The Last Trial by Scott Turow
Reviewed by Jules Mermelstein, Esq., author of Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue
Scott Turow, as fans of legal thrillers know, became the father of the modern legal thriller with the publication of Presumed Innocent in 1987. The premise of The Last Trial is that this will be the last trial for the defense attorney, Sandy Stern, introduced in Presumed Innocent.
Some readers might need some time to adjust at the beginning of this novel. Mr. Turow begins with a scene close to the end of the trial, then jumps back to the opening statement by the defense, and then refers back to the opening statement by the prosecution. For those who need that time, it will be time well-rewarded.
Although the plot revolves around the murder, fraud, and insider trading trial of a Nobel Prize winning doctor, what is most memorable in the book are the characters who readers get to know so well. More about them near the end of this review.
As Sandy Stern discovers more and more information, the reader’s imagination takes guesses as to who did what, as does Stern himself. In fact, readers do not find out what, if anything, the doctor is guilty of until well past the verdict. Although Stern makes a point in the trial about sometimes needing to accept that we will never know everything, readers need not worry. All questions remaining are answered before the novel ends.
Trial lawyers may be tempted to crib some of Stern’s closing argument. Indeed, it contains more praise for the jury system than this reviewer has seen elsewhere. In addition to that, there are many observations throughout the book readers might want to remember to use at appropriate times.
When musing about trying cases: “Winning is like sex -- the spirit inevitably craves the next occasion.”
Discussing guilty criminal defendants: “In the end, all guilty clients have one thing in common: At the moment of completing the crime, each was convinced against all reason they would not get caught.”
When discussing the government of the United States, keeping in mind this book was published this year: “Democracy and the rule of law are much more fragile than most Americans realize.”
On the philosophical basis of both law and economics: “The law is erected on many fictions and perhaps the falsest one of all is that humans, in the end, are rational. Without doubt, our life -- so far as we can tell -- is one of cause and effect. That is what science depends on. But our most intimate decisions are rarely based on the kinds of calculations of pluses and minuses Jeremy Bentham, or the free-market economists for that matter, have wanted to believe in. We are fundamentally emotional creatures. In the most consequential matters, we answer faithfully to the heart’s cry, not the law’s.”
Obviously there is much that cannot be divulged about the trial without giving away plot points. However, the beginning of the cross-examination of the pathologist is so brilliant, and does not give away plot points, that it has to be shared here:
“Now you are not trained as an allergist, Dr. Rogers, are you?”
“Well, if any of the next questions are beyond your competence, Dr. Rogers, please say so.”
The cast of characters Mr. Turow allows us to know so well, include Stern’s daughter, who he is partners with, Stern’s quirky but sharp granddaughter, the dedicated US Attorney, the Assistant US Attorney who always thinks he’s the smartest person in the room, a smart and fair judge, a reporter struggling to keep sources secret, a federal bureaucrat, the many women in the defendant’s life, and descriptions of Stern’s two wives who both left him a widower.
If you enjoy legal thrillers, you will love this latest book by the master, Scott Turow.
Book Review: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, © 2014, Bryan Stevenson, Spiegel & Grau, NY. Edition reviewed: Kindle $11.99 ISBN 978-0-8129-9453-7
NOTE: Since a movie based on this book is coming out (December 25th in “select theaters” and January 10th “everywhere”), I thought this is an appropriate time to post this review.
“Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”
That Reinhold Niebuhr quote is how Just Mercy begins.
The book is a memoir of Bryan Stevenson’s fight for justice in the criminal justice system on behalf of those unable to fight, or finance a fight, for themselves.
Mr. Stevenson relates that he was a philosophy major in college when, as a senior, it occurred to him that nobody was going to pay him to philosophize. He looked into graduate schools and decided on law school “mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn’t require you to know anything.” As a result, Mr. Stevenson attended Harvard Law School while dual majoring in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. Both degrees are evident in this memoir.
In his introduction, Mr. Stevenson explains that the book “is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.”
Among the most vulnerable that Mr. Stevenson discusses in this book are the poor, the juveniles sentenced either to death or life without parole, and blacks on death row because of bigotry. Sometimes the cases he talks about involved a defendant that fell into all three categories.
He uses one particular case, of an obviously innocent black man in Alabama sent to death row largely because of an extra-marital affair with a married white woman, to carry us through the book. Each chapter deals with either his work in trying to get this defendant freed or another issue that is a problem in the criminal justice system.
