ROUGH JUSTICE

Days and Nights of a Young D.A.

By David Heilbroner

Pantheon. 286 pp. $19.95

A prosecutor occupies an uncomfortable place in the American mind. We respond to social crises with tough laws and maximum sentences. But Perry Mason, not Hamilton Burger, is our legal hero. Even Scott Turow, once a tough-minded assistant U.S. attorney, tells both his novels from the defense table.

David Heilbroner, author of "Rough Justice," never felt quite comfortable as a district attorney. Heilbroner worked in the Manhattan district attorney's office from 1985 to 1988. He began in the complaint room, interviewing witnesses and cops, then moved on to prosecuting misdemeanors in police court, spent time dealing with detention of the criminally insane and the extradition of out-of-state fugitives caught in New York, and finally graduated to every young prosecutor's dream, felony jury trials.

At the outset, he imagined himself as an agent of justice, using the prosecutor's fabled discretion to protect crime victims and show mercy to deserving defendants. Instead, he found himself a cog in a largely senseless machine: rigid district attorneys, deceitful cops, guilty "victims," disappearing witnesses, half-mad, tyrannical judges. At the end of his three-year commitment he left in disillusionment.

The material, at first glance at least, seems hard to beat. Any police court offers material for a dozen novels a day, and Manhattan's courts are more fascinating than most, populated as they are with "Perps, mopes, skels, token-suckers, and trolls dealing in crack, coke, dust, smoke, black tar, hash, sense, smack, meth, acid, spikes, hypos, cricket lighters, glass pipes, shooting galleries, and crack houses. Kung-Fu stars, chuka sticks, numchucks, brass knuckles, handcuffs, sawed-off shotguns, Saturday-night specials, .38s, .45s, .357s, Uzis, bayonets, switchblades, butterfly knives, swords, and dirk knives. ... An endless variety of strange and desperate criminal activity, the clamor and din of the streets."

Alas, the book Heilbroner has wrought from this experience is -- though goodhearted -- numbingly earnest, confusing and ultimately dull. Perhaps because he has fictionalized much of his experience, most of the characters and events in "Rough Justice" are lifeless, a problem made worse because he has a tin ear for description. Far too many characters are introduced with newspaper-style cliches such as "a pretty, red-headed rookie from Ohio" or "brown-haired, clean-shaven, and slightly overweight."

As storytelling, "Rough Justice" has its moments. My favorite is Heilbroner's account of a detention hearing at which, using lawyer-language to question a crime victim, he managed only to reduce the witness to tears of confusion. The judge takes over, asking gently, "Tell me exactly what happened to you," and the story comes pouring out. Heilbroner later learns that the "victim's" story is almost completely false; instead of an innocent taxi passenger set upon by a maniacal driver, he was actually part of a drug deal gone violently sour.

It's that last bit -- finding out what the story was really about -- that's all too often missing from "Rough Justice." A good inside book about prosecution may require 30 years' experience rather than three. High-ranking prosecutors get to make decisions that stick and follow cases to their ends; as a junior district attorney, Heilbroner does his tiny bit of a case, then sends it out of sight forever. It made for frustrating work; it makes frustrating reading as well.

One of Heilbroner's subtexts is how little discretion a junior prosecutor actually has. Heilbroner recounts the prosecution of a private security guard arrested with a pistol and a knife. The "perp" was 26, had no criminal record and had not attacked or threatened anyone; he just happened to be walking down a street when a policeman spotted a suspicious bulge in his coat pocket. After long study, he was on the verge of becoming a licensed electrician. Following office policy, Heilbroner refused to cut a deal that would spare him a felony conviction; his career as an electrician was over because electrical companies are forbidden to hire felons.

Just before trial, the defendant committed suicide. "Policy -- what did it matter to {the defendant} compared to a new life?" Heilbroner writes. "I had to pause to consider the powerful effect my decisions had on others' lives. It was vaguely sickening to know that day after day my energies were directed at meting out punishment, pursuing lawbreakers like a harpy." Soon after, Heilbroner resigned.

It's a pity there's no room in prosecution for people like him; he is plainly a humane, careful and conscientious lawyer. But until our society decides that tough talk and more jails aren't the real answers to crime, prosecutors will of necessity be more like Hamilton Burger than David Heilbroner. "Rough Justice," though often slow going, is powerful evidence why.

The reviewer, author of two novels and a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a third-year law student at Duke Law School.