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The Verdict on These Cases, Characters: Not Dramatic

December 16, 1987|MORT KAMINS | Kamins is a free-lance writer and lawyer. and

The Prosecutors by James Stewart (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 368 pages)

James Stewart's previous book, "The Partners," managed to catch something about the attorneys in a few of America's powerhouse firms, with a neat balance of the personal and professional pressures they experienced during the ordeals of complex litigation. Here, with less success, he tries to do the same thing for prosecutors.

Stewart takes six criminal cases and, from the viewpoint of the prosecutors, gives us the facts. Only one of the cases is a state matter involving a crime of violence, the rest being federal prosecutions of white-collar crime--far from a representative sample of what U.S. prosecutors do. Still, along the way, we get telling glimpses into a world few of us, even practicing attorneys, ever see.

These men--and one tangential woman--must decide whom to prosecute and whom to immunize; make certain that evidence is obtained in ways allowing it to pass the tough admissibility tests; deal with internal conflicts, political pressures and ferocious bureaucratic battles for power and turf. Because most of the cases are federal, and most of them began in the late 1970s under the Carter presidency, a leitmotif that runs through several of Stewart's cases is the effect of changes in personnel and political outlook brought about by the Reagan Administration.

Effective Demythologizing

Maybe the most important function of this book is its quite effective demythologizing of the media-ubiquitous Rudolph Giuliani (U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York), who is shown in a number of vignettes as petty, insensitive to the feelings of his subordinates and a voracious hunter of publicity. Some prosecutors who worked under him thought he demanded complete sycophancy, so that his team was nicknamed the Yesrudis ("Yes, Rudi"), pronounced with a Southern slave accent.

For all its many virtues, two major flaws weaken this book. Although most of the cases are viewed through the perceptions and experiences of the prosecutors, these people almost never come alive on the page as characters whose agonies and joys we feel. Often they seem callow and dull.

Stewart makes the point that prosecutors, not defense lawyers, wield the greater power, undergo the greater stress, are faced with more intractable dilemmas and are the keepers of the flame of justice and order. You get an occasional flash of insight--as when one prosecutor reveals that when he knew he'd have to go after a potential defendant who was just about to be married, he "felt very bad. I knew I was about to take a major step and I might ruin his life. It's not easy. I'm human and I felt bad."

Ironically, though, that statement only carries emotional weight because Stewart has seen fit to give a sensitive portrayal of the defendant, so that as a reader, one knows precisely how the man's life will be ruined. Contrary to Stewart's thesis, the real drama lies in the defendant's story.

Overtaken by Headlines

The second major failing of this book is that onrushing time and the vitality of today's headlines have overtaken it. Most of these cases are old news. A long chapter about an insider trading case of the 1970s and early 1980s, while it has its intrinsic interest, is inescapably news that has not stayed news, what with the recent R. Foster Winans case, and the immensely more important and far-reaching schemes involving Ivan Boesky, Dennis Levine, and their cohorts. The New York district attorney's prosecution of the "CBS Murders" case focuses on Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Waples, whose prominence this year came when he prosecuted Bernhard Goetz.

In a way, Stewart's last chapter falls victim to the same failing, but it is redeemed by prescient insights into the would-be "defendant" who is none other than Edwin Meese, now attorney general of the United States. With Meese enmeshed in Iranscam, severely criticized for his botched early investigation of the scandal, and simultaneously under a cloud with respect to the Wedtech affair, it seems anachronistic to focus on this investigation into his tangled finances and possible bribery and influence peddling a few years ago by special prosecutor Jacob Stein. After all, it resulted in no criminal indictment against him and was his ticket to assuming the post of attorney general. Stein, a lifelong defense lawyer who has returned to that calling, while interesting, is again old news--we've got Lawrence Walsh as a special prosecutor now.

But Stein and his team found a pattern in Meese's activities that rings eerily true today: ". . . an amazing sloppiness about his personal financial affairs, a casual disregard for what most regarded as serious and important disclosure laws to maintain the integrity of government, and a curious blindness to the way such dealings would look to those who weren't his friends and cronies."

They found three distinct Meese personalities: the financial and administrative bungler (there's the Meese who conducted the investigation that allowed Lt. Col. Oliver North to hold his shredding party); the right-wing ideologue; and the "country-club" Meese, charming and unflappable. That's the Meese who testified before the congressional committee investigating Iranscam, the one who can look the most personally embarrassing facts straight in the face and say it all looks pretty good to him.

The dilemmas and decisions that Stewart's prosecutors deal with here are often intellectually interesting; still, one keeps missing the drama that lies behind each defendant's tale.

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