DUMMY by Ernest Tidyman


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An account of the arrest, imprisonment, and ""hospitalization"" of a young Chicago black who is ""deaf, mute, illiterate, probably ineducable now, possibly psychotic and perhaps brain-damaged by disease and accident in childhood,"" by the author of Shaft. When Donald Lang is arrested on circumstantial evidence for murdering a streetwalker, he reenacts the crime by making stabbing motions with his penknife. But attorney Lowell Myers -- also deaf -- contends that Lang was not confessing to the crime, but rather offering an eyewitness report. Since Lang knows no language -- words, lips, or signs -- there is no way to validate either interpretation; and it is clear that he cannot understand courtroom proceedings. This presents a legal problem: if he cannot stand trial, he will be remanded to the custody of an institution until he is judged fit to do so -- meaning, Myers is convinced, for his remaining years, since Lang can never learn a language. But Lang has managed to support himself in construction work and other manual jobs for some time (indeed, he is a superior worker); is it just to institutionalize him? The lower courts think so, but an appeal to the state supreme court permits Myers to waive Lang's rights to a competency hearing, and he prepares to defend his client against the charges. The case is dropped when the state cannot procure its witnesses. But then another death occurs, again with a Lang ""confession"" and circumstantial evidence. Tidyman's report of the trial is concise and thorough. His investigation of Lang's condition is buttressed by documents from hospitals, court-appointed specialists, and private practitioners. He presents Lang as the victim of a callous, inflexible system of justice, but admits that the state has a vigorous case. It is a superior documentary of a unique situation.

Pub Date: March 4th, 1974
Publisher: Little, Brown