Harvey Silverglate at the Harvard Book Store. (Click on photo for a larger image.)

Harvey Silverglate at the Harvard Book Store. (Click on photo for a larger image.)

Friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate packed the house at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge last night at an event for his new book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.”

The book is about what Silverglate describes as an increasing tendency by prosecutors to abuse their discretion by charging people with crimes they didn’t even know they’d committed. A noted civil-liberties lawyer, Silverglate described most of his clients as people “who committed the act but committed no crime.”

Since the mid-1980s, Silverglate said, the criminal-justice system has abandoned the ancient principle that there can’t be a crime without criminal intent. Referring to cases in which law enforcement has withheld important information, he said, “There’s something wrong with a system that knows there’s evidence of innocence and hides it.”

And he described prosecutors as “kidnappers and extortionists” for threatening targets with lengthy prison sentences and then demanding that they testify against others as the price of having those sentences reduced. Such testimony is notoriously unreliable, he said, quoting Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz (who wrote the preface) as saying that such witnesses are taught not just to “sing,” but also to “compose.”

Harvey and I go back many years at the Boston Phoenix, where I had the privilege of editing his column, and where we later collaborated on several articles. Harvey also was the inspiration behind the Phoenix’s annual Muzzle Awards, which I’ve been cranking out, with his help, for 12 years.

Last night the Phoenix newspapers’ executive editor, Peter Kadzis, and the Boston Phoenix’s editor, Lance Gould, were both on hand, as was Harvey’s wife, the photographer Elsa Dorfman, whose work has appeared in the Phoenix. “Three Felonies” was edited by Catherine Tumber, a former Phoenix editor who’s now working on a book about the significance of small cities.

Kadzis interviews Silverglate about “Three Felonies” in this week’s Phoenix. Kadzis writes:

At this curious moment in history, Silverglate’s book might not shock either the left or the right. For some time now, the two opposing wings of the American centrist polity have been alarmed by the predatory nature of our national government. For those in the middle of the political spectrum, however, Silverglate’s book should be a bracing wake-up call. Liberty and freedom are being compromised, one prosecution at a time.

Indeed, it’s Silverglate’s advocacy for such notorious bad guys as the financier Michael Milken and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen that takes “Three Felonies” out of the realm of political polemics and transforms it into an important book.