OUR STATUTES OF LIBERTIES Kennedy, Alderman book illustrate the Bill of Rights


Under the normal order of the universe, the orbits of these two women probably never would have crossed as they did one day in November 1989 in a visiting room of the Baltimore City Jail.

One was Caroline Kennedy, a living, lovely reminder of what once was Camelot, America's princess-child grown up into an intelligent and graceful woman befitting her Ivy League education and Upper East Side Manhattan upbringing.

And the other was Jackie Bouknight, perhaps just as inevitably a product of her own background: Abandoned by her mother at 4 and funneled through at least six sometimes abusive and neglectful foster families, she herself is now suspected of abusing and perhaps even killing her son.

Their meeting came about as part of the research for a recently published book on the Bill of Rights by Ms. Kennedy and Ellen Alderman, both 33 and friends since their days at Columbia University Law School.

"In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action" puts a human face on each of the 10 constitutional amendments that make up this uniquely American document -- a face that may belong to a Ku Klux Klansman, a death row murderer or some of the other disparate souls claiming constitutional protections.

"Some of our most important liberties," said Ms. Alderman, paraphrasing a former Supreme Court justice, "have been forged protecting not so nice people."

"We thought it would be really interesting to show the range of things protected by something that was written 200 years ago," Ms. Kennedy said in a recent interview in Washington, where she and Ms. Alderman were promoting the book. "Both of us thought how interesting these cases were. They were about people; they weren't these dry legal issues."

It's somewhat startling and not a little unreal to see Ms. Kennedy now, this slim, fawn-haired and soft-eyed mother of two, when it seems like only yesterday she was that tow-headed youngster stopped in time by photographs as she romped in the Oval Office or ran across the White House lawn to greet her father, the president.

You think you know her, that you grew up with her even, but of course you don't and you didn't. A certain reserve, no doubt developed over a lifetime of shielding herself from strangers who would paw through her every action, reminds you in unspoken yet not unfriendly terms that she isn't public property.

The fact that she was more famous than anyone she and Ms. Alderman interviewed during their travels -- which took them to such unlikely places as Arizona's death row and Indian country in Northern California -- turned out to be inescapable, but not really a problem.

"People were very welcoming. Many were very nice, or said things about my father or my family. That means a lot to me," Ms. Kennedy said. "But after that . . . they were just interested in telling their story. People in prison, they have a lot to say, and a lot of times they feel they can't get their story told."

Baltimore public defender Jose Anderson, interviewed by Ms. Kennedy because of his role in Ms. Bouknight's defense, says, "Her father was one of my heroes. So to that extent, it was special to me. She was very nice. She seemed very deliberate and very focused on the job she was doing. She and [Ms. Alderman] worked very well together. They made us feel very comfortable."

The two authors do seem to have a simpatico partnership, the dark-haired, more open Alderman balancing out her reserved andbusiness-like friend. Ms. Alderman is an entertainment attorney with a firm in New York, and Ms. Kennedy, currently not practicing law, lives there as well with her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and two daughters, Rose, 2, and Tatiana, 10 months.

"We really became even better friends by doing this," Ms. Kennedy said.

"I thought either we'd end up liking each other a lot, or hating each other's guts," Ms. Alderman said with a laugh.

"Some lawyer said you better have a contract before you start," ** Ms. Kennedy added.

If the book deepened their friendship, their book promotion tour through New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago should cement it forever. They seem like girls in a dormitory rather than authors in a suite at Washington's Ritz-Carlton, where, after a hasty lunch of room-service salads, they're rushing about for the last of several days worth of interviews. They slip shoes back on, get drinks for everyone, offer to share their dessert of a Toblerone candy bar and wonder whether to put on their jackets for photographs.

Told it's up to her, Ms. Alderman pleads wryly, "Someone tell me what to do; I've lost all free will."

Several Baltimore lawyers interviewed by the authors for the chapter on Ms. Bouknight praised the book for its even-handed handling of the heated case.

"I thought it was a fair representation. I think each side was well-represented -- there were obviously no easy answers," said George Burns, apublic defender who argued Ms. Bouknight's case before the Supreme Court. "I thought they had well prepared themselves. They had the background, and they had primarily legal questions about the case."

Ms. Bouknight, 24, remains jailed today after the Supreme Court decided she had no constitutional right to refuse to produce the son she is suspected of abusing. She had pleaded the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination.

The boy, Maurice, would be 4 1/2 years old now if he's still alive, which officials doubt. He has not been seen since September 1987, eight months after he was hospitalized for the second time.

"The Fifth Amendment -- taking the Fifth -- is certainly one of the most unpopular amendments in the Bill of Rights," Ms. Kennedy said. "[Ms. Bouknight] was a good example of that. Everyone is sympathetic to the child, but she herself is a victim, too."

Ms. Kennedy photographed Ms. Bouknight, as well as other subjects, for the book and later sent and autographed copies of the photographs to the inmate.

"She treated Jackie [Bouknight] really well. She was very gentle with her. They were both very sensitive to her," Ms. Bouknight's attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, said.

Ms. Bouknight's case is just one of the many compelling and no-easy-answers cases that the authors investigated.

Only one person refused to talk to them -- a convicted child molester who was freed because his young victims testified against him from behind a screen to protect them from having to look at him. The man, John Avery Coy, had argued that this violated his Sixth Amendment right to be confronted by witnesses against him, and the Supreme Court ultimately reversed his conviction.

jTC The two lawyers most enjoyed researching a First Amendment freedom of religion case, in which an Indian tribe was trying to protect sacred lands from construction of a public road. Although the Supreme Court ruled against the Indians, Congress last year passed legislation that would protect the land for environmental rather than religious reasons.

"We went up to the high country of northern California with the Yurok tribal leader who was fighting to save sacred lands," Ms. Kennedy said. "It reminded us of how many cultures make up this country."

"That was beautiful," Ms. Alderman said. "We got to hike around. We're city girls, we live in Manhattan, but they said, 'Look at those city girls, those city girls can go.' "

They purposely refrained in the book from giving their own opinions on the specific cases they wrote about. Yet they are obvious fans of the Bill of Rights as a whole.

"People think the Bill of Rights just protects criminals," Ms. Kennedy said. "But it protects all of us. It protects you when you pick up the paper and read it, when you go home and close your door, when you go to church, when you watch what you want on TV or your VCR. Because we are so free, we take it for granted."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad