A prominent defense and civil rights lawyer indicts the criminal justice system as he recalls his work with clients such as Michael Peterson, the novelist who inspired the Netflix series The Staircase.
Rudolf once helped to negotiate a $9 million civil settlement for a man who had been held without a trial for 14 years on the basis of a “confession” so articulate it might have come from an English professor although the prisoner had an IQ of less than 60. That story is far from the most startling in this potent critique of systemic errors and misconduct by police and prosecutors that have led to wrongful convictions nationwide, many in North Carolina, where the author practices law and racial biases have long plagued the justice system. With keen moral force backed by clear and persuasive examples from his work or that of groups such as the Innocence Project, Rudolf shows how mental, physical, or legal influences can subvert justice. Police corruption is only one. Psychological factors like confirmation bias can cause police to trust their “intuition” about a suspect in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Misunderstandings about the limits of forensic science can result in overvaluing fingerprint or other “pattern-based” evidence. Even well-meaning efforts like Crime Stoppers hotlines can taint trials by tempting people to lie for rewards. An overarching problem is that jury trials in federal criminal cases are “essentially extinct,” with 97% of cases resolved by plea. Consequently, a defense lawyer’s job is “primarily to explain to the defendant the incredible cost of being convicted after a trial and the great benefit of pleading guilty as soon as possible”—even if they are innocent. For readers seeking to top up their outrage about abuses in criminal justice, this book makes a fine companion to Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy and Emily Bazelon’s Charged.
A stellar—and often shocking—report on a broken criminal justice system.