Cover image for The tilted playing field : is criminal justice unfair?
The tilted playing field : is criminal justice unfair?
Uviller, H. Richard.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
ix, 314 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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HV9950 .U85 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Although evenly matched adversaries make for a more exciting athletic contest, and a level playing field is essential to a fair game, is the same true in a criminal trial? In this compelling new book, H. Richard Uviller argues that a criminal trial is not analogous to a sporting event. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are, in critical respects, different from each other, and the allocation of advantages to each must be uneven in order to be fair.

In a lively exploration of the powers of the prosecutor and the prerogatives of the defense, Uviller asks where our criminal justice system is fair though unequal and where its inequalities may subvert fair results. On the one hand, he points out, the prosecutor has unmatched and virtually unreviewable discretion to choose the target of a prosecution, the charge, and to a large extent the timing of an indictment. The prosecution also is first on the scene to develop evidence and is entitled to compel the production of evidence from reluctant custodians. The lawyer for the defendant, on the other hand, enjoys virtually unrestricted license to argue contrary to his or her own sincere belief, as well as broad powers to discover evidence from the prosecutor's file. Are these unequal advantages necessary? Are they fair? Uviller concludes that although the overall criminal justice system reflects a fair distribution of advantages and disadvantages, in certain areas the imbalance is so severe as to undermine justice. He offers realistic, carefully considered recommendations for reform in these problem areas.

Author Notes

H. Richard Uviller is Arthur Levitt Professor of Law, Columbia University School of Law. During his 45-year career in law, he has served as an attorney, a prosecutor for fourteen years in the office of the legendary Frank S. Hogan, and a criminal justice teacher.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Uviller (law, Columbia; Virtual Justice, Yale Univ., 1996) ambitiously and studiously examines the criminal law concept of "fundamental fairness." He posits that such fairness may be achieved by tipping the scales in favor of a particular party during the course of a criminal trial. Accordingly, "fundamental fairness" does not necessarily mean that both parties should be treated alike. Uviller grounds his hypothesis in thorough examinations of trial procedure, including prosecutorial discretion, access to evidence, burdens and presumptions, appellate procedure, and jury constraints. His analysis, based on a 45-year career in law, is abstract and highly theoretical; it does not rest on case studies or detailed research. This approach allows Uviller the comfort of drawing academic distinctions far from the fray of daily practice. Not surprisingly, his conclusions are moderate, limited to some tinkering around the procedural edges of the judicial system. A heady, philosophical work most easily approached by legal scholars. Academic law libraries should consider it.‘Steven Anderson, Gordon Feinblatt Rothman Hoffberger & Hollander, Baltimore (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Uviller (Columbia Univ.) has taught law for several decades and had an earlier career as a prosecutor. In this work he evaluates the relative advantages and disadvantages of the prosecution and the defense in the American adversarial criminal justice system. He works his way through different stages of the justice process, addressing many issues (e.g., discovery; the exclusionary rule) that arise along the way. He offers suggestions for reform, most of which are quite reasonable, but a few of which are deliberately provocative. The book is written in a somewhat informal, breezy style, drawing on some of the author's experiences. Although various court decisions are mentioned in passing, along with a few books and articles, this work is wholly devoid of a list of references or full citations. Accordingly, its usefulness for scholars and students is compromised. And it is too focused on technical details of the process to have much appeal for general readers. Altogether, this assessment of a "tolerably fair," if flawed, criminal justice system might have better taken the form of an essay. D. O. Friedrichs University of Scranton