average Joe, a Survivor contestant, a Rock Star:Supernova singer (on an airplane), and two Big Brother evictees. The first two in this litany served me food after their tv notoriety.

I'm not sure what's more embarrassing: That LA-LA land has so many of them roaming the streets or that I know who they are.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Law and Religion.

Found in the governing law/disputes section of a software license agreement:

"This agreement is governed solely and exclusively by the principles written in the Holy Bible. All disputes must be mediated by a mediator nominated by the Institute of Christian Conciliation under the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation."


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Book Review: The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.

Timothy Ferriss has accomplished much.

He has:

1. Set Guinness world record in tango;

2. Won the national Chinese kickboxing championship;

3. Acted on hit TV series in China and Hong Kong;

4. Lectured at Princeton in entrepreneurship; and

5. Written a best-selling (no. 33 on Amazon today) book on his first try. (p. 13.)

All in 29 years, among many other things.

How did/does he do it?

He doesn't work 9-5.

He rejects this "wage-slave" lifestyle as a social convention serving no real purpose. Worse, he indicts the practice as an exercise of the Deferred-Life Plan-taking a page from Randy Komisar's The Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur (reviewed here:

Instead, Ferriss speaks of time and mobility as currencies that must be counted in life's equation. "The New Rich (NR) are those who abandon the deferred-life plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present using the currency of the New Rich: time and mobility." (p. 7.) "The objective is to create freedom of time and place and use both however you want." (p. 3; emphasis in original.)

Ferriss argues that high wage earners are actually poor if they have no time or mobility. He contrasts Deferrers (of the Deferred-Life Plan infamy) to the New Rich thusly: While Deferrer's objective is "[t]o have more," the New Rich desire "[t]o have more quality and less clutter. To have huge financial reserves but recognize that most material wants are justifications for spending time on the things that don't really matter, including buying things and preparing to buy things. You spent two weeks negotiating your new Infinity with the dealership and got $10,000 off? That's great. Does your life have a purpose? Are you contributing anything useful to this world or just shuffling papers, banging on a keyboard, and coming home to a drunken existence on the weekends?" (p. 23.)

"Huge financial reserves," but spending your time as you wish. Sounds great. How does Ferriss connect these dots? He doesn't; he leaves it to you. Well, not entirely. He provides some guidance. He suggests you hire one or more virtual assistants--from India preferably--to do your work. (p. 120.)

Likewise, Ferriss suggests you invent a product, which you have other people manufacture and sell while you check your bank balances from exotic locales around the globe as you exploit currency differences. This abstract advice is akin to the following golden wisdom I'll impart on this blog just for reading: create a mode of transportation that can traverse the United States in an hour, is powered by the sun and spews no pollution, and costs no more than a Kia to manufacture. You will, friendly blog reader, join the ranks of the New Rich. The reality, of course, is much more difficult.

Ferriss does provide valuable insights into expanding one's perspective about work. His recommendation about each individual being an entrepreneur of sorts is wise. The more value a person provides the customer, client, or employer, the more leverage that person has to negotiate currencies of all types in return. These currencies can be paid in time, mobility and choices to help fulfill one's purpose, which can be as a better parent, spouse, citizen, neighbor, Christ-follower or whatever.

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