Criminal-defense attorney Smith (Law/Georgetown Univ.) describes her attempt to liberate a wrongfully imprisoned woman.
The author was a second-year law student in 1980 when she met convicted felon Kelly Jarrett under the auspices of New York University’s free Prison Law Clinic. Smith’s narrative portrays a sweet Southern girl ensnared by the New York penal system. North Carolina native Kelly was 21 in August 1973, when she took a trip to Utica, N.Y., with gay buddy Billy Ronald, whom she let use her car while she was dallying with a new girlfriend. Naïve, unsuspecting Kelly had no idea that Billy Ronald was a career criminal, she subsequently told her lawyers. Two and a half years later, she was arrested after an eyewitness positively identified Kelly as present at the scene of the robbery and brutal murder of a teenaged gas-station attendant in Utica. Offered a reduced sentence if she pleaded guilty to robbery, Kelly staunchly insisted on her innocence and refused; she was convicted as an accomplice to murder and got life in prison. The author worked on Kelly’s appeal while at the Prison Law Clinic, but lost touch after graduating. In 1993, now a full-fledged public defender, Smith met Jean Harris, who had been serving 12 years for murder in the same jail as Kelly and urged the lawyer to contact her former client. After their reunion, Smith became an amazingly tireless advocate, making it her personal mission to free Kelly via executive clemency. Her dense narrative weaves Kelly’s plight with theories on innocence and “the truth,” case studies, a discussion of the significance of criminal defenders and an examination of the various ethical dilemmas they face. Kelly’s case was one of many criminal convictions contingent upon a “single, shaky eyewitness,” she reminds us; new policies have since been drafted to lessen the likelihood of false identifications. Kelly was finally released in 2005, after 28 years, six months, in jail.
A captivating, emotionally intense investigation of the complicated relationship between truth and the justice system.