Sometimes, in the pursuit of justice, one can get very horny. That’s what I learned reading Scott Turow’s 2002 novel, Reversible Errors. I didn’t expect there to be so much smut in my legal thriller (including incest!), not that I’m against some smut, and I do think it served a purpose, to some extent, in the book. But still. There was a surprising amount of talk about blowjobs and boobs.
The general gist of the story is that Rommy (who I kept wanting to refer to as Romney), a black man, is on death row for the July Fourth Massacre in 1991, where three people were killed (and the one female victim was sodomized after death). His attorney, Arthur Raven, who is typically a corporate lawyer, is appointed by the federal Court of Appeals to review Rommy’s second attempt at a writ of habeas corpus. In other words, it gives the defense a chance to reexamine the case to ensure no new evidence can prove Rommy’s innocence, or that he had ineffective counsel, or any manner of issues that could get the courts to reconsider executing him.
Arthur’s associate on the case is Pamela Towns, who right away believes that Rommy is innocent and agitates to him to become a a court crusader on this case. Arthur isn’t having it; instead, he’s preoccupied by wanting to have sex with her, despite her being his underling and much younger. Orr, he’s consumed with sex in general. He’s middle aged and horny. Add that to Arthur’s stubborn presumption at the beginning of the book that of course Rommy was guilty, and I was turned off by the main character. Fortunately, he got better later on.
The book hops between 1991, when the crime and investigation happened, and 2001 when the present day characters are reviewing the case. In addition, we hopped between a slew of characters’ perspective on the case. That made for a fast read.
One of the best written parts of the entire book, which made me completely uncomfortable in an intentional way and in the best of ways, was when Larry Starczek, the detective on the case in both time periods, was interrogating Rommy about the crime five or so months after it happened. He essentially keeps Rommy detained without a lawyer until he craps his pants, then he takes the pants as evidence of a “guilty conscience,” and then turns off the radiator in the room, so he’s freezing. After all of that, he begins feeding Rommy information only the killer, or the detectives like him investigating the crime, would know. That way, to get this quasi-torture to stop, Rommy can begin repeating back to Larry what he wants to hear.
Larry basically coaches him through a taped confession. The statement doesn’t even read like anything Rommy would have been capable of writing. Muriel Wynn, the prosecutor on the case in both time periods, although by 2001 she’s a rising star and is pegged as the next county prosecutor, dutifully takes down the confession. Which, I should note, she was brought into the room by Larry when Rommy was without his pants, so only adding embarrassment and shame to the torture. In addition to that, Larry lied that Rommy had the female victim’s cameo (a piece of jewelry) in his pocket, when in fact, he never did. Those two items, a coerced confession and a lie about critical evidence, is what leads to Rommy’s conviction and being sentenced to death. After all, who would confess to murders they didn’t commit? (Turns out, it is more common than we would ever imagine.)
What astounds me, and is relevant to my latest audiobook listen about cognitive dissonance, is that in his mind, Larry has taken a brutal killer off the streets. He’s convinced himself that he’s the hero of this saga. That he didn’t do anything wrong in that interrogation room. That Rommy truly gave a confession free, willingly and without coercion. It’s maddening to me, not least of which is because this exact cognitive dissonance plays out in real life repeatedly. We have plenty of data now about coerced confessions. Why do cops do this? Why do prosecutors, like Muriel, go along with it? And why do judges, like Gillian Sullivan, who heard the case as a bench trial (meaning she decided, not a jury), buy into it?
The whole dang system has perverse incentives. After all, Muriel’s career was on the rise after that. Larry has a reputation as a great detective and an incredibly smart man. And at least, for a time, Sullivan was also on track to be a big deal judge.
The pieces start falling apart, though. For one, in yet another blatant act of unprofessionalism at best, and unethical behavior at worse, Larry and Muriel are sleeping together (and they’re still scummy either way, because Larry is cheating on his wife in 1991 and 2001 (when they renew the relationship), and Muriel is cheating on her husband in 2001). That’s why I said the smut mattered: Larry would later rationalize his cognitive dissonance about the coerced confession — he didn’t say it like that, but that’s the clear insinuation — by suggesting to Muriel he did it for her. To help her. To impress her. I also thought it peculiar that Larry followed her around to depositions and such. Or sat at the counsel table with her. He’s the detective, not counsel! But maybe that happens in real life, but I’ve never heard of it, at least.
