A primer on the criminal-justice system from the defense attorney’s vantage point.
Police and prosecutors in rural Lincoln County, Oregon, accused Sandra Jones and her 15-year-old son Mike of murdering a neighbor during 1985. Spence (The Making of a Country Lawyer, 1996, etc.), who represented the defendants pro bono, was skeptical that either Sandra or her son pulled the trigger of the weapon used to kill a small-time real-estate developer who had been feuding with them over whether a road that cut across their property should be considered off limits to public traffic. Why did law enforcement authorities believe the seemingly dubious eyewitness account of the dead man’s wife, he wondered, rather than the conflicting account of Sandra Jones? Spence decided to chronicle the case more than a decade after its resolution to educate the general populace about the workings of the criminal-justice system. Unsurprisingly, the text is seldom dispassionate, and the author never sheds his advocate’s persona. Throughout his detailed account, he skewers police investigators, forensic scientists, prosecutors, judges, and journalists for insensitivity, incompetence, or venality; the rest do not generally get an opportunity to present their version. Working in tandem with local defense lawyers, Spence eventually helped both defendants win their freedom. In that sense, the case he has chosen is not representative, because most defendants, innocent or guilty, are neither acquitted nor have convictions overturned on appeal. Furthermore, it lacks DNA evidence and other features that would have educated readers about the role of new technology. Still, no single case is ever typical in all aspects, and Spence’s choice of one of his own sensational trials allows him to explain unambiguously what he was thinking as he employed certain tactics and rejected others.
Sometimes self-righteous, sometimes merciless: an unforgettable account of the state's power against individuals who might be innocent.