Book Review: The Court of Last Resort


The Court of Last Resort tells the story of how Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner established a team of experts who investigated cases of people sent to prison where evidence indicates justice wasn’t done and some of the cases where their investigations helped correct the injustice.

The story begins after Gardner helped to address the case of a wrongful conviction in California. He then formed his team of men who didn’t need either fame or money and the project began as a regular column in the magazine Argosy. 

The secret of the Court of Last Resort’s success was that while the column and the organization of experts were known as the Court of Last Resort, Gardner believed the real court was the average citizen. Through the articles in Argosy, pressure was brought to bare on politicians and parole boards to take a look at the case of individuals that society had forgotten.

The first 70% of the book is dedicated to examining the various cases the court took on, but it’s more than just a rehearsal of cases. Gardner goes into some detail on the challenges this group faced, ranging from the rather mundane (how to make this work in a magazine), to how and why they faced opposition and occasionally  support from local officials.

Gardner is a skilled writer and manages to keep a sensible tone, and a great ability to empathize with his subjects including those who weren’t fans of the Court of Last Resort, and see things from his perspective. He avoids broad-brush allegations of corruption or prejudice, only calling those out when the evidence warrants it. Otherwise to help the readers understand why things go wrong due to challenges faced by everyone from the cops on the beat to prosecutors and prison wardens. He eschewed turning human beings to caricatures.

The book then takes a turn. As Gardner has discussed different problems in criminal law, he turns to prescribing solutions for the last thirty percent of the book. To be fair, he remains honest, even-handed, and examines issues from a variety of perspectives. The problem for modern readers is that this portion of the book is a sixty-eight year-old public policy treatise.

Unless you’re an expert on the minutiae of modern criminal procedure, it can be hard to figure out which, if any, of Gardner’s proposals were ever implemented. Several, I knew for sure, haven’t been. If you think he makes a good case for a particular reform, you may think America made a mistake by not following his advice. While some of his ideas are interesting, I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a policy reform book, so I could probably have done without that section.

Still, the cases that are chronicled are pretty interesting and Gardner is an entertaining writer to read. It’s also fun to learn of the Perry Mason writer’s real passion for justice. Overall, this may be a book you’ll enjoy.if you found the Court of Last Resort TV interesting or you’re a fan of Gardner or of the history of real-life efforts to clear the wrongfully convicted.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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