A novel-like history behind the Magna Carta is a "must-read" for lawyers

Issue June 2010 By Frank J. Riccio

The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold
by Geoffrey Robertson
Pantheon, 2006, 448 pages

"To compel a person to testify against himself is a crime against nature!" Words that we all take for granted in the 21st century was radical thinking in the 17th century. The Star Chamber was the means to secure confessions, convictions and death by execution.

These were strong words from an obscure lawyer named John Cooke, who, as solicitor general, made history in 1649 by prosecuting England's King Charles I. As we all know, Charles I was ultimately convicted and beheaded. In 1660, Cooke and the other regicides, as they came to be called, were convicted, drawn and quartered and executed for their roles in prosecuting the king.

The Tyrannicide Brief is a well-written book that reads like a novel. Cooke had the daunting and dangerous task of doing what was unprecedented, at the time, which was to bring charges against the king, who was a tyrant. Although Magna Carta gave the defendant the right to a trial, before his peers, the king had no peer. Therefore, he was immune from prosecution! Simply stated: The king can do no wrong!

The book masterfully details the trial, the events leading up to the trial, and the execution of Charles I. It also discusses the moral underpinnings of Cooke's advocacy for the rights of ordinary citizens. A staunch Puritan, Cooke was opposed to the Star Chamber and self incrimination. Although not called that at the time, and way ahead of his time, he advocated in legal tracts and pamphlets for what was essentially a Bill of Rights.

Loaded with irony, the book details the trial of Cooke, who was condemned as a regicide by Charles II; He was convicted by the same laws that led to the conviction of Charles I and was ultimately drawn and quartered, and executed in a most barbaric manner.

Robertson masterfully segues into modern applications of Cooke's contributions to present day law using the trials of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic as examples.

The Tyrannicide Brief is a must-read for any lawyer interested in understanding the historical underpinnings of what we do on a daily basis. I guarantee that you will not put this book down!

Frank J. Riccio practices at the Law Offices of Frank J. Riccio PC in Braintree.