Even after that point, when it is clear that Rommy is innocent — Erno Erdai, an airport security supervisor killed those three people to a.) protect his nephew, Collins Farwell, and b.) to protect himself from an illegal scheme he was running, too — Larry destroys the irrefutable fingerprint report, and even after that, sees Muriel as his enemy when she decides to drop the case. He will not ever confront his culpability in getting it wrong. The system, and the individual within that system, will not allow for it.
Arthur meanwhile falls for Sullivan. Sullivan had a fall from grace since 1991, though: She was a heroin addict, although the papers thought she was an alcoholic, and ended up taking bribes to keep it quiet. She spent time in prison. Nonetheless, Arthur, still longing for love and sex, ends up dating her and sexing her up. Lots of sex. At least by that point, Arthur becomes the court crusader I like. We also learn that he’s a big softy who cries easily, and spends much of his time taking care of his older sister, Susan, who is afflicted with schizophrenia.
Eventually, though, the way Muriel works dropping the case and freeing Rommy is to put it all on Sullivan after she learns Sullivan was a heroin addict. In other words, it is clearly a problem of a fair trial if the presiding judge who convicted and sentenced him was high on drugs at the time. Which, fair. She was wrong, but it really irked me that Muriel and especially Larry get off for their role in railroading an innocent man, who mind you, lived for 10 years on death row with the threat of an impending execution. Rommy even had a sad reflection in the book about how much that was psychologically messing with him.
I also didn’t like how it made Arthur a jerk again: He feels betrayed that Sullivan never told him, and he’s initially a jerk to her. It is perversely amusing that Sullivan told him about an incestuous relationship she had with her brother (when she was only 14!), but not heroin use. They do get back together, and in a weird moment, he tells her he forgives her. Which I think is meant to be this sweet reconciliation, but I thought it was a bit gross. Like yeah, she should have told you, but you were a jerk!
Anyhow, all four of the main characters mentioned working on or related to case — Larry, Muriel, Sullivan and Arthur — are not that likable! I liked Sullivan the most out of the bunch because at least she was trying to get her life back on track, but once the relationship with Arthur happens in the book, I felt like her character was flattened. She stops being interesting and is purely a puppy-eyed doe for Arthur to finally “get some,” as it were.
The best character? Pamela, because of her conviction in her client’s innocence and how steadfast she was throughout. But she’s barely a peripheral blip in the book. I wish she had gotten fleshed out more instead of her flesh being examined.
That said, now that I think about it, maybe these characters being unlikable is the point in a way? I don’t know if Turow intended it, but we like to think of the criminal justice system as this lofty determinant of justice, but within that system are regular people influenced and biased by things that often have nothing to do with the case at hand. And that affects real people, and even gets them killed.
There’s a moment at the end of the book where John, the son of one of the murder victims, is talking to Muriel about who the real killer is, and he wonders, would Erno, a white man, had been sentenced to death like Rommy, a black man? Muriel, still apparently naïve and optimistic about the criminal justice system, thinks of course. But I’m skeptical because of the reams of data we have on the disproportionality in who gets sent to death row (poor minorities).
See, here comes the interesting part: Despite my criticisms of the book, particularly the characterization of Arthur — there was all the reason to like him, but then there would be these weird overly sexual moments, like during the “heartwarming” reconciliation at the end with Sullivan, Turow throws in how Arthur has an erection while sitting next to her, like come on! — I thoroughly enjoyed it. At about 553 pages, I devoured it in two days. I love legal thrillers! I love getting into that thicket. I love trying to free an innocent man, even in the fictional world. It gets my cerebral juices going.
The legal part of the book, the ups and downs and back and forth with Muriel and Arthur, all of that was riveting and extraordinarily well-done, and to my layman’s eye as someone who loves following the courts, believable. If you’re also into legal thrillers and can look past the smut to a certain extent, then I think you’ll enjoy this, too. (And for the record, I call it smut because I think smut is a fun word, not as a derrogatory thing, per se.)