Prosecute or Perish

Former Prosecutor Alafair Burke's Impressively Realistic Legal Thriller


Friday, Oct. 17, 2003
Alafair Burke, Judgment Calls(Henry Holt 2003)

Criminals are bad, I know; but that doesn't mean that prosecutors are angels. It is one of those uncomfortable facts of life that the people responsible for putting criminals behind bars are a lot like you and me: overworked, underpaid, and prone to self doubt.

Alafair Burke plainly knows this well. Her debut legal thriller, Judgment Calls, is populated by cops and prosecutors who are all too human in their flaws, but whom we can't help cheering on.

Burke - a former prosecutor turned law professor - has her characters down cold and seems to have shared many of their experiences. (But not, one hopes, getting chased by gun-wielding bad guys.)

Persevering in Portland: Kincaid Takes a Case Other Prosecutors Won't Touch

As the curtain rises on Judgment Calls, it's just another morning for our narrator, Samantha Kincaid, a thirty-something assistant D.A. in Portland. But when she arrives at the office, ready to deal with the routine drug cases that are her bailiwick, she is confronted by Tommy Garcia, a local cop. Garcia is there to recruit Kincaid to take over the prosecution of an attempted murder.

A teenage prostitute, Kendra Martin, has been savagely beaten and left for dead in a ditch. Unfortunately, the only evidence is the victim's identification of a mug shot of the suspect (not exactly a slam dunk for the State). So other prosecutors have back-burnered the case. But not Kincaid.

Kincaid gets to work - fueled by late-night runs and early morning lattes - trawling the streets of a gray, drizzly Portland for clues. Methodically she builds her case against the suspect, a low-life named Frank Derringer.

There is evidence of a hastily arranged paint job to camouflage the perp's car. There is also a possible fingerprint on Kendra's bag. (One of the things we learn in Judgment Calls is that fingerprint identifications are not always clear-cut; some experts require a match on 7 "points," but here they have a match on only 6 points.)

Slightly complicating Kincaid's life is the fact that the detective on the case is Chuck Forbes, her on-again-off-again boyfriend and the son of an ex-governor. The younger Forbes, handsome and idealistic, has eschewed cushy patronage jobs from his father for the life of a cop.

Strange Developments: A Prosecutor In Peril?

With the trial approaching, Kincaid looks set to mop the floor with the defense. But then, strange things start to happen. Somebody is following Kincaid, making threatening phone calls, and, eventually, ransacking her home. As the stress builds, she turns to Forbes for comfort, and their affair begins anew.

After the trial starts, Kincaid's case begins to unravel. Questions are raised about the evidence. An anonymous letter-writer sends detailed missives to the newspapers taking credit for Kendra's attack and for the murder of a young woman named Jamie Zimmerman some years earlier.

This last claim, about the Zimmerman case, causes a personal crisis for Kincaid. It was Forbes - her former and current boyfriend - who was credited with solving the Zimmerman case by extracting a confession from the prime suspect. Now it appears that Forbes may have coerced a false confession for the sake of boosting his reputation.

Finally, when the local press discovers that Kincaid has been sleeping with the detective on Kendra's case (that is, Forbes), she is yanked off the trial. Naturally, she can't give up on the pursuit of Kendra's attacker. But with the D.A. against her, and Forbes' credibility in doubt, the question is: Whom can she trust? I can't tell you, of course, but suffice it to say that the final chapters will keep you on the edge of your seat - or under the covers with a flashlight.

A Prosecutor's Job: Making Judgment Calls, Again and Again

Judgment Calls is an apt title for this book, which delves much deeper than most legal thrillers into the dozens of decisions that a prosecutor must make every day. Behind the dry-sounding phrase "prosecutorial discretion" lies the stuff of real drama: the legal, political, and emotional factors that determine who gets prosecuted and how. Burke has captured this reality while also spinning a vivid thriller.

The book's tone is also distinctive. Samantha Kincaid is very much a woman in a man's world. While fuming over her colleagues' locker room jokes, she struggles to maintain her tough-but-still-feminine persona.

Her conversations with her best friend (and hairdresser) Grace, in particular, seem to be lifted from a chick flick - sometimes sweet, other times saccharine. If your tastes run more to hard-boiled crime fiction, lines like "Grace met me at the door of her loft apartment in the Pearl District with a big hug and an even bigger glass of cabernet" may not be your cup of tea.

On the whole, though, Judgment Calls is an achievement. Burke establishes a voice that is new enough to be exciting, but familiar enough to be convincing. And she uses her experience well to create a narrative that is not only entertaining, but also realistic.

Adam J. Freedman is a lawyer and a columnist for the New York Law Journal. His first collection of short stories, Elated by Details, will be published in December by Mayhaven Publishing.

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