A debut historical novel re-creates a sensational 1964 murder trial in Lorain, Ohio, in which the author’s father was co-counsel for the defense.
Casper Bennett has been arrested for the murder of his wife, Florence, whose lifeless body he found in a bathtub of scalding water. After unsuccessfully trying to reach Ray Miraldi, who had been his lawyer for several civil matters, he hires well-known criminal attorney Lon Adams. But Adams seems to be dropping the ball, overburdened with another case. Casper’s brother, Chester, implores Ray to team up with Adams. Ray, formerly a successful city prosecutor, had resigned his position to focus full time on his private legal practice, choosing to concentrate on civil cases. The responsibility of a potential guilty verdict in a criminal case, and the consequential loss of his client’s freedom, weighs heavily on him. But, in this instance, he believes in Casper’s innocence—that Florence’s death was accidental, the result of a drunken fall —and the two attorneys agree to work together. Miraldi’s narrative is a detailed reconstruction of the investigation and the trial, with considerable attention paid to the personal backgrounds of many of the participants. Although the author is working from historical records, including his father’s files, the transcripts of the court case no longer exist. And so Miraldi, an attorney himself, imagines much of the trial. But because all of the characters (specific police officers, the district attorney and his assistant, the judge, etc.) are real, and the author includes photographs and copies of certain documents, the final product seems reportorial, more docudrama than novel. Nonetheless, this is an engrossing tale, and Miraldi carefully lays out the frailties of the criminal justice system—from dubious police procedures to prosecutorial personal agendas. He deftly describes the questioning of one witness who saw Casper the night in question: “She couldn’t say for sure, but the persistent police detectives had finally convinced her that it was very close to nine p.m. After that, they finally left her alone.”
A chilling view of the vagaries of the justice system, with a final surprise.