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Exploring Issues of Law and Justice 

SCJ's James Acker pens a collection of stories that reach to the essence of the criminal justice system. 

School of Criminal Justice Distinguished Teaching Professor James Acker. (Photo by Mark Schmidt) 

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 27, 2016) – Distinguished Teaching Professor James Acker has written a new book that sheds light on how the criminal justice system works — minus any legal jargon.

Lawlemmas: In Search of Principled Choices in Law, Justice, and Life, (Carolina Academic Press) is written with a clarity that makes it a useful tool in the college classroom.

“I hope that the book might be used in undergraduate classes in criminal justice, ethics/philosophy, legal studies, and related subjects,” said Acker, a leading U.S. scholar on death penalty law and the judicial uses of social science research. “I further hope that general audiences might find it of interest to read and discuss.”

A “lawlemma,” not found in the dictionary, represents a union of “law” and “lemma.” Lemma has a dual meaning: one (as in “dilemma”) is a premise or proposition used in structuring an argument; the other is a special leaf which surrounds the delicate flower of a grass plant.

The book of lively fictional essays features a college professor, Professor Jurus, and his students as they interact and encounter several vexing “lawlemmas,” both inside and outside of the classroom. Along the way, the volume introduces students to issues and principles at the heart of law and justice.

“Although all characters and events in the book are fictional, I will not deny drawing important insights and inspiration from more than three decades of interacting with UAlbany undergraduate and graduate students — as well as from my family, my pets, and my personal experiences,” said Acker, whose daughter Anna, a professional dancer and talented artist, created the illustrations for the book.

The collaboration, he said, was one of the “special rewards” in working on this book. “If another opportunity presents itself, I will do my best to talk her into reprising the partnership,” he added.

In one of the stories the reader learns that a man stomped a pet goldfish to death in front of its owner, a 7-year-old boy named Jeffy. The outburst occurred because the man was angry at Jeffy’s mother, his ex-girlfriend, for breaking up with him.

Is killing a goldfish a crime? Will Jeffy be called to testify and have to relive the trauma of watching the goldfish bowl splinter when hurled at the wall by his mother’s ex? Is killing a tiny goldfish just like fishing for sport? Or does it warrant the charge of aggravated cruelty? Will Jeffy’s mother lose her temper on the stand and possibly lose her credibility?

These very human questions engage the reader while Acker carefully introduces how the jury is selected, describes the tools of the prosecuting and defense attorneys, and makes readers feel as though they are sitting in the courtroom.

While the ideas for the book germinated over several years, it was within the last year that Acker sat down and wrote it.

“I write when time allows, more so in the summer than when classes are in session,” he said. “The academic schedule requires a considerable amount of juggling of responsibilities involving teaching, scholarship, and service — although frequently those responsibilities overlap and are mutually reinforcing and rewarding.

“Just ask Professor Jurus, the book’s main character,” said Acker.

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