With the best intentions, he smashed people’s lives and never lost a minute of sleep over it. He only went after the bad guys, after all. That is the Prosecutor’s Fallacy – They are bad guys because I am prosecuting them – and Logiudice was not the first to be fooled by it, so I forgave him for being righteous.”
Massachusetts ADA Andy Barber must recuse himself from a case for probably the most agonizing reason: his son has become the prime suspect.
For its compelling plot that’s apt to keep one engrossed on long flights and layovers, Defending Jacob was a sensation when it came out, especially in legal fiction circles. Author William Landay was a Massachusetts prosecutor and so brought to the novel a wealth of genre expertise.
When it comes to the genre, To Kill a Mockingbird sets the bar for literary quality and no other works have quite reached it. John Grisham comes close at his best, and has provided a more workable blueprint for bestseller legal stories that are full of heart. Defending Jacob follows suit.
It is that heart which creates a difficult paradox. Realism is great, especially for courtroom dramas, where there is a real-world reference. Real lawyers don’t have much heart though, and usually pursue even the most upsetting cases with little drama. And so though Defending Jacob was praised by some for it’s litigious accuracy, its first person lawyer-narrator does have some rather baroque reflections on the US justice system:
The booth was designed to keep the prisoners in, of course: Northern was a level-five maximum security facility that permitted only no-contact visits. But it was I who felt entombed....
Such lines read more like the at times almost Shakespearean monologues of the DAs in Law & Order than speeches from actual practicing attorneys. I love Law & Order and I devoured Defending Jacob. Prospective readers simply be warned, Defending Jacob is more dramatic than procedural. It could obviously be argued that Andy Barber’s son being turned into a suspect awakened unlawyerly emotions in him. But even before that case arises, Barber, a seasoned prosecutor, seems to harbor ideals that usually have faded before law school is finished.
A jury verdict is just a guess – a well intentioned guess, generally, but you simply cannot tell fact from fiction by taking a vote. And yet, despite all that, I do believe in the power of the ritual. I believe in the religious symbolism, the black robes, the marble-columned courthouses like Greek temples. When we hold a trial, we are saying a mass. We are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are actually heard.”
Barber's thoughts remain artful throughout the story, but with the trial of his son come musings of cynicism. I suspect their verbosity actually adeptly makes them sit with the reader long after the book is put down.
Here is the dirty little secret: the error rate in criminal verdicts is much higher than anyone imagines. Not just false negatives, the guilty criminals who get off scot-free – those “errors” we recognize and accept. They are the predictable result of stacking the deck in the defendant’s favor as we do. The real surprise is the frequency of false positives, the innocent men found guilty. That error rate we do not acknowledge – do not even think about – because it calls so much into question. The fact is, what we call proof is as fallible as the witnesses who produce it, human beings all. Memories fail, eyewitness identifications are notoriously unreliable, even the best intentioned cops are subject to failures of judgment and recall. The human element in any system is always prone to error. Why should the courts be any different? They are not.”
The book is an ongoing cycle of Barber resigning to his miserable situation inside of a miserable system:
A lie, but a white lie…. He did not flinch as he delivered the statement. I did not flinch at it either. The point of a trial is to reach the right result, which requires constant recalibration along the way, like a sailboat tacking upwind.”
As his son’s trial goes on he is made to face the fact that the prosecutors are not always the good guys. They at least don’t seem like it when you’re on the defensive end, guilty or not:
A liberal, it turns out, is a conservative who’s been indicted.”
The line above stuck with me the most. It’s a short generalization that reflects a big truth. Establishment types – the conservative and liberal ones, really – usually soften somehow on their previously staunch ideals when their ideals have turned around on them personally. Innocent or not, when you’re being prosecuted you will gain an acute sensitivity to any injustice carried out on you by the system and its agents, even if you were part of or fought for that system. (See, for example, former police commissioner-turned convict Bernie Kerik’s advocacy of criminal justice reform.)
The money man tells himself that by getting rich he is actually enriching others, the artist tells himself that his creations are things of deathless beauty, the soldier tells himself he is on the side of the angels. Me, I told myself that in court I could make things turn out right – that when I won, justice was served. You can get drunk on such thinking”
Defending Jacob is a tragic, engaging work of commercial fiction, full of verse-like truths.
Damaged at last, my wife had become a little like me, a little harder. Damage hardens us all. It will harden you too, when it finds you – and it will find you.”
Defending Jacob on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/ybc8zmvt