I’ve a confession to make: I’ve not stepped into a courtroom since sometime in early March of this year, and I haven’t missed it one bit.
This is a confession because I am a trial- and appellate-lawyer. I make my living, or at least I used to make my living, arguing about other people’s troubles. Then the pandemic struck. The courts are effectively closed, saved for a narrow class of emergencies. There will be no trials for the foreseeable future. There will be no juries. There might not even be the chance to stand toe-to-toe with a witness in the well of the court and to engage in cross-examination. This sad state of affairs will exist, I predict, for the better part of another year.
Ouch, I say.
I used to tell myself I loved that court stuff.
Maybe I still do. But I’ve gotten used to the slower pace, and I’ve stopped seeing the potential for conflict in every ambiguity.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed Scott Turow’s latest novel, The Last Trial.
I don’t read a lot of legal fiction or thrillers involving crime or the law. The reason is simple. I get my fill of drama and conflict in my day job.
Actually, that’s not true.
The real reason I don’t read a lot of this sort of thing is that most of it is so poorly done. Plot drives John Grisham, but he sacrifices complexity of character and resorts too much to the wildly implausible to resolve narrative difficulties. Michael Connelly is far more satisfying. His protagonist, Mickey Haller, is a recognizable lawyer living at wit’s end. But things always seem to end well for Haller. Life isn’t like that. Sometimes things just hurt.
Turow writes with elegance about flawed human beings – litigants, lawyers, judges – trapped in legal proceedings that strive, while often failing, to produce justice. Sandy Stern, a criminal defense lawyer whom readers know from earlier Turow works, is now 85 and suffering from ill health. His last trial involves allegations against an old friend, a Nobel Prize winning physician. The charges? Insider trading, fraud, murder – all arising from the effort to bring to market a wonder drug for the treatment of cancer.
This is not a book for casual readers. Indeed, I noticed a critical review on Amazon with a headline that reads: “Plodding trial story that will only enthrall lawyers.” I confess to being enthralled.
Turow is, simply put, the only author of fiction whom I have ever read who writes about a trial as though he has actually tried a case himself. He deftly explains why a line of questioning might be risky. He portrays the delicate dance an aggressive lawyer engages in pressing his client’s cause while exploring just how far a judge will, and will not, permit him to go. His account of what takes place in a judge’s chambers during a trial is flawless. We tell ourselves that juries decide the truth, but, oh, what elaborate games, what forms of deceit, we tolerate in the name of justice to make sure that jurors rarely, if ever, learn the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Trial is an elaborate performance, a confluence of complex laws of procedure, the law of evidence, the substantive law defining the offense, all anchored if grand constitutional doctrine. Yes, it’s a learned enterprise, but it also depends on the ordinary cunning that comes of learning to make the most of every question, every nuance, every sidelong glance in the closely observed theater of a courtroom. Jurors labor mightily to get the right result. What they decide is the best outcome based on what they are told. Often they are told far less than the whole truth.
And so it is for Sandy Stern in his last trial, his last hurrah after 60 years in Kindle County courtrooms. I was in thrall reading his closing argument, making notes about turns of phrase I might try using in the event the courtrooms of this country ever open again. “Are you sure” the defendant is guilty? Aren’t there reasons to doubt in the evidence? This is good stuff, written by someone who has, as the saying goes, “been there and done that.”
The plot is complex. The human heart deceives. Half-truths are made to bear the full weight of trial, and, in the end, the form of justice done isn’t what the judge or jury thought it was. Sandy Stern’s last trial confirms a truism known to old lawyers: Verdicts are but one chapter in a far longer story, a story that may never get told in a courtroom.
Is this end for sandy Stern, and, for that matter, Scott Turow? Turow’s written eleven books set in Kindle County. He is now 71. I suspect he now spends more time looking back on a long life than looking forward to uncompleted projects.
But he writes with such grace, with such command of the quiet emotions that drive our noisy conflicts, that I hope he will once more return to a fictive court to tell us what he has seen, and what he sees. I read Turow much like I read, and re-read Homer’s Odysessy: I want to see what the man of many wiles, the cunning hero, does with the ordinary stuff of life.
Bring back Sandy Stern, I say, or find another vehicle.
But please, Scott, don’t put up your pen, not yet. There are still stories to tell.
Why do I hear the opening of your next tale? Has Sandy Stern been brought in as a consultant to handle post-trial motions for a Hollywood mogul convicted of a sex crime? Does Sandy wade in the pools of accusations made by the iron-fisted partisans of #MeToo?
It could happen.
I am hoping that it does.
So ordered. Get thee to a word-processor, Attorney Turow. We’ll wait for your next book. Who knows if the courts will even be re-opened by the time it is published?