As those of you involved in criminal practice know, juveniles may no longer be sentenced to death or to life without parole (or as Stevenson states, “to die in prison”). What you may not know is that the two cases which prohibited life without parole for juveniles (one for non-homicides, and the next for homicides) were handled by Mr. Stevenson.
I found this memoir to be a fascinating exploration into the underbelly of the criminal justice system. I was able to relate because I once, during the last century, handled a post-verdict motion for a client in which I argued that, although the defendant did a lousy job representing himself, the Commonwealth had not presented enough evidence for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. To which a Montgomery County judge replied in open court, “the fact that your client is black makes it worse.” (Yes, I took the case on appeal pro bono, had the conviction reversed and then the charges dismissed when remanded.)
Mr. Stevenson also tackles the issue of over-incarceration in this country due to economic interests.
Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting ‘prison-industrial complex’ - the business interests that capitalize on prison construction - made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything - health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison.
Of course, we in Pennsylvania know the corruption that can occur. We are all familiar with the two juvenile court judges who were bribed by a private prison to send juveniles there rather than normal probation for offenses such as mocking a school principal, trespassing in a vacant building and shoplifting DVDs.
Anyone interested in criminal justice in this country, and in particular anyone practicing criminal law, will find this memoir hard to put down. I highly recommend it.
Bryan Stevenson, and people like him, deserve our thanks for making the criminal justice system a little less criminal and a little more just.
“A lawyer like me is forced to work in the shadows. My opponents are protected by badges, uniforms, and all the myriad trappings of government power. They are sworn and duty-bound to uphold the law, but since they cheat like hell it forces me to cheat even more.”
These three sentences, spoken by the title character himself, are the best description of Sebastian Rudd, our hero. Mr. Rudd manages to alienate the police, most judges, people in organized crime, his ex-wife, and many in the public who do not like the cases he takes and are not as committed to the idea that everyone deserves a zealous defense.
In Sebastian Rudd, I believe John Grisham has created a character that is the beginning of a series of novels, much like Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer did. In fact, Sebastian Rudd is also a mobile lawyer, although instead of a Lincoln, Rudd rides around in a modified van with an office set up inside. Unlike Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer, Rudd chose a mobile office due to the fact that his brick and mortar office was firebombed. Nobody has been arrested for that crime and, although he is not sure which of the many groups and people he has offended did that, Rudd is fairly convinced that it was the police.
This novel is divided into six parts. The first two parts are self-contained stories, one being about a defendant in a capital murder case in a small town, in which the prosecution witnesses are lying and the prosecutors and judge know it. Rudd uses, some would say questionable and others would say illegal, tactics in an attempt to prove that someone else is guilty.
The second part is about someone already convicted of a capital crime and deals with very interesting events leading up to the convict’s scheduled execution.
The third through the sixth parts are really the thrust of the novel. The third part deals with all the Homeland Security armed battle equipment that many police departments have acquired, and the questionable use that some have put that equipment to, including innocent victims of that use. It is during this part that Grisham touches on restrictions on debate since 9/11.
“Sadly, dissent nowadays is considered unpatriotic, and in our post-9/11 atmosphere any criticism of those in uniform, any uniform, is stifled. Being labeled soft on crime or soft on terror is a politician’s curse.”
It is also during part three that Grisham touches on the laws that protect police when using the battle equipment by reporting a question, and Rudd’s answer, from one of Rudd’s clients:
“. . .’But how can a cop kick in my door and shoot me with immunity, but if I return fire I’m a criminal looking at twenty years?’ The simple answer is because they are cops. The complicated answer is that our lawmakers often pass laws that are not fair.”
One paragraph later, Grisham, through his character Rudd, offers an opinion:
“The road to justice is filled with barriers and land mines, most of them created by men and women who claim to be seeking justice.”
Part four begins with a nod to James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly as authors the main character likes to read during his rare down times. This part deals with a kidnapping of an assistant police chief’s daughter. The main police suspect stops interrogation to ask for his attorney claiming it is our Sebastian Rudd. Rudd has never heard of him and, during a series of events, first agrees and then does not agree to represent him. In dealings with this suspect, the main issue is legal ethics - when can, and should, an attorney reveal information about someone who, at one time, thought he was Rudd’s client.
In part five we have drama involving Rudd’s family and the police. Again, this part continues to bring up the legal ethics touched on in part four.
Part six deals with a client who is obviously guilty and won’t listen to Rudd’s advice, even though the two have a prior profitable business relationship.
Throughout the novel, we see many of Rudd’s quirks, such as his affection for mixed martial arts cage fighting, along with betting on same, and investing in fighters.
