Book Review: THE LAST TRIAL

THE LAST TRIAL, by Scott Turow, Pan Books, 2020, 449 pages, $12.82

The law is humanity’s sanctuary, where we retreat from unreason. And humans need the law, because they need to believe there is some justice to their interactions, a justice that God or Fate or the Universe, call it what you like, will never provide on their own.

Reviewing Turow’s Testimony (2017) here, I completely panned it, recommending that you opt for John Grisham’s Camino Island, which had just come out (incidentally, the sequel Camino Winds which recently came out is also a recommended beach read). Turow had never disappointed before; I first came across him when I read One L when thinking of going to law school. But in Testimony, I found the plot absurd and unrealistic, his courtroom scenes laughable (he was on unfamiliar ground at the ICC), his stereotyping distasteful (though he is unquestionably tolerant and unbiased), his historical narrative lazy and misleading (conflicts are complex with no one side having a monopoly on badness). Worst of all it is a “gratuitous Serb-bashing, primarily resulting from ignorance and insensitivity; using them as a punching bag, stereotyping them, and generalizing about their character or activities.”

Not so in The Last Trial.

The extraordinarily talented defense lawyer Alejandro (Sandy) Stern, who dazzled us in Presumed Innocent (1987) with his strategic thinking and cross-examination skills, so much so that they have been studied and taught in trial advocacy courses, is back for his last trial. And so is Scott Turow, who thrilled us with his elegant prose, realistic plots, masterly nuanced courtroom scenes, and characters who share all the complexities and frailties of our clients and those who we come across – the human kaleidoscope of emotions, personality quirks, psychological baggage, and what have you, that comes with the territory of criminal defense work. If this were not enough, appreciatively, for the reader unfamiliar with the intricacies involved and tactical options available in preparing for and trying a case, Turow expertly explains.

When Turow – a Jones Lecturer teaching creative writing at Stanford before going off to Harvard Law School – is on familiar ground (as he is in THE LAST TRIAL which takes place in a US federal court where he has practiced for decades), he is peerless. The Observer is nearly on the mark in its praises of THE LAST TRIAL: “Grisham might do it more often, but Turow does it so much better.” Grisham is a fabulous storyteller with a knack for being ahead of curve on many of the socio-political issues deserving our scrutiny, though his characters are hardly multidimensional or deeply introspective. With Grisham you know what you’re getting, and you get it consistently much like going to Burger King for a whopper – it’s not fine dining but it’s fast and is predictably tasty, leaving you with a satisfying feeling that beckons you back for more. Turow on the other hand is fine dining; like a good chef, he teases and delights in a multi-course meal, inviting the reader to savor the prose and appreciate the inner workings of the characters. Turow is to legal mysteries as the late John Le Carré is to spy thrillers – a deserved comparison not lightly made.

I hate spoilers when reading a review, so I’ll offer none. All you need to know is that Sandy Stern (by now, 85 years old), is asked to defend his long-time friend and septuagenarian Dr. Kiril Pafko, Nobel Prize winner for cancer research, on charges of fraud, insider trading, and murder. Stern’s co-counsel is his daughter, Marta, who, having been mentored by her virtuoso father, is every bit his alter ego and very much a force of her own to be reckoned with in and out of court. If this does not excite you, read on.

Having been a criminal defence attorney nearly 40 years and having taught law students and trained professionals on trial advocacy for the past 30 years, I am always on the hunt to learn something new or find a clip of a film or a passage from a novel to improve my game and also to use in future trainings. Take for instance Turow’s Presumed Innocent. In both the novel and the film adaptation, there are cross-examinations that are exceptionally instructive for young and experienced lawyers. While admittedly there is a certain theatrical play at work, dare I say that a keen observer can learn just as much from reading a well-scripted examination in a novel as they can learn from pouring over transcripts of great and not so great trials (yes, those wishing to master the craft have been known to study transcripts, searching for tips on what to do as well as what not to do). Occasionally, there are also ethics lessons, especially when the author, as Turow does here, does not indulge in artistic liberties for the sake of moving the plot along or entertaining the reader.

