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Great Trials IV Lecture Series

Winter 2014 Series

The Great Trials lecture series considers a collection of history-making trials across time and examines the social and political contexts in which they took place as well as their cultural consequences. The series takes the position that ‘law’ happens as much outside the courtroom as it does within it, and that each of these pivotal events stands as testament to the ways in which constructions of authority, law, and justice have informed cultural consciousness across centuries.

IPLAI is pleased to offer the lectures in this series for CLE credit through the Barreau du Québec.

Where: Westmount Library, 4574 Sherbrooke St. W.
When: All lectures will begin at 5:30pm

Registration fees: $60 for the series of 5 lectures, or $15 for individual lectures.
Registration at the door the day of each lecture may be possible, but places will be limited and we cannot guarantee that seats will be available. Cheques only, payable to McGill University. We will be unable to accept cash at the door.

Wednesday, 12 February: The Trial of the Police Officers Who Beat Rodney King

Richard K. Sherwin, Professor of Law, New York Law School
The Trial of the Police Officers Who Beat Rodney King

On March 2, 1991, George Holliday stepped out onto his terrace with his new video camera in hand. Little did he realize, when he switched it on, that the pictures he would capture would mark a critical moment in the screen life of law in the digital age. Holliday’s fortuitous filming captured a group of Los Angeles police officers furiously beating motorist Rodney King following a high speed chase on Interstate 210 in San Fernando Valley, California. These images would soon spread, via the news media, around the U.S. and the world. The officers’ subsequent acquittal on assault charges would spark one of the worst race riots in American history, leaving 53 people dead and $1 billion in damage. What did the jurors see and hear inside the courtroom that moved them so far out of alignment with large segments of the American public?

Wednesday, 26 February: The Trials of Nelson Mandela

Professor Monica Popescu, Department of English
The Trials of Nelson Mandela

After Nelson Mandela and other Rivonia trialists were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, the apartheid government was hoping to silence them and erase their memory from the minds of their fellow citizens. Under South Africa’s laws at the time, all imprisoned or banned people could not be quoted or have their pictures circulated. However, the effect was the opposite of what the government intended. In the following decades, while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, pictures of him at the time of the trial and his statement from the dock became globally recognized icons of the struggle against injustice in South Africa. In this lecture we will look at the Treason Trial (1956-1960), the Rivonia Trial (1963-1964) and their aftermath to meditate on which aspects were publicly remembered and which forgotten, and how they contributed to Nelson Mandela’s global image as the symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Wednesday, 12 March: The Trial of Orestes

Professor Lynn Kozak, Department of History and Classical Studies
The Trial of Orestes: Aeschylus' Eumenides and the evoution from blood vengeance to civic justice

Aeschylus’ Oresteia is our only extant Greek tragic trilogy, and with a production date of 458 BC, includes one of our earliest examples of courtroom drama. Over the course of the trilogy, the House of Atreus moves through a cycle of blood vengeance and murder that only comes to an end in the final play, the Eumenides, where a murder trial is finally convened. This evolution, from a system of vengeance to civic justice, reflects a real change in Ancient Greek law as the polis emerged as the principle organising institution of Greek culture. At the same time, the play's depiction of the Areopagos (the Athenian homicide court) in some part responds to the first half of the fifth century’s series of radical democratic reforms and the refinement of the role of the court. This lecture tracks the shift from blood-feud to legal justice through Greek literature and law--culminating in a discussion of the Oresteia--and asks what these two opposing systems can teach us about our own notions of justice in North America today.

Wednesday, 26 March: The Trial of Jocelyn Hotte

John H. Gomery, retired Justice of the Superior Court of Quebec
The Trial of Jocelyn Hotte

After a brief description of the often overlooked role of the Judge who presides at a criminal jury trial, the presenter will relate the circumstances leading up to the murder trial of Jocelyn Hotte, an R.C.M.P. officer who on June 23rd, 2001 killed his paramour after a dramatic car chase on the Metropolitan Boulevard in Montreal during which the victim's cries for help were recorded by the Montreal Police. The trial was preceded by a voir dire concerning the admissibility of the recording and of various witness's testimony, which raised certain legal issues. At trial the accused took the position that he could not be held guilty of murder because his mental state did not permit him to form the intention necessary to a finding of murder; this necessitated complicated instuctions to the jury in the face of conflicting testimony by medical experts; all this during intense media coverage, probably the most the presenter had until then experienced.

Wednesday, 9 April: The Trial of Percy Schmeiser

Professor Tina Piper, Department of Law
The Trial of Percy Schmeiser

In 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada found Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser liable for patent infringement for growing genetically modified canola that he said blew onto his farm. This ruling allowed the possibility that some life might be patentable and had huge implications for farmers across Canada. This lecture will consider how this trial has led to a grassroots farmer’s revolt, changed farming practices, upended patent law and affected the food we eat.

