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Good evening, and welcome, one and all, to Monday Murder Mystery.  I am very honored to try to substitute-hostess for the brilliant and inimitable Susan from 29 this evening.  

When considering books for discussion, I contemplated a review of Gillian Flynn's two novels predating Gone Girl (compelling review by Susan from 29 here.)  I was also tempted by William Landay's Defending Jacob, a novel which has often been compared, fairly or not, with Scott Turow's contemporary classic Presumed Innocent, (1987). (If you're interested in either the early works of Gillian Flynn, or Defending Jacob, please let me know.)

How many of you have read Presumed Innocent or seen the movie?  How many have seen both?  In 1987, Turow's (an attorney, and once a prosecutor, as is his protagonist, Rozat "Rusty" Sabich) first novel was An Event. Booksellers, reviewers, and readers have have called it "the best book ever written."

Before publication, Sydney Pollack bought the movie rights for $1 million --- an amount unheard of at the time. There were ads on the sides of buses. There was the hard-working-boy-makes-good personal story of the attorney-author writing his first novel over seven years, every morning from 4:00 A.M. to 7:00 A.M. before he went to work in a downtown Chicago law firm.

There was the hype, and there was the book itself --- a legal thriller, a story of lust, murder, marriage and political corruption set in an invented Chicago-like place called Kindle County. Among the twists in the story: The county prosecutor, Rusty Sabich, is the one charged with the murder of his colleague-lover.

As mystery buffs, most of us appreciate the exquisitely-turned phrase, but in a murder mystery, ingenuity is the higher prize: Exactly how the murderer got in and out of the locked room and hid the mechanics of the deed from you, me and all but the most shrewd of detectives.

The great pleasure of reading Scott Turow is that he is both a superlative writer and an expert craftsman. Turow is what is known in the trade as a "litigator" – a lawyer who plans and executes a court room battle, inventing strategies like a Commander in the War Room. He describes himself as a classic workaholic, which might explain how he is able to write complex novels whilst working full-time in a demanding job. Clearly, there is cross-pollination: he admits to the benefits of legal training to the budding writer, and the parallels between the stories that are told to readers and juries alike.

Opening Statement
I was about 7 years old when Presumed Innocent was published, the only child of an attorney, from a family of attorneys, but I never entertained any notion of studying law or becoming a lawyer, or por Dios, a prosecutor's intern, until a few years ago. Even so, lines from Turow's first chapter pop into my head ev-er-y time, amigos, even to this day.

This is how I always start.

"I am the prosecutor.  

I represent the state.  I am here to present to you the evidence of a crime.  Together, you will weigh this evidence.  You will deliberate upon it.  You will decide if it proves the defendant's guilt.

This man--."  And here I point.

You must always point, Rusty, I was told by John White.  That was the day I started in office.  The sheriff took my fingerprints, the chief judge swore me in, and John White brought me up to watch the first jury trial I'd ever seen.  John, in in his generous, avuncular way, with the humid scent of alcohol on his breath at ten in the morning, whispered my initial lesson.  He was the chief deputy P.A. then.  It was almost a dozen years ago, long before I had formed even the most secret ambition to hold John's job myself.

If you don't have the courage to point, John White whispered, you can't expect them to have the courage to convict.

And so, I point.  I extend my hand across the courtroom.  I hold one finger straight. I seek the defendant's eye. I say:

"This man has been accused."  

He turns away. Or blinks.  Or shows nothing at all.

Discovery
"What? Wait a sec, Avila. Don't we all have a right to be 'presumed innocent'?  Isn't that a Constitutional right?"  

Actually, the Constitution says nothing about presumption of innocence.  The Fourteenth Amendment speaks to due process. The presumption of innocence, an ancient tenet of criminal law, is actually a misnomer.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the presumption of the innocence of a criminal defendant is best described as an assumption of innocence that is indulged in the absence of contrary evidence (Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 98 S. Ct. 1930, 56 L. Ed. 2d 468 [1978]). It is not considered evidence of the defendant's innocence, and it does not require that a mandatory inference favorable to the defendant be drawn from any facts in evidence.

In practice, the presumption of innocence is the requirement that the government prove the charges against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. The due process requirement, a fundamental tenet of criminal law, is contained in statutes and judicial opinions. The requirement that a person suspected of a crime be presumed innocent also is mandated in statutes and court opinions. With regard to criminal cases, the presumption of innocence is considered to be a fundamental element of the "due process of law" that is supposed to be guaranteed by the Fifth  Amendment to the Constitution and by Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

"So? And?"  The two principles go together, but they can be separated.

Ever caught Nancy Grace's cable television show?  Trial by media, unfortunately, is inevitable in a high profile homicide case, no matter how speculative. A criminal act may or may not not have occurred. See Jonah Shacknai as one example.  George Zimmerman, charged with second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, has a trial date set in June 2013, but trial by media was swift, even when criminal charges were not, and remains fairly constant, with Zimmerman's own counsel having actively engaged the media and social media.  (Is that legal?  Yes, barring a gag order from the presiding judge.  Is it ethical?  They report.  You decide.)  

