Scott Turow is one of the foremost courtroom fiction writers in America. Millions have read his books or viewed adaptations of his works. But Turow does more than write about fictional courtrooms. He uses his literary pulpit to speak out on important contemporary legal issues. Turow has written a short nonfiction book, Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty. At 5:30 pm on Monday, April 9, Turow will be honored by the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield. He will be recognized at the Fifth Annual Defender of the Innocent Awards Reception for his work toward the abolition of the flawed death penalty system in Illinois, and his writing, which educates the general public to these issues and enhances understanding of our legal system.
Turow’s Springfield appearance comes two years after publication of his most recent novel, Innocent. The novel was a long-awaited sequel to Presumed Innocent, published to great acclaim in 1987. It marks the return of Rusty Sabich, the young prosecutor wrongly charged with murder and picks up his life 20 years after he was exonerated. Having enjoyed a career as a successful prosecuting attorney and trial court judge, Sabich finds himself as presiding judge of the appellate court with a clear path to election to the state supreme court. While the fictional Kindle County is the setting for Innocent, the fictional name cannot disguise that it is Chicago, Cook County, and the criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California that is the blueprint for Turow’s narrations.
Innocent begins when Sabich awakens one morning to discover that his wife, Barbara, has died during the night. Readers of Presumed Innocent will recall that this is not the first woman in Rusty’s life to die under mysterious circumstances. An investigation commences, led by Tommy Molto, the prosecutor who investigated the murder that was the foundation of Presumed Innocent. For his part, Sabich once again seeks the legal talent of Sandy Stern, the lawyer who successfully defended him 20 years ago.
In Scott Turow’s novels, lawyers are real people, not the supermen that one often finds in other works of courtroom fiction. There are no car chases or gun battles on the pages of a Turow novel. Instead readers find characters with human flaws facing more mundane difficulties. Thus we find Sandy Stern, battling the ravages of cancer, but rallying himself to defend his client. Stern and Molto are longtime bitter enemies, each man remembering and reopening the wounds from the 20-year-old legal battle. Throughout the portrayal, Turow recognizes and masterfully depicts the human frailties of lawyers and the law.
Sabich’s trial occupies the second half of the novel. As the courtroom is entered the narrative moves into warp speed. Turow’s eye for courtroom detail is simply magnificent. Courtroom novels and dramas often cut corners and shorten narratives to move the plot along, but Turow avoids that by writing in such an effortless and realistic fashion that readers are never bored. In fact, aspiring lawyers can learn as much from a Turow novel as from a law school evidence class.
If you have not read Presumed Innocent, you should read that novel first. Often a sequel can be read on its own, but these two books are intertwined in a fashion that requires reading the first novel so as to fully savor and enjoy the sequel. Can there be a third installment? One can only hope.
Stuart Shiffman served 22 years as an Illinois judge until his retirement in 2007. In addition to practicing law in Springfield, he teaches and writes on legal issues.
Scott Turow will be available 3:30-4:45 Monday, April 9, at the Public Affairs Center restaurant at University of Illinois Springfield to sign copies of Innocent and other books. Tickets to the 5:30 p.m. April 9 Downstate Illinois Innocence Project reception at the Crowne Plaza are available at 206-7989 or register online at www.uis.edu/innocenceproject