Edward Humes Simon & Schuster 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020 491 pp., $26
Mean Justice is a powerful legal thriller built around a plot that has appealed to mystery writers since Edgar Allan Poe first dipped his pen into an inkwell: The reader helplessly watches as an innocent man is convicted of a crime he did not commit and is sent away to prison for the rest of his life.
To make the plot work, the author, Edward Humes, uses many of the conceits honed by masters of the craft: a setting of a town steeped in corruption and prejudice; a protagonist whose naive faith in the legal system helps lead to his predicament; a trusted friend who betrays the protagonist and works behind the scenes to convince the police that he is guilty; a frighteningly ambitious district attorney whose office fans public hysteria over crime for political advantage and then steamrolls innocent people in pursuit of the highest conviction rate; a detective who, in his single-minded pursuit of the protagonist, stoops to relying on a sleazy informant.
Two crucial differences exist, however, between the story told in Mean Justice and those told in the typical John Grisham thriller: The story told by Humes is true, and justice has not prevailed by the time the reader turns the final page.
In the increasingly popular tradition of A Civil Action, Humes has masterfully taken a real case with a compelling story line and used it to explore troubling aspects of the justice system. The story takes place in Bakersfield (Kern County), California, and revolves around Patrick Dunn, whose wife, Sandy, does not return from her routine early morning walk. Dunn does not report her missing until later that afternoon, and her body is found in the desert three weeks later.
By the time the body is found, Dunn has become, unbeknownst to him, the prime suspect--an idea pushed on the police by Dunn's "best friend," who has jumbled together a number of facts and assumptions and become convinced that Dunn murdered Sandy. From this point on, Dunn is doomed to a kafkaesque journey through the criminal justice system as the police and district attorney's office, convinced that Dunn is guilty, pick and choose facts and witnesses and bale them together with the testimony of a two-bit heroin addict who is facing grand theft charges.
Mean Justice's strength lies in its ability to appeal to the reader on a number of levels. Foremost, it is a powerful human interest story. Dunn has had rough spots in his 56 years, including too much drink and a failed first marriage. But, overall, his life is that of an ordinary person. He's a former school principal and small-time businessman trying his hand at real estate development; with Sandy as a partner.
The story, however, is more than just Dunn's tale. It also is a vivid portrayal of how a criminal justice system is a product of its environment. By the end of the book, Dunn's case emerges not as an isolated one --otherwise, the reader could sleep more soundly by rationalizing Dunn's situation as one man's misfortune--but as the inevitable by-product of a local criminal justice system built on years of prejudice, public fear of crime, and political ambition.
Humes describes how Kern County residents became gripped with fear that the area was falling prey to the big-city crime of Los Angeles and how that fear led to the rise of a district attorney's office with a no-holds-barred attitude toward prosecution. With devastating effectiveness, Humes weaves into the narrative a shocking number of Bakersfield area cases where roughshod law enforcement and prosecutorial tactics have led to injustice. (Interestingly, although it is not without problems, Dunn's case is among the least offensive in terms of the prosecutor's behavior of the many Kern County cases Humes discusses.)
Trial lawyers, in particular, will be interested in how the Dunn case shows that the trial process can be a blemished mirror for reflecting the truth. Humes accurately captures the Turkish bazaar aspect of a trial and how the "truth" changes as lawyers barter different versions of events to the jury based on witnesses' varying memories, perspectives, and biases. As with most trials, Dunn's case takes unexpected twists and turns that spin off new case theories, and the attorneys must react to them on the spur of the moment.
In fact, Humes's masterful narrative provides an unstated, but striking, contrast to the trial process itself. He builds a strong case for Dunn's innocence, but he has the benefit of reflection and post-trial investigation to take apart the prosecution's case fact by fact. The story he tells flows smoothly and convincingly. Trial lawyers will envy his opportunity to tell it as a narrative unbounded by the rules of evidence.
Mean Justice joins a growing number of books and investigative reports that highlight the plight of innocent people who have been wrongly convicted, often through police and prosecutorial overreaching. As Humes distressingly documents, in Kern County, the institutional checks intended to prevent such travesties failed regularly --trial judges generally turned a blind eye to government misconduct, and when the appellate courts took the district attorney's office to task, the D.A.'s response was not to rein in prosecutors but to attack the courts for political gain.
Perhaps a more effective check on overreaching police and prosecutors would be to have them always looking over their shoulder and asking, "How will this look if a Pulitzer Prize-winning author like Edward Humes takes a close look at what I am doing?" In Kern County, the answer was one that the D.A.'s office undoubtedly would rather not have heard.
Scott E. Sundby is a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia.
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|Author:||Sundby, Scott E.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1999|
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