Here’s a dilemma for a lawyer: A serial killer was convicted of a murder and locked up. Now, 10 years later, it comes out that he was framed. The victim’s knife wounds were caused by a narrow stiletto, not the wide Bowie knife that must have been planted at the scene by the police and was later introduced as evidence by the prosecution.
Enter Jack Tobin, a former Miami defense lawyer who made so much money “defending insurance companies in personal injury actions” that he retired early to a Florida fishing village, where he sometimes handles pro bono cases for Exoneration, a public interest group dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. As the title of James Sheehan’s engaging thriller makes clear, Jack is a “lawyer’s lawyer,” and the case against the convict, Thomas Felton, cries out for a second look. We’re all worse off if the justice system employs corrupt methods to convict people, even guilty ones. At the same time, however, no community wants or deserves to have a possible serial killer put back into circulation.
Jack decides there is only one way to square what he is being asked to do with his conscience: Interview Felton and judge the man for himself. Felton passes Tobin’s test. On the assumption that his client is innocent, Jack takes the case. Not only does he prevail in court, but the newly released Felton asks Jack to handle his lawsuit for wrongful imprisonment.
You can probably guess what happens next. Jack turns out to have been wrong about Felton, who soon reverts to form. Complicating the plot — over-complicating it, almost — is Jack’s old affair with Danni Jansen, a policewoman who worked on the Felton case years ago. The police chief (then and now) has his own stake in the matter, in that his wife was one of Felton’s victims.
Amid this swirl of public and private motives comes a development that readers should be allowed to discover fully on their own. Suffice it to say that Jack himself ends up being tried for murder, with an even more famous lawyer’s lawyer representing him — a man whom Jack hobbles at times by ruling out certain maneuvers that would make Danni look bad.
Sheehan, who teaches trial law at Stetson University in Tampa, is especially good whenever he takes us into a courtroom. The judge in Jack’s trial proves to be a peppery coot who imposes his own rule of decorum. If a lawyer objects to something, all he gets to say is “Objection!” No explanation or discussion within the jury’s hearing. Both attorneys must approach the bench, where the judge hears them out and makes a ruling. You might think that such a tactic would drain all the excitement from a trial, but you would be wrong. The fun lies in watching the two attorneys try to skirt the rule.
No one will mistake Sheehan’s style for Evelyn Waugh’s. For example, Jack’s sidekick’s knowledge of criminals is said to be “innate” because he used to be a con himself, but that of course is acquired knowledge, not something he was born with. When it counts, though, Sheehan brings the three-way jousting of a criminal trial — defense attorney vs. district attorney vs. judge — to blazing life. “The Lawyer’s Lawyer” is a sobering reminder that, more than we might realize, every trial is not only a showcase of the lawyers’ skills, but also a chance for them to work out personal motives.
Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.
THE LAWYER’S LAWYER
By James Sheehan
Center Street. 404 pp. $22.99