Courtroom themes in legal mysteries
Welcome to my blog! For my inaugural post, I’m re-posting a piece I wrote in March 2013 for Something is Going to Happen, the blog of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In this piece you will find a bit of personal history about my early days as a prosecutor and reflections on some of the prominent themes in my legal mysteries. Hope you enjoy it! And check out Something is Going to Happen for interesting points of view on mystery fiction and the world of mystery writers by the Editor of EQMM and top authors in the genre.
TRUTH OR POINT OF VIEW? by V.S. Kemanis
Q: How many lawyer jokes are there?
A: Only three. The rest are true stories.
I’ve heard them all. We’ve been called sharks, ambulance chasers, hired guns, shysters, and at the other extreme, bookish nerds. But for every “true” story you hear about a lawyer, a litigator will have a great tale to tell. The courtroom is a place of high drama, and our legal system supplies the contradictions that so intrigue me as an attorney and fiction writer. My two favorites: instinct versus rule of law, and truth versus point of view.
Early on, I knew I was destined for the criminal arena. Corporations, contracts, tax—bo-ring. The dream went something like this: I would be a champion of the innocent, the next Perry Mason. The framed and unfairly maligned would flock to the law practice of Ms. Periwinkle Mason, Esq., mistress of the art of cross-examination. Lashed by her cutting inquisition, every lying accuser would crumble on the witness stand, inspiring that emotional outburst from the real murderer at the back of the courtroom.
Improbable endings aside, here’s what really happened.
First year law, I enthusiastically applied for a summer internship with the Public Defender. The young man who interviewed me couldn’t have been more than five years my senior. He started out with a hypothetical. We lawyers love hypotheticals.
“Your client, Mr. X, is charged with rape and murder. The prosecutor has an airtight case against him. Here’s the evidence. [INSERT: gory details, enough to make a naïve 23-year-old blanch and tug at the hem of her recently-purchased interview suit.] Tell me, Ms. Kemanis, what is your objective in that case?”
Of course, I had the perfect answer. I had just gotten an “A” in Criminal Procedure. “Our Constitution guarantees everyone a fair trial, and it would be my job to uphold his rights.” Even the lowest worm has rights, don’t you know.
“Sorry,” he said. My face fell. “Your objective is to walk him. Get him out on the street!”
Perhaps he saw the disillusionment in my eyes. “If you want truth and justice, go to the D.A.’s office.”
Well, I like truth and justice. I went to the D.A.’s office.
Fast forward five years. Alone with a handgun in a private ladies’ room of the Manhattan D.A.’s office, I blinked away tears, peering through a grimy window. A pair of pigeons on the stained ledge outside stared back. I had just suffered a felony acquittal of a really bad guy.
Don’t get nervous. The gun wasn’t loaded but encased in a clear plastic evidence bag, the bullets jingling loosely inside. And I hadn’t “walked him.” (Wasn’t that the other lawyer’s job?) The bad guy was on his way to New Jersey where he faced multiple felony charges. None of this made me feel any better. My gun possession case was supposed to be a slam-dunk. But my defeat proved to be a lesson in instinct versus rule of law, truth versus point of view.
Just before his arrest, this defendant was driving a dented vehicle with New Jersey plates, attracting the attention of city police officers on radio motor patrol. Loping along behind, they called in the plate number and came up with a hit—the car was registered to a paroled felon wanted for recent crimes, including attempted murder. The officers figured that, even if the information didn’t pan out, they had him on a busted taillight.
Siren and flashing lights didn’t encourage the wanted felon to stop, but a traffic jam conveniently put up a roadblock—nowhere to run. The two officers alighted, coming up behind on either side with their service revolvers unholstered, pressed against thighs.
The situation required caution and guts. Inside the car—not good. Our felon in the driver’s seat was fumbling with something at waist level, ignoring commands to exit the vehicle until … he cracked the door. The partners reacted, tugging the doors open on either side, pushing, pulling, and shoving the man to the ground, cheek to grit. A loaded semiautomatic clunked onto the asphalt beside him.
Having gone to such trouble, we decided to give the defendant a New York record before sending him home to New Jersey. Felony weapons possession. Easy shmeezy.
The truth and just a bit of instinct assured a guilty verdict. The gun was on the ground but, of course, the defendant “possessed” it under the penal code—he was trying to hide the weapon and possibly thinking of using it when the officers came upon him. Here, however, is where the rule of law stepped in. I was precluded from introducing any evidence about the radio run. The jury would not learn what the officers knew about the defendant before they approached the vehicle. Why? We just can’t trust the jurors to ignore their nasty instinct that past behavior defines a person, or at least, makes it more likely that he committed another crime.
Oh, I put up a good fight, and a different judge might have allowed the jury to know that the officers received some sort of communication. But this judge gaveled away truth and instinct with the rule of law, leaving in their stead merely point of view, the tunnel through which this jury was allowed to see the arrest. And it looked pretty bad: gratuitous police brutality—for a mere traffic infraction! Add in a little personality problem and I was cooked. My testifying police officer was no Sergeant Joe Friday. There was just something about him—that little bit of surliness and slouch, a mildly suggestive evasiveness in his eyes. “You say that loaded gun just fell out of the car?” Defense counsel winked at the jury. A likely story.
Fast forward an undisclosed number of years, and I’d rather be writing stories. There’s always something interesting to dig up in the nuances of the law, the personalities in the courtroom, the psychology of the battle. Exclusionary rules, inadmissible evidence, and the code of professional ethics are just so downright counterintuitive and fun! Okay, maybe that’s the bookish nerd talking.
Lawyers don’t have a monopoly on this stuff. You don’t have to be Fairstein or Turow to use a courtroom scene or gritty legal dilemma in your story. For the ring of authenticity, just ask one of your friends at the bar for some legal advice. There certainly are enough of us around—some would say a few too many.
Drunks to be sure, but I’m talking about lawyers.