|Turow's 'Errors': A fight to the death penalty
By Deirdre Donahue; USA TODAY
November 7, 2002
Should the general populace ever fulfill Shakespeare's line about ''let's kill all the lawyers,'' we assume that an exception will be made for Scott Turow. Although he continues to work about 20 hours a week as a lawyer, mostly pro bono work, it is as a writer that he has garnered the public's affection.Critics have foamed over his five best-selling novels and one memoir, One L, about attending Harvard Law School. Readers devour his work in droves.
Released last week, Reversible Errors (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $28) has a first printing of 750,000 copies.His new novel, the latest choice of USA TODAY's book club, deals with that most visceral of topics: the death penalty.''No one is detached,'' he says.Turow, 53, says his own feelings about capital punishment have come full circle. As a young man in the 1960s, he considered it barbaric. As a federal prosecutor in Chicago in the 1980s, ''you realize there are some people who, for whatever reason, are evil. And they are not going to get better.''
Although as a prosecutor he did not try any death penalty cases, he believed then that he could ask a jury for the ultimate punishment. But after joining a Chicago law firm, his thoughts began to change during his pro bono defense of a man named Alex Hernandez, convicted twice (along with another man, Rolando Cruz) of abducting, raping and beating to death a 10-year-old girl. Both eventually were freed after false police testimony was revealed. (Another man confessed.)
week, Turow receives several requests to help prisoners. He took this particular
case because a lawyer he knew asked him, insisting that, despite two convictions,
the wrong men were in prison. ''That gave me enormous pause,'' he says. Ever-improving
DNA technology also raises questions about ''how many innocent people are
on death row,'' Turow says. ''It shows we have a much higher error rate
than anyone realized.''
Turow served on 14-person commission appointed by Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who declared a moratorium on executions after 13 men were released from death row because of new DNA evidence. In Reversible Errors, DNA technology plays a crucial role.Turow, a non-observant Jew, says, ''I really don't think we get very far by trying to impose our religious convictions,'' be they eye-for-an-eye revenge or the idea that it's not man's place to play God.Turow also rejects the Western European attitude that the American death penalty is a vestige of the nation's tradition of violence. Considering Europe's history of democracies collapsing and dictators coming to power, Europeans have good reasons for not wanting to give the state this power, he says.
Despite flaws and failures, American democracy takes seriously ''the inherent worth of every human being, something that still brings tears to my eyes,'' he says. And in a country founded by Puritans, a powerful moral vision remains. But Turow does not believe a system can be designed that will prevent innocent people from being executed.
Although Reversible Errors' murder suspect, Rommy ''Squirrel'' Gandolph, is a longtime thief and drug addict, he has never been violent before. Moreover, he is clearly ''hindered intellectually,'' as Turow puts it. Turow believes that at least one-third of the current death row inmates are mentally handicapped, a significant issue in light of June's Supreme Court decision exempting the ''mentally retarded'' from the death penalty.
Yet, Turow says, although anti-death-penalty advocates were very helpful during the Hernandez case, he could not bring himself to protest the execution of John Wayne Gacy, convicted of killing 33 young men. ''It was such a horrific case, and it created so much dislocation in so many families.'' Losing a loved one, a child, a wife, a parent, to a savage murder ''is an inconsolable loss,'' different from all other deaths, Turow says. But their grief does not mean that society must execute the killers. In cases that today would warrant the death penalty, ''I do support imprisonment without parole.''
In Reversible Errors, an airline clerk is murdered and violated after death. Her survivors include two children. Turow says the novel isn't an attack on police. Although the detective in Errors makes mistakes, they mostly spring from his passion to avenge the victims. ''He's a good cop,'' Turow says. ''I'd want him.'' Part of the problem with the death penalty is that cops and prosecutors cannot remain dispassionate. Instead, they identify with the victim. ''Cops feel offended by crimes like this,'' he says. ''The law is supposed to prevent (murder) from happening.''
Flawed cops, crooked judges, cheating husbands, good people who do bad things, bad people who do good things, systems only as honest as the people running them -- this is the terrain Turow has explored since his first novel, 1987's Presumed Innocent. For Turow, the ultimate problem with the death penalty is contained in his question: ''How do we build a system that will reach those who ought to die but excludes those who shouldn't?''
||Truth in Justice