What I appreciate most in The Last Trial is Turow’s even handedness. Unlike in Presumed Innocent where the prosecution was not as competent as the defense and certainly of the sleaze variety (lots of them especially in US state courts where some are known to play fast and loose with the rules).  Here Turow has a tough, smart, skillful prosecutor who even when playing hardball is appropriately ethical, an equally competent, somewhat impatient (as some federal judges can be), clever, and impartial judge who cares about justice being done in her courtroom, and of course, the father-daughter defense team who are clearly formidable but not above making tactical errors or suffering the occasional slip-up, as is normally the case with even the most skillful lawyers – however well prepared they may be.

Without saying too much more, and without giving away anything, I found one ethical breach which is not uncommon when considering the heat of trial battle, but which for the caliber of Stern and his daughter, would have jumped at them upon the slightest of reflection. At one point Stern moves for a mistrial, the consequence being that if granted, the case is retried from the beginning. Stern makes the right tactical call under the circumstances, but without first informing the client and getting the client’s permission (instructions). Stern can be forgiven for jumping the gun; we’ve all done it at some point in trying cases, especially when representing court-appointed clients where the costs involved in re-trying the case is not an issue that would concern the client, although continued pre-trial incarceration likely would. But keen lawyers such as those of Sterns’ ilk, would have picked up on the rashness of seeking an un-consulted and unapproved mistrial almost as the words left Stern’s mouth. Yet, no introspection, no self-awareness from either father or daughter of this rather significant faux pas. Given that Stern internalizes his every move before and after taken, and as is normally the best practice of lawyers when in trial, deconstructs the events of the courtroom with co-counsel and other team members, I find it surprising that Turow would fail to have the implacably ethical Stern and his ever-diligent brilliant daughter – who is not quite convinced that her father is as sharp as he once was – pick up on this breach. What follows, however, informs the reader of whose decision it is to seek a mistrial.

Other than this omission of the Sterns realizing that however prudent the strategic decision to seek a mistrial, permission from the client was required (only an obsessive nerd for accuracy and authenticity would care), Turow’s characters – the Sterns, the prosecutors, and the judge, are realistically portrayed – talented and brilliant. And with trials being dynamic and unpredictable, we see their missteps and miscalculations as well as their shrewd strategic and tactical thinking as they cleverly navigate through the twists and challenges. Sandy Stern may have lost some of the spring in his step, and he may have the occasional senior moment, but he still commands formidable skills, requiring the judge to be exceptionally vigilant lest she inadvertently falls into Stern’s occasional traps. Like a good defense lawyer, when given a chance, Stern tries to force the judge into creating error so if the case goes south and he needs to appeal, he has preserved and perfected legal errors that might help in resuscitating the case by overturning a conviction. Masterful lawyering by Stern.

In leaving the trial arena in his last trial, Sandy Stern reflects, treating us to his philosophy on justice not so much from a defense lawyer’s perspective, but as he has come to understand it having spent decades representing countless suspects and accused of all variety, decades of studying human nature in all its goodness and badness and everything in-between. It is a philosophy that looks beyond the cynicisms we so often come across of judging and prejudging and stereotyping and objectifying, without knowing all the facts, without trying to understand all of the circumstances, without considering that nothing is ever what it may first appear.

He is at peace with the limitations of the law. … Justice is good in its own right and makes life among other people more dependable. Yet Stern accepted long ago that even perfect justice will not change who we are. The law is erected on many fictions and perhaps the falsest on of all is that humans, in the end, are rational. Without doubt, our life – so far as we can tell – is one of cause and effect. That is what science depends on. But our most intimate decisions are rarely based on the kinds of calculations of pluses and minuses of Jeremy Bentham, or the free -market economists for that matter, have wanted to believe in. We are fundamentally emotional creatures. In the most consequential matters, we answer faithfully to the heart’s cry, and not the law’s.

Scott Turow’s The Last Trial will not disappoint. I highly recommend it.

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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