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A Review of Reversible Errors


Friday, Oct. 25, 2002

How you feel about Scott Turow's new book "Reversible Errors," will depend in large part on how you have felt about Turow's earlier books.

As I see it, they break down into two camps: There is the "legal geek" group, best represented by Turow's most recent effort, "Personal Injuries." And there is the "personal stories that just happen to involve law" group, best represented by "The Burden of Proof." "Reversible Errors" falls solidly into the "legal geek" subgenre.

"Presumed Innocent," the book that put Turow on the map, combined both of these categories - there was ample and interesting technical legal discussion, but underneath it there was also a riveting mystery and personal drama. In contrast, Turow's recent "The Laws of Our Fathers" - his worst book, in my opinion - attempted to write a vaguely revisionist social history of the Sixties, without much discussion of the law.

Fortunately, "Reversible Errors" should have a more universal appeal than its predecessors in the "legal geek" genre.

The "legal geek" group is best represented by Turow's most recent effort, "Personal Injuries" - the story of a highly complex federal investigation into state court judicial corruption. If you liked "Personal Injuries," I am very confident that you will really like "Reversible Errors."

In the name of full disclosure, I will reveal that I loved "Personal Injuries," and that, well, I'm a legal geek. (Of course, if you're reading book reviews on a website called, and you somehow don't think that you're a legal geek too, some introspection might be in order). However, many people I know - mostly non-lawyers - somehow found the lengthy discussions of consensually recorded conversations and the law of search and seizure in "Personal Injuries" less than gripping.

"Reversible Errors" takes on a technical legal topic, too: It involves the story of Arthur Raven, a white shoe firm litigation partner who is assigned a death penalty habeas corpus motion by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

If you understood that last sentence, read no further and just go buy this book. I am very confident that you'll enjoy it. On the other hand, if you didn't understand that last sentence, perhaps because you don't know what a habeas corpus motion is - and even if you don't care to learn - there's still a good chance that "Reversible Errors" will be worth your time and money.

How "Reversible Errors" Transcends Legal Geek-dom

The novel begins when Raven - the main character - gets assigned the final appeal for Rommy Gandolph. Gandolph is a prisoner sentenced to die in less than two months, as a result of his conviction for a brutal triple murder and rape that occurred in 1991. This appeal takes place in federal court under the doctrine of habeas corpus - which permits appeals of convictions on grounds including an alleged violation of the Constitution.

The novel focuses on a number of characters who had small roles in Turow's earlier books, but also introduces a variety of excellent new characters. In addition to telling Raven's story, he also tells the story of the original prosecutor in the Gandolph case, Muriel Wynn. Wynn is now running to be the first female Prosecuting Attorney for Kindle County (the fictional Chicago where all Turow's stories take place).

Meanwhile, Wynn's story is inexorably wrapped up with that of Larry Starczek, the detective who arrested Gandolph and who has a "complex" relationship with Wynn. Also playing a large role is Gillian Sullivan, the now-disgraced state judge who originally sentenced Gandolph to death.

These are the four main characters, but there are a host of other players as well, all of whom are well-drawn. In addition, a number of the main characters from earlier works appear at the periphery of "Reversible Errors" (though never in a way that requires any knowledge of Turow's previous books).

How the Novel Grew Out of Turow's Own Experience

This book clearly grew out of Turow's experience on a commission established by Governor George Ryan to review the application of the death penalty in Illinois. A group of Northwestern journalism students had demonstrated an appallingly high rate of innocence, or gross procedural error at trial, among the residents of Illinois' death row. As a result, Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois and established the commission to investigate the issue.

The commission recommended significant changes to the way that Illinois applies the death penalty, but didn't recommend abolition of the death penalty itself. Turow brings an even-handed approach to this contentious subject: He recognizes the many problems with how the death penalty is applied (especially in a city with a history of police corruption, like Chicago). But he never gives the impression of being on a crusade against capital punishment, or even indicates that he opposes the death penalty as a general matter. And thankfully, he is not sanctimonious: I am generally comfortable with the death
penalty - albeit with some serious reservations about how it is currently employed in the U.S. - and I didn't find this book at all preachy.

The Great Strength of Turow's Work: Its Moral Complexity

As with all of Turow's works, "Reversible Errors" contains many details that indicate either the author's thorough knowledge of his subject or incredible creativity (or both). One of my personal favorites was that the inmates on Kindle County's death row wear yellow jumpsuits (in contrast to the orange worn by the rest of the prison populations), and are therefore referred to as the "Yellow Men" by the rest of the population.

But my favorite part of "Reversible Errors," and the strongest part of Turow's writing over his entire career, is the moral complexity of the characters involved. There are no Jack Ryans in Turow novels - characters so pure and likeable that they can't help eventually rise to the top. (The sanctimonious Ryan, for instance, actually becomes President in one of the more recent Tom Clancy novels; to be honest, they've all run together so much that I can't remember which one).

Turow finds some good in all people; even crooked cops, drug dealers and murderers are not portrayed as complete blackguards. More importantly, he shows that one need not be perfect to be likeable (or perhaps that those who are perfect cannot be likeable).

Muriel Wynn, Larry Starczek, Arthur Raven and Gillian Sullivan all do reprehensible things during the course of this book, for a variety of dubious reasons. Nevertheless, at the end of the novel Turow leaves the reader with the impression that his characters are simply normal people: generally well-intentioned, but flawed in their attempts to live up to their ideals. As an inveterate reader of popular fiction (as the books I've reviewed for FindLaw indicate), I can say that the ability to draw a complex character while writing a legitimate page turner is sadly uncommon.

For that reason, this book should appeal even to those who don't know what a habeas corpus petition is, or why a fancy firm lawyer might be assigned to work on one for free. Of course, if you already have an interest in legal issues, especially criminal legal issues, you should find this book to be a real pleasure.

Sam Williamson is an attorney practicing in New York.

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