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Rabid Reader, July 11, 2010

I don't read true-crime books, as a general rule. Before I read this one the closest I ever came was Truman Capote's accomplished "In Cold Blood." And let me be clear, "The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case" was nowhere close to that highfalutin level of literature. Then again, it didn't try to be. What it was was an accessible but exacting introduction to state criminal court and to jury duty. It was also an unflinching look at one particular murder trial. It was not what I expected.

The Skeptical Juror
Here's where I'd insert a spoiler alert, except other reviewers before me have already ruined the surprise of the verdict: Byron Case was found guilty of 1st degree murder in a 2002 judgment. The verdict wasn't what made this book interesting, though. Allen broke from the rules of genre to come up with something that wasn't a whodunit, a profile, or even a dramatized narrative of the crime. Instead, he concerned himself with a "Dragnet"-like interest in "just the facts." He deconstructed the evidence, walked the reader through his research, and came away with some truly unsettling conclusions. It's amazing that nobody yet has spilled the beans about those conclusions in a review (and I'm not about to), but wow.

I liked this book. I liked it so much I read it in two days. Then again, "liked" is the wrong word. In spite of Allen's obvious effort to break up the tedium of some longer testimonies, using asides of sometimes questionable humor and distracting (but fascinating) local history, the first of the book's three "acts" was slow going. Once I made it through Act One, however, it all paid off. I was compelled, pulled along by a gnawing curiosity about where the evidence led. By Act Three, I felt like a private eye. Then bits and pieces came together and I felt sick to my stomach.

The only thing the ending left to be desired was a resolution, but that's a problem with the reality of Allen's source material, not with the author himself. After I put the book down, I had a hard time getting over my anger (yes, anger!) at how it all turned out. Not even Capote managed that strong a reaction, so there's obviously something to be said for Allen's hot-dog-eating, Mt.-Dew-swigging plain-spokenness. I will definitely look out for the release of the two other "Skeptical Juror" titles mentioned as "forthcoming."

Recommended Reading
Truth in Justice