Shrewdly constructed, compulsively readable account of Sacramento Bee senior writer Delsohn’s year among the California capital’s homicide prosecutors.
The Pulitzer-nominated journalist spent 2001 shadowing district attorney Jan Scully and her tough-minded Major Crimes chief John O’Mara; this intimate access, which the author terms unprecedented, pays off in a nuanced view of the prosecutors’ at once complicated and seedy world. It was a tough year in Sacramento: several wrenching, high-profile trials unwound simultaneously. In an ambitious tactic that certainly holds the reader’s attention, Delsohn follows all of them, interspersing each separate yet equally tricky legal proceeding among the others. The crimes are vile, ranging from a hardcore thug who shotgunned to death a young clerk in a robbery, to a 20-year-old from a “good home” who raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl, with the notorious decades-old SLA bank robbery/murder thrown in as well. The trials themselves are packed with human drama—in one, the public defender recuses herself due to her romantic involvement with another murderer—although in each instance the prosecutors become more aggressive and assured as their cases wend forward. Delsohn is positive (perhaps to a fault) in his portrayal of the prosecutors, depicting figures like O’Mara as bulldogs in the public interest who are glad to be despised by local defense attorneys and felons. The writer admirably captures the delicate relationships that form during long, overwhelming trials among the government attorneys, homicide survivors, and unpredictable judges and juries, as well as the murky, methamphetamine-ridden environments from which so much contemporary violence springs. Densely written, the text reads like a mix of early Law & Order scripts and old-school urban history, displaying a clear sense of regional specificity and aptly handling the cast of cops, DAs, hapless gangbangers, career criminals, and some scary predators from both the upper class and the underclass.
Engrossing portrait of an often baffling legal subculture that might make any career offender consider a new livelihood.