The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates
By John Temple
2009 University Press of Mississippi, 234 pages, $25.95
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The world is loaded with books about criminal lawyers. They fill the shelves in the mystery and thriller aisles, dominate true crime and related nonfiction genres. After all, a book about what we do is almost a guaranteed page-turner. Conflict? We got it — trials, accusations, at least two sides fighting in every case. Character? Our characters range from the noblest of all to the most despicable and inhuman. Plot? It’s already there, from the crime to the acquittal or execution. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. We’re not fighting over love or money, we’re fighting for people’s lives and liberty.
So it’s no surprise that there are so many John Grishams out there, and so many nonfiction books about criminal defense. And with so many books out there, you’d think that there would be plenty that give a fairly accurate insight into what criminal practice is really like.
And you would be wrong.
For it is rare indeed to find a book that really does the job. There are plenty that entertain, grip the reader, and even have something worth saying. But books that really draw the reader into our world, and let the reader see it with our eyes and our experience? Such books are few and far between.
Which is why we were genuinely delighted to read The Last Lawyer, by John Temple, an associate professor of journalism and associate dean at West Virginia University. Temple is not a criminal lawyer, he’s not a mystery writer, and that’s a good thing. He’s the kind of writer who comes from the outside, and digs deep into his subject. Like the lawyers and investigators he describes in this book, he clearly put in the time and effort to find out what really happened, who did it, how it happened, and why. And then he took all that data and crafted it into a story that is no less powerful simply because it is true.
True stories almost always suffer from bad writing. “But that’s how it really happened” is a crutch for lame writing, an excuse for having told a story poorly. Yes, real life does not play out according to a scripted dramatic formula. But that doesn’t mean reality can’t be presented that way. The Last Lawyer, however, tends to avoid this trap. With few exceptions, Temple grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.
So okay, he’s a good writer. But what does he have to say? That’s the best part.
Because Temple really gets it. He really, really gets it. If you read only one book in your life about what it’s like to be a criminal defense lawyer, read this one.
When we’re reading a book that particularly engages us, it’s like we’re having a conversation with the author. We find ourselves picking up a pen and scribbling back at him. Books at our house sometimes become dog-eared and annotated beyond any hope of resale. Our copy of The Last Lawyer quickly joined their ranks.
Why, when we already do this stuff for a living? Were we picking fights, or pointing out errors? Not at all. Instead, we frequently found ourselves encountering an insight, or a way of looking at things where we hadn’t looked at it ourselves that way. And we’d go “oh!” or “aha!” And then we’d take that fresh insight and run with it a bit in our head, and it would lead to a new thought we’d always sort of known, but had never actually thought before.
Not as much as we do when reading Proust, Patrick O’Brian or Terry Pratchett. But often enough. Often enough.
The Last Lawyer takes you through Ken Rose’s decade-long fight to appeal the capital conviction of Bo Jones, a low-IQ Black man sentenced to die for a 1987 murder.
Trial counsel had done little of the work that needed to be done now, and the case had to be investigated from scratch.. Uncooperative witnesses, some who lied and others with good reasons to lie — these were the least of their worries. They had to deal with a client who just did not seem to get the concept. And worse, judges who didn’t get the concept, and couldn’t be bothered to make the effort in the first place. Prosecutors who were the opposite of sympathetic, who railed against attempts to make technical legal arguments, but who were perfectly happy to get a conviction on technicalities themselves. A broken legal system that, instead of seeking justice, becomes a machine for churning people into prison or the gas chamber.
The book takes you through ten years of this struggle, as Ken Rose and his team slowly and gradually discover the facts and arguments they need to save Bo Jones’ life. In the process, you get to see firsthand the best and the worst that our system has to offer. Like any other human enterprise, you see a handful of outstanding performers, another handful of ruinous subverters, and a huge majority of folks just going along to get along. You see a system with powerful inertia.
Our adversarial system is designed to achieve justice, but it needs honest and good-faith opposition to function properly. Both sides need to play by the rules, and try their best, if justice is going to result. And it needs judicial referees to keep a keen eye out, not only for fouls, but for merit as well. But the reader of this book sees law enforcement that isn’t always as honest as we expect it to be, prosecutors who stop trying to seek justice and instead get invested in winning at all cost, defense attorneys who stop protecting their client above all else and instead become mere grease in the wheels of this machine. And judges who have seen so many frivolous arguments that they can’t spot the valid ones any more, and who aren’t terribly inclined to look for them in the first place.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just the broken system. There is good out there. And you get to see that, too. The single most important variable in whether a case is won or lost is preparation. And you see how good lawyers prepare, do the hard work, take the time to do the job right. You see real dedication, not to ego or money or advancement, but to saving the life of a fellow human being. To seeking real justice. To making the system a little bit better, for all of us.
This is the day-to-day experience of a criminal lawyer. The sometimes odd personalities, the deep injustices, the soaring heights of the human spirit, and everything in between.
Go get the book.