Why do "professionals" engage in speculative (in)justice?  The rewards of publicity, and sometimes actual cash, outweigh any concern of poisoning a jury pool.  Actually, with social media, 24 hour news, and the internet, my own opinion is that poisoning juror pools is an outdated concept. Given the media saturation and global demand for information, I doubt there are fifteen (twelve jurors, three alternates) who have heard nothing about this matter.  In voir dire (Latin for "the truth," more commonly known as jury selection), the question may not be have they heard or read about the case, but rather, have they formed opinions?

(Please see the 1895 United States Supreme Court decision, Coffin v. United States, for which the citation is 156 US 432, and William Blackstone: Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765-1769), vol. 1, 67.)

The presumption of innocence is a conclusion drawn by the law in favor of the citizen, by virtue whereof, when brought to trial upon a criminal charge, he must be acquitted, unless he is proven to be guilty. (Volokh)
The Evidence
Once I began rereading Presumed Innocent, I remembered why I had treasured this novel as a younger woman who knew nothing of criminal law.  Indeed, there is much to appreciate in the memorable characters created by Turow, the almost anecdotal stories of The Night Saints, and gangland drug investigations, and Turow's Kafkaesque plight of a man accused, and entirely unable to prove his innocence.

Rusty, an assistant prosecutor, finds himself in charge of the murder investigation of a colleague. But Rusty has a secret to hide. He knows it is a conflict of interest for him to pursue this case because he has, in fact, had an affair with the woman murdered, though it ended before her death.

In the midst of all that happens, Rusty finds forensic evidence piling up against him and soon, he is on trial for her murder. Rusty continues to assert his innocent, but the evidence is stacked against him. Has he really murdered her?  Is something else at play?

Turow is a true master of the literary device known as foreshadowing, a writer's technique in which the author provides clues or hints as to what is going to happen later in the story.  (Much like the music in a scary movie, which permits us to know something bad is about to happen.)  By the last thirty or so pages, I believed Rusty guilty of murdering his lover, even though some rather critical evidence was amiss. (In the interest of full disclosure, I also remember jumping up from my bed around midnight, running down the stairs, and startling my pops in his recliner: "Rusty loved Carolyn - I cannot believe he killed her!!" . . . . "Bedtime, mi'jita.  Lights out. Now.")

Rusty’s point of view? He has not committed this crime and he either cannot, or will not, critically analyze what is happening to him, for most of the novel, because it might mean that he will learn things he'd prefer not to face.  It's fascinating to watch a character who is obviously so bright, knowledgeable, and legal-savvy, with astute skills of observation, who refuses to face the reasons behind the events that are taking place, or who might be framing him for murder.

If you like twists and turns, and I do, pass the Dramamine, por favor. Every time we think we know the way the story may be evolving, another twist is added and another layer clouds the events, and makes it even more difficult to predict how the story may end.

I thought I knew (yet again), but we have, in evidence, an odd thirteenth glass in a set of twelve highball glasses at the decedent's home.

And although Carolyn Polhemus, the victim, "got around" (to use Turow's phrase), and was by all accounts a woman who was sexually adventurous, even using her affairs (it is implied) to advance her career . . . . was she superstitious?  Doors and windows were unlocked at her home, the crime scene, on the Night Of.  No defensive wounds, or evidence that she resisted her attacker.  Rusty's DNA-matched evidence in the IUD on autopsy is incriminating, but other evidence is missing.  

And whatever one calls a "whatchamacallit," did you see this coming?  The tell, when all our disparate evidence, odds and ends, and the Real Perpetrator are revealed, is stunning.  

The Verdict

This novel has more than one muy brillante thing going for it . . .  as the plot thickens, the net of prospective murderers is cast wider, and the mind reels with every revelation. Carolyn, like the best thriller victims, is an enigma that must be solved. And as the novel progresses, we discover that Carolyn knew more than she let on.  Who could get hurt by this information? Who stood to benefit from her death?  Who "needed" her permanent silence?

This is very compelling stuff, with memorable, brilliantly drawn characters who keep a taut hold on the reins until the shocking end. Tommy Molto, the "zealot" assistant prosecutor, intrigues me (did he have a hand in this crime?), as does Judge Larren Lyttle, notoriously predisposed to the defense in his courtroom, a scholar and yes, perhaps a bit of a scoundrel as well.  

Let there be no doubt: This is a moral tale of the first order, where the worlds of law and politics become indistinguishable, both unethical and corrupt, feeding off each other like sharks at the gullet of an injured companion.

Presumed Innocent masterfully demonstrates what lawyers know in their hearts;  that to many participants in the legal process, it’s all a game, and heroes are scarce on the ground.

Gracias for reading, and please let me know your thoughts on Presumed Innocent.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule


DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 4:00 PM Daily Kos Political Book Club Freshly Squeezed Cynic
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid


       

       

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