Review: Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away with Murder by Gerry Spence

Police State: How America's Cops Get Away with Murder by Gerry Spence reveals the unnerving truth of our criminal justice system in this true crime account from the legendary “country lawyer.” (Available today!)

Very few books make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but Gerry Spence’s Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away with Murder is one of them. The title alone serves warning that there is no fence sitting to be done by this hard-hitting, no-nonsense lawyer. 

Spence, a graduate of the University of Wyoming Law School, is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame. He has never lost a criminal case as a prosecutor or defender. This remarkable man’s last loss in court came during a civil case in 1969. 

Amongst the many cases he has won, some notable victories include: a case on the behalf of the family of Karen Silkwood, who was one of the earliest whistleblowers in the corporate jungle, and a 1984 case on behalf of the Central Ice Cream Company of Chicago against the corporate juggernaut McDonald’s. It was during the latter trial when he asked jurors to “put honor back in a handshake” by returning a positive verdict on behalf of his client. They did and awarded his client $52 million. 

He makes his disdain and mistrust of those in “authority and power” crystal clear in this book. The forensic presentation of evidence from some of his most high-profile cases makes for mesmerizing reading, as he presents his case for the corrupting and decaying influence of power when unchecked, self-appointed, and self-regulating. If ever there was a case where you can actually judge a book by its cover, then this is it. 

What makes some of his examples of his past work even more impressive is that many of his clients were not people or groups who immediately garnered support or widespread public sympathy. Imelda Marcos and Lee Harvey Oswald are probably two of the best examples of this. He took part in a reconstruction of an imaginary trial for British television, where he defended Oswald against the charge of…well, you know. He pulls you straight into the fray with his writing, which clearly demonstrates a firm grasp of the law that is uniquely sophisticated. You actually feel as though you are in the courtroom with him.

When Day finally sat down, my turn came to speak to the jurors. I laid out a simple formula for fair play. 

“You noticed that I did not object once to Mr. Day’s opening statement. Why didn’t I object to objectionable things? I wanted you to hear what he had to say. I didn’t want to interrupt his train of thoughts. I didn’t want the judge interjecting in response to my objections. And I hope that he will give me the same-”

MR. DAY (Jumping to his feet and waving in the direction of the bench): “Objection, Your Honor!” Day said on the edge of a shout. (There was laughter from both jurors and the audience.) “We have a duty to object!”

JUDGE BORMAN: “I’ll sustain the objection…Please proceed, Mr Spence.”

Much of the book deals with cases in which the police or other authorities used lethal force. Gerry Spence is unflinching in his meticulous deconstruction of the different circumstances surrounding these cases, both in the courtroom and in the book. The detail he goes into is as honest as it is extreme—admittedly leaving me a bit puzzled at times. 

Some of his work seems as though he was flying by the seat of the pants, yet, he gets to the truth as he sees it and, most impressively, as he wants others to see it too. This element is also present in his writing. The physical description he gives of two police officers in one case is clearly an attempt to pay homage to Lombroso, who was the forerunner of the argument that people with certain physical characteristics were more prone to certain acts, criminal and otherwise, than others. I find this as uncomfortable as I do of his flattering and surreal approval of Imelda Marcos, whom he defended when she was charged with…just about everything. 

He strikes me as almost childlike in his approach, and there lies the strength of Gerry Spence—both as a lawyer and, more importantly, as a writer. As people attempt to pull the wool over his eyes, he methodically unpicks the wool, strand by strand, and forces you to look through to the other side and confront your own willingness to accept things as fact when presented by those deemed to be in authority, when really they couldn’t be further from the truth. The style of Gerry Spence’s writing reads very much like a thriller and is all the more gripping for that. 

He was of medium build and rough on the exterior, a man with deep lines in his face and a quick, straight way of speaking. He looked at me as he spoke as if to determine whether I exhibited the faintest signs of trustworthiness, and he walked with an uncertain gait.

I’d lit a fire in my study fireplace, and we pulled up comfortable chairs. I wanted him to describe his life in prison, how he’d been treated at Menard—facts about his damages. I wanted him to tell me how it was for an innocent human being to be penned up like an animal waiting to be slaughtered—for a crime he didn’t commit.

If you are looking to buy another book, I would recommend spending your hard-earned money on this riveting piece of work. You will not be disappointed. I shall leave the parting words for Mr. Spence:

Today a tiny handful of super-rich in a nation of 317 million souls can purchase the government. The eternal promise of a democracy has become little more than a cruel myth. So dear Americans, let us loosen up our back muscles, heretofore not accustomed to bowing, and get ready to bow, very long and very low, to our new God. It’s name, of course, is Big Money.


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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.

Read all Dirk Robertson’s posts for Criminal Element.


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