Having tried several capital murder cases in the 1970s and 1980s, I can share with you what a young lawyer feels when in court with his defendant and the judge first informs the man or woman of what the potential punishment can be for the charges if proven. When in some murder cases the judge mentions one of the potential punishments can be the death penalty; it takes a young lawyer all the strength he can muster not to faint or beg to let some other lawyer take this case. I have been there.
With that background, I started John Grisham’s newest book with more understanding than most readers. His latest, “The Guardians,” brings the reader face-to-face with this survival notion by a novice attorney to run away from such a case. The protagonist does just that. He nearly faints in court and proceeds to have a nervous breakdown. Thus relieved from a horrendous case, the lawyer eventually makes his recovery and decides to enter the ministry, as an Episcopal priest.
After attaining his collar, the lawyer starts to study the cases of wrongful convictions in the Deep South. He finally decides to return to the practice of law, but with a group called the Guardian Ministries. This group of lawyers and nonlawyers takes on death penalty convictions that appear to be based on wrongful convictions at the trial. The story follows the trial of a convict jailed for more than 20 years and still fighting for his freedom from such a wrongful conviction. More than that, there is a conspiracy to convict this man by the police chief, the prosecutor and a band of drug dealers.
I will not ruin the story for my readers, but I will say Grisham writes for a lawyer. He writes straight into my head. He superbly covers so many of the improprieties of our legal system. Judges are most often former prosecutors themselves with long-lasting prejudices against defendants in criminal cases. Our legal system provides far more funds for conviction than it does for fair trials. Cases, most often, pit long-time prosecutors facing brand new public defenders with minimal experience and few resources for helping their indigent clients.
After I finished the book and pondered my own experiences, I realized the judges I appeared in front of for serious felonies were almost all ex-prosecutors. I know these judges wanted to be fair, but they also probably thought they were being fair. But there were prejudices in some of them that were just there, ingrained in the man. In one county, after several felony trials and one-sided rulings, I took 25 changes of venue in my new cases from one particular judge. Yes, a former state’s attorney. If you can imagine, in some two dozen felony trials, one for capital murder, I never had a motion granted. Worse than that, I never even had one of my objections during any of those trials granted.
Yesterday, in one of the Florida newspapers I read on occasion, there was an article on death penalty cases and the shameful way those trials had taken place. In one case, a death penalty inmate was required to fight his own post-conviction appeal himself, as no lawyer was appointed for him. The conviction rate of minority defendants also is shocking, be it from lack of good defense or just prejudices. Race and wrongful convictions appear to go hand-in-hand.
Northwestern Law School, where I attended, has started a volunteer program through the university for appeals of wrongful convictions. The center is entitled the Bluhm Legal Clinic. This Center on Wrongful Convictions was launched in April of 1999, a time when wrongful convictions were viewed as anomalies. They were thought to be those rare exceptions to the well-tuned criminal legal system. In the past 20 years, we have learned quite the opposite is the case. Our prisons and death rows around the country are filled with innocent people doing time for a crime committed by another.
The National Registry of Exonerations was started in 2012 as a collector of data on wrongful convictions that were reversed throughout the United States. While their results are probably only a fraction of the wrongful convictions, they reported more than 2,000 such reversals around the country. While it would be hard to accept a conviction and imprisonment when one has done the crime, how deep the hurt must go when the person is innocent. Can you imagine being convicted and then sentenced to death for a crime you didn’t do?
As I finished the book, I saw there was an author’s note. It talked about how Grisham came up with this plot. It seems there is an inmate still languishing in a Texas prison for allegedly killing his wife. New evidence shows he was two hours away in a hotel at the time the crime was committed. The murder might well have been the act of a policeman who since has committed suicide. Yet basic “scientific testimony” by a prosecution witness tied a flashlight with blood spatter to the man. That theory has been debunked numerous times as junk science since then. The prisoner still is alive at 79 and has been incarcerated for more than 30 years. Unfortunately, the justice system is far more concerned with present cases and getting convictions rather than spending time on cold cases that might have been injustice.
One nice thing about a wrongful conviction for murder in Illinois is thanks to Gov. George Ryan’s moratorium on Illinois executions in January 2000 and his decision to commute all Illinois death sentences, the penalty for such an injustice is not death. Gov. Quinn abolished the death penalty totally in Illinois in 2011. However, many states have retained this ultimate punishment.
I would recommend the book. It won’t be made into a movie, as it is not a thriller but rather a story of intensive hard work for justice. Perhaps with my background in the law, he touched more nerves in me than might happen with others. But at least take a moment whether you read the book or not and think of being wrongfully convicted yourself. A most unsettling contemplation.