An Oregon lawyer exiled from Portland to the sticks grabs at a high-profile murder case as his one and only chance to turn his life around--and that's only the most obvious clichÇ in this pot of refried beans. ``You possess the intelligence to be a good lawyer, but you're lazy and self-centered,'' Peter Hale's father harangues him just after Peter's arrogance and incompetence shut a client out of a well-deserved settlement, and just before he banishes him to legal serfdom in backwoods Whitaker. Well-tailored Peter fumes as he watches his old school friend Steve Mancini run rings around him in their separate defenses of Christopher Mammon and Kevin Booth, two lugs charged with serious coke possession. But salvation seems at hand when Steve maneuvers Peter into defending Gary Harmon, who's facing the death penalty for aggravated homicide after a third Whitaker State coed is killed with a hatchet. A gung-ho cop's persuaded sweet, retarded Gary, who'd had a public confrontation with an approachable blond who brushed him off shortly before the murder, that the couple he saw necking in Wishing Well Park was actually the killer and his latest victim--and then insinuated Gary into the frame by appealing to his psychic powers. And when prosecutor Becky O'Shay's case falters, Kevin Booth, who just happens to be doing his time in the same prison as Gary, passes on a duplicate confession Gary allegedly made to him. Just as Gary, under indictment on a capital crime, is worried that his mother will find out about his skin mags, Peter is worried what the case will do to his budding romance with Becky--until the impossible bind that makes Peter realize his real duty is to his client, not his career, and finally points a finger at the guilty party. Despite the hints of grand conspiracy and grand passion, Margolin (After Dark, 1995, etc.) leaves too little meat on these bones for any but the staunchest fans of legal intrigue, with hollow surprises that arrive too late to save his puny plot.