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October 4-10, 2006

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'The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold'

The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold
(By Geoffrey Robertson; 429 pages; $30 cloth)

Trying a tyrant isn't easy—just witness the bloody farce of Saddam Hussein's trial, with judges, lawyers and their relatives subject to random street executions. Imagine then how difficult it must have been for a modest Englishman named John Cooke, who delivered the legal brief against King Charles I, in 1649, leading to his beheading—the first legal deposing of a monarch. Cooke's bravery has been obscured, mostly because after the restoration of the king's son, Charles II, the brief interregnum of Oliver Cromwell got a bad rep for its Puritanical morals. In the backwash, royalist historians tended to ignore the important legal principles that drove the regicides. As Geoffrey Robertson, a human-rights lawyer, writes, "Cooke's case against the king was the first modern legal argument against tyranny." Robertson goes a long way toward resurrecting Cooke's reputation, describing the careful, deliberate process by which Cooke argued that even the king must govern "by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise." Cooke exhibited extraordinary bravery in extraordinary circumstances; in a signal moment at the beginning of the trial, Charles I prodded "the low-bred lawyer" with his cane, losing the silver tip. Imperiously, the monarch waited for Cooke to retrieve the tip for him. Instead, "the barrister did not blink, much less stoop," but continued to charge the king with high treason. In this instant, for the first time, the people had asserted that even the king is "powerless before the majesty of human law." Robertson also provides ample proof that Cooke deserves a prominent place in legal history: he argued against throwing debtors into jail; he identified poverty as the root cause of crime and proposed a legal-aid system for the poor; and he lobbied for reform of the legal profession. For all his troubles, Cooke took the brunt of Charles II's revenge, in 1660, when the luckless lawyer was condemned at a show trial and sentenced to a horrifying death by disembowelment and beheading. Robertson's book is both engrossing history and a caution to modern rulers. As he writes in the Epilogue, Cooke's legacy includes the notion that a ruler's "sovereign immunity would be lost if the sovereign bore command responsibility for a particularly heinous class of offence ... such as genocide or widespread torture, or plundering innocent civilians." Maybe the U.S. Senate should ponder this point before giving the president yet more power to define torture on his own terms.

Review by Michael S. Gant


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