For more information, click on the lecture titles.

Previous Lecture Series
2013 Series: Private Lives, Public Law

Thursday, 10 January: Trial of Error


Prof. Gil Troy (History),
"Trial of Error": The Impeachment with no Conviction of Bill Clinton

This lecture will explore the extraordinary mess Bill Clinton stumbled into when he carried on an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The title reflects the American people's ultimate verdict - they thought the President was being unfairly tried for an error of judgment not a crime; while the subtitle captures the ugly partisanship - with little consistency or conviction - that shaped most politicians' reaction to the scandal.

Thursday, 24 January: Spies and Lies


Prof. Andrea Tone (History and Social Studies of Medicine),
Spies and Lies: Cold War Psychiatry, the CIA, and the Case Against Ewen Cameron

This talk revisits the political, legal, and medical controvery surrounding Ewen Cameron and the CIA-funded research/therapy he did on psychiatric patients at the Allan Memorial Hospital in the 1950s.  Drawing on newly available records, legal materials, and original oral histories, it seeks to augment our understanding of the controversy itself while shedding light on how what once was called "therapy" was reframed as an actionable and American assault on vulnerable Canadian patients. In addition, the talk will discuss the importance and challenges of navigating Quebec's new privacy laws, an issue that has implications for all scholars of Quebec.

Thursday, 7 February: Through Lizzie Borden’s Mirror


Prof. Shauna Van Praagh (Law),
Through Lizzie Borden’s Mirror: Reflections on Women and Law

“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks,
When the job was nicely done,
She gave her father forty-one!”

In late 19th century Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted for the murder of her parents. Over one hundred years later, we are invited to reflect on, and through, her story as we consider the shaping force of social norms and expectations. Real and fictional narratives - including the play “Blood Relations” by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock - intertwine in this discussion of the constraints and potential of law revealed by the experiences and perspectives of women. Lizzie Borden, actor and victim all in one, shows us
that we are both subject to, and creators of, law in our lives.

Thursday, 28 February: The Trial of Wall Street


 Prof. Peter Gibian (English),
The Trial of Wall Street

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” takes place not in a courtroom but in the office of a Wall Street law firm. This experimental tale doesn’t narrate a literal trial, then, but its overall effect is to put the Wall Street law office itself—an epitome of dominant mid-nineteenth-century American notions of law, economics, politics, and cultural authority—on trial. When Bartleby “occupies” the Wall Street law office, breaking down the literal and figurative walls that define the divisions in this stratified society, andbreaking up the work routine of legal practice byrefusing to copy the documents that reinforce the status quo of property relations, his small, vaguely Thoreauvian gestures of passive resistance threaten to undermine the foundations of the world of his boss, the lawyer who narrates this story. What begins as a minor dispute about conventional assumptions in contemporary law reverberates outward, leading the cautious, conformist, uncurious lawyer-narrator into a life crisis—a searing self-examination in which he begins to question the bases of his vision of spiritual, ethical, and legal judgment and
his own implication in the dynamics of the larger Wall Street world.

Thursday, 14 March: Almost Persons


 Prof. Wendy Adams (Law),  
Almost Persons: Life on Trial

Law’s most aspirational claim is the guarantee that every person is equal before law. The extent to which this claim remains forever out of reach is reflected in the very concept we consider essential for its success, that of legal personhood. We use legal personhood to decide whose life will count in law, thus acknowledging some claims will fail, else the category would not be required. Personhood does not instantiate a self-evident demarcation between persons and things. We have a history of using this concept to institutionalize relations of hierarchy and dominance. We no longer affirm property in humans as slaves, as we did in Dred Scott v. Sandford, but we should remember the conviction with which this case was decided. As we attend to more recent claims denying personhood for non-human animals, we are just as certain that law is on the right side of history. Our beliefs are sustained by the normative construction of human-animal relations in popular culture, where we demonstrate a persistent tendency to represent animals as willing allies in the achievement of human objectives. If we are to realize law’s aspirations for equality, we may need to question our ability to use personhood as a foundation for legal relations.

2012-2011 Series on Podcast

2012 Series

Prof. Mark Antaki (Law), The Trial of Louis XVI

Prof. Desmond Manderson (Law), The Trial of Billy Budd

Prof. Eugenio Bolongaro (Italian Studies), The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti

Prof. Carrie Rentschler (Art History and Communication Studies), The Trial of Winston Moseley

2011 Series

Prof. Paul Yachnin (English), The Trial of Shylock

Prof. Brian Lewis (History), The Trial of Oscar Wilde

Prof. Payam Akhavan (Law), The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic