Harvard Alum's New Novel Takes on Death Penalty

“Dear Judge,

I am on DEATH ROW for a CriME I never CoMmitted.  They Say I have had all my AppeeLs, and it’s all com out against me EVEN so I AM INNOCENT.”

The author of the note is Rommy Gandolph, a convicted triple murderer scheduled to die by lethal injection a month from the opening of last year’s Reversible Errors—the sixth and latest crime novel from Scott Turow, Harvard Law School (HLS) Class of 1977. Assigned to Gandolph’s case is Arthur Raven, a corporate lawyer until a judge waves a “magic wand” and turns what Turow describes as an “unwilling toad—a fully occupied lawyer—into a pro bono prince, with a demanding new non-paying client whom the rules of the court required he accept.”

In typical Turow form, Reversible Errors is written as a gripping page-turner, with multifaceted characters whose lives are described as the book alternates between a 1991 murder investigation and prosecution. Arthur needs to prove a “reversible error”—that Gandolph, a confessed and convicted murderer who pled insane at his first trial, is innocent of the crime. To the tired, lonely and bored Arthur, who considers himself the “designated loser” in Gandolph’s case even before he meets his client, it seems a hopeless task—but one to which he’ll give his best effort.

Reversible Errors draws some of its vitality and realism from Turow’s extensive legal experience—twenty-five years of law practice, including pro bono involvement in high-profile capital cases.

Turow has been making noise in recent weeks with a series of widely-read editorials in the wake of Illinois Governor George Ryan’s decision to pardon four residents of the state’s death row and commute the sentences of the rest.

Reversible Errors is based in part on Turow’s own experience in Illinois. Although all of the facts surrounding Gandolph’s crime have been invented, the basic premise of the situation—a confessed and condemned murder suddenly begins pleading innocence, and another convict claims to have committed the crime—loosely parallels the case of former Illinois death row inmates Rolando Cruz and his co-defendant Alex Hernandez, whom Turow represented in appeal in 1991. A fabricated confession, as well as significant oversight and mishandling of the case by detectives, led to their false convictions in 1983. After a third trial, Hernandez’s sentence was reduced to 80 years in prison. Cruz, however, remained on death row until 1995, when both convictions were overturned—the result of a private investigation by journalists and independent lawyers which brought forth compelling DNA evidence and a confession implicating another man.  

While their initial trial represents a picture of the legal system at its worst and most dangerous, Hernandez and Cruz were only two of the thirteen Illinois death row inmates who were later exonerated; the reversals of these convictions—and 11 others—prompted Ryan to impose a moratorium on capital punishment in Jan. 2000, to the joy of anti-death penalty activists everywhere.

Ryan appointed a committee of prosecutors, defense attorneys, former judges, corporate lawyers and citizens “to determine what reforms, if any, would make application of the death penalty in Illinois fair, just, and accurate.”

And Turow, who has practiced law in his native Chicago since he graduated with honors from HLS, was selected as a committee member. At the time he had no opposition to the death penalty.

But three years later, his opinion is vastly changed. And he cites the writing of Reversible Errors as one of the crucial factors in his reversal of mindset—even more important than the reading, research and reflection that he did while sitting on the commission.

Turow says he is keenly aware of the sensitivity of issues surrounding murder and retribution.

“My goal was to portray the emotional turmoil these cases produce for all participants,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In the end, confronting those emotions, I felt that the legal system is not equipped to provide assaugement or a sense of world restored in the case of a crime as primal and horrifying as murder; to the extent that we expect that from capital punishment it fails.”

But more worrying to Turow, he says, is the corruption that often accompanies capital cases. Since capital cases typically attract significant public attention, the outcome of such a trial can affect the future career of prosecutors, judges and even politicians, sometimes prompting them to make less than ethical decisions.

Turow has personal experience with this rather sobering aspect of the legal system. While serving as Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago from 1978 to 1986, he prosecuted several high-visibility federal trials investigating corruption in the Illinois judiciary.

“At the end of the day,” he wrote in a recent New York Times piece, “perhaps the best argument against capital punishment may be that it is an issue beyond the limited capacity of government to get things right.”

This opinion piece was featured just after Governor Ryan’s recent decision to pardon four Illinois death row inmates and commute the sentences of the rest to life in prison. Ryan acted in response to the findings of the death penalty commission, whose final report concluded that the death penalty as it currently exists in the state is not responsibly applied. The commission had recommended 85 reforms which would allow the death penalty to begin to operate fairly.

Turow is adamant that conclusions about the death penalty not be based upon limited responses, emotional or otherwise, to a single case. Possibly this was a part of why writing the novel, which is by its nature a somewhat abstracted exercise, contributed to his shift in opinion on the death penalty. By exploring the complicated emotions felt by the figures in Gandolph’s case, Turow was able to create a hypothetical situation in which to test his own feelings. It seems like a poster case for an increased reciprocity between the arts and politics.

Regarding such intersections, however, Turow recommends caution. “I think it was Darryl Zanuck who told one of his screenwriters, ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union,’” Turow said.

Turow says that “the law . . . has been the subject of many monumental works going back to the trial of Socrates—but only because they have taken moral ambiguity as their subject.”

“Art is about ambiguity, conflict, complexity that resists the kinds of reductions of our experience that politics requires,” he says.

Nevertheless, Turow says he knows his work unavoidably carries a message. The final version of the novel is the result of at least one major choice about presentation and plot line which he says could have changed the tone of the book entirely and sent the wrong message—more detail might ruin the story. But Turow, in contrast to many others in his genre, does treat his writing as art, taking time in the mornings to write before practicing law in the afternoons at the Chicago branch of the international firm Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal.  

In fact, this former creative writing teacher says that becoming a lawyer was the big break in his literary career because of the way it changed his work. Being forced to argue a case in front of a diverse jury forced him to seriously consider the notion of accessibility, something he says he feels is lacking in much of what academics call “literature.”

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