The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law

Criminal LawWhy do I need an illustrated guide to criminal law, you ask? Because, as Burney states repeatedly, ignorance of the law is not a valid defense. But not to worry – Burney has created a guide to help you understand the law. Burney, a practicing lawyer, started a Tumblr, which he began in an attempt to explain the basics of criminal law to the average person. He doesn’t cite case law, but instead makes up clear examples to illustrate each of his points. This book grew out of that site.

The book is laid out clearly, building from a simple definition of “What is a Crime” and the “Purposes of Punishment” through defining Guilt (i.e. who’s responsible for a crime) and Defenses. In each section illustrations help break down each term, from least guilty to most and from most defensible to least. While the illustrations are incredibly helpful to understanding distinctions in the law, it can be a little depressing to read about all the ways a parent can kill his child and how culpable each act makes him. My favorite fact I learned was that you cannot use The Chutzpah Defense. What is that, you ask? Burney defines it as “unmitigated gall.” The classic example is asking for mercy from the court because you are an orphan when you are the one who killed your parents in the first place.

Despite Burney’s best efforts at simplicity and clarity, reading this book as a whole is a lot of information to take in at once. The law is dense. But the book is so well written that I can easily see it being used as a textbook in a high school senior-level intro to law class. Burney does all the illustrations as well. I’m not sure where he got art training. I suspect he has just taken his talent for doodling and run with it to great success. His art is clear and well articulated.

At the end of the book he gets a bit wordy, with a lot of text and few illustrations. Rather than discussing specific points in the law, Burney takes the opportunity to give a broader view of what makes a successful law and why that has been changing. He stresses that laws should be designed to take a person’s state of mind into consideration: that is, what you are thinking when you act matters as much as the act itself. He also injects his own opinion into this section, eloquently stating that the law is getting bloated and filled with no fault laws – laws where your state of mind or intention have no bearing, you’re just automatically guilty. He argues that these kinds of laws breed a sense of distrust and unfairness in the law that undermines the point of having laws. Laws work when people trust that the punishment will fit the crime and that evildoers will be punished. When that connection between the act and the punishment is broken, people no longer put their faith in the legal system.

The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law
by Nathaniel Burney
ISBN: 978-159839183
Jones McClure Publishing, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: (teen to adult)