Published in October of 2015, this novel is extremely readable and enjoyable. It is written in the first person as if it were conversational. There are many times when what is going to happen is not obvious, something I appreciate in a novel. I highly recommend this book, especially to lawyers, and I look forward to reading more novels about the quirky, interesting, Sebastian Rudd.
Book Review: Every Fifteen Minutes by Lisa Scottoline, © 2015, Smart Blonde, LLC, St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY. Edition reviewed: Kindle $8.99
“I’m a sociopath.”
No, not me. That’s how Lisa Scottoline opens her new novel, Every Fifteen Minutes. I chose to review Ms. Scottoline’s latest novel because she is a lawyer who lives in the Philadelphia area. Oh, and also because she is a best-selling novelist who writes legal thrillers.
This book is an excellent choice for legal pleasure reading. It touches on criminal law (dear to my heart), family law, law concerning psychiatrists and their patients, human resources law, FDA law (and how hospitals decide on new drugs), and doctor-patient confidentiality in Pennsylvania.
This book is not only set in Pennsylvania, it is set in the Philadelphia metropolitan area with scenes in Chester County, Delaware County and an explosive scene at King of Prussia Mall in our own Montgomery County.
The first chapter, written by an unnamed sociopath, grabs the reader’s attention immediately. We learn that this person enjoys being a sociopath. He or she gives us statistics, including that one out of 24 people (a little more than 4% for the mathematically challenged) are sociopaths. There are several other chapters written by the sociopath as the reader attempts to figure out which of the myriad, multi-dimensional characters created by Ms. Scottoline is the sociopath.
The sociopath tries to school us on the first page:
“People think evil exists in the form of terrorists, murderers, and ruthless dictators, but not in ‘normal’ people like me. They don’t realize that evil lives on their street. Works in the cubicle next to them. Chats with them in the checkout line at CVS. Reads a paperback on the train next to them. Runs on a treadmill at their gym. Or marries their daughter. We’re here, and we prey on you. We target you. We groom you.”
My favorite character in this book is not the main character, but a criminal defense attorney (what a surprise!). Those of us who practice or have practiced criminal defense will recognize the following type of conversation, conducted with humor. I have eliminated the character’s name talking to the lawyer as well as the victim’s name as I think that is somewhat of a spoiler. I also changed pronouns to plural to hide the sex. Paul is the lawyer. (page 242)
“[suspect] blinked. ‘ I do have questions, but don’t you want to ask me whether I murdered [victim]?’
‘Why would I do that?’ Paul looked at [them] like [they] was crazy . . ..
‘It’s a logical question.’
‘Not for me, I’m a criminal lawyer.’
[suspect] hoped he was kidding. ‘Well, I didn’t do it. I had nothing to do with [their] murder.’
‘Thank God. I only represent innocent clients.’
‘Are you serious?’
. . ..
‘Okay, I never ask my clients if they did it. Why? It’s legally insignificant. I’m not a dirtbag. I’m a purist. I represent the Constitution, it’s the purest law we have, not bought and paid for, like now. Our forefathers were geniuses, not thieves. Lofty enough for you? The Constitution guarantees your rights, but cops and prosecutors cross that line all the time. My job is to push ‘em back, shove ‘em back, wa-a-a-ay back!”
On page 243, Paul gives a great explanation to someone without experience in the criminal justice system about what they are about to encounter as a defendant: “The Commonwealth has all the aces, and you don’t even know you’re playing cards.”
On page 324, Paul revisits his lofty explanation of criminal defense and the Constitution.
“‘Like I told you in the beginning, I represent the Constitution, and the procedure in the Constitution is there to protect everybody’s rights to its substance, that is, our individual freedoms -- the right to live free, the right to pursue happiness, the right to free speech, the right to religion, and the right to be free of oppressive government. Follow?’
‘For example, we don’t want government to search our homes whenever they want, so we place restrictions on the procedure -- the search warrant has to be specific, limited, has to itemize what they want, has to be served at a certain time, has to meet a bunch of requirements. They’re all so-called technicalities, but they protect the right to live your life, in your home, the way you want. That’s a freedom that our forefathers protected for us. That’s the beauty of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Capisce?’
I spotted some errors. The only legal error I found was on page 298. The lawyer and his client are being interviewed by the police. During the conversation, the defense attorney says to the police, “Without waiving my attorney-client privilege . . ..” As we all know, the privilege belongs to the client, not the attorney.
All in all, I highly recommend this book. There are twists and turns. Some you will be able to see coming but many will be a surprise.