The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Justice is using fiction to shed light on the reality of wrongful convictions

Robert Justice, a podcast host and author of the novel “They Can’t Take Your Name.” (Christian Gourdy; Crooked Lane Books)
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In “They Can’t Take Your Name,” readers witness the botched execution of a death row inmate who is injected with a cocktail of expired drugs. Debut author Robert Justice depicts the moment vividly but without sensationalism in his provocative book — a crime novel that explores deep-rooted problems in the American justice system.

Langston Brown is the heartbreaking center of “They Can’t Take Your Name.” He’s on death row, wrongly convicted in a deadly bank robbery. How he, a Black man, came to be tried and convicted when the witnesses to the robbery claimed the perpetrator was White is just one of this book’s stinging plot points. Justice piles on the tension by having the Colorado governor announce a spate of upcoming executions, failing to mention that the state’s supply of drugs for the death cocktail have gone bad or are on the verge of it.

Brown may be resigned to his death, but his daughter Liza is determined to clear his name. She is joined in her fight by many residents of Five Points, Denver’s historically Black neighborhood, and by Eli Stone, the owner of a Five Points jazz club. Through these damaged and compelling characters, Justice (who lives in Denver) excavates the damning effects of wrongful convictions on inmates and their families. Their struggle to save Brown plays out against a knuckle-biting 30-day countdown to his execution.

If clearing an innocent man’s name isn’t a new premise, Justice makes it his own. He incorporates the poetry of Langston Hughes, picking up especially on Hughes’s idea of “dreams deferred” — how racism and injustice can alter life’s trajectories and wipe out hopes for happiness and fulfillment. This is a complex story of race. There are good and bad Black characters and good and bad White ones. The toxicity of politics and corruption wends its way through the story as well, and Justice lays out what he believes is wrong with the justice system without being preachy.

While some secondary characters bend toward stereotype, and a grand finale at Denver Botanic Gardens feels far-fetched, these missteps do not detract from the passion and energy that infuse this story. Eli, Liza and Brown are authentically realized, and their personal experiences with racism infuse every page.

Justice, who hosts a podcast for Crime Writers of Color, an organization founded in 2018 by Walter Mosley, Kellye Garrett and Gigi Pandian, says this book is the first in a series. Subsequent novels will center on clearing other wrongly convicted men and women. To quote Liza, who at the novel’s end takes a job with an innocence project: “I’m going to find them.”

Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.

THEY CAN’T TAKE YOUR NAME

By Robert Justice

Crooked Lane. 304 pp. $27.99

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