The Pequod Review:
The Law of Innocence is Michael Connelly's sixth Lincoln Lawyer novel (featuring the defense attorney Mickey Haller) and it is quite possibly his best. The story begins when Haller is accused of murdering an embittered client who failed to pay his legal bills. Despite strong circumstantial evidence implicating Haller — the victim was found in Haller's trunk and ballistics proved that the murder happened while the car was parked in his garage — it is obvious it was a set-up. The rest of the book follows not just Haller's investigation into the case (which he leads mostly from his jail cell in downtown Los Angeles) but a courtroom trial where Haller argues his own case.
The plot sounds perfunctory but as with all of Connelly's books, his skill is in the details — the procedural elements of the criminal investigation, the sequencing of arraignment and trial dates, and the legal machinations used by both the prosecution and defense to try to gain an edge. It is difficult to illustrate these through excerpts, but here for example is his description of the jury selection process:
And this was where my extraordinary juror profiling came into play. Early the morning before, Cisco had posted himself in the First Street garage, where jurors were directed to park. At that point, a few hundred potential jurors had been summoned for jury duty. Cisco had no way of knowing who would end up on my panel but he took note of character-defining aspects of the people arriving: things like make and model of cars, registrations, bumper stickers, interior contents, and so on. A person driving a Mercedes SL is going to have a different worldview from someone driving a Toyota Prius.
Sometimes you want the Mercedes on the jury. Sometimes you want the Prius.
After the first morning session with the hundred people called for the panel in my case, Cisco went back to the garage at lunchtime and then again at the end of the day. By his fourth time in the garage on Wednesday morning, he was recognizing people assigned to my case and building intel on many of them.
When court was back in session, he returned from the garage, sat in the gallery, and communicated what he knew about each potential juror to my co-counsel. I wasn’t alone at the table but I wasn’t with Jennifer Aronson either. My new co-counsel was Maggie McPherson. She had taken a leave of absence from the District Attorney’s Office and answered my distress call. I could think of no one better to be sitting next to as I faced the most difficult challenge of my life.
You never want to use your last peremptory, because you never know who will take the seat of the potential juror you just dismissed. You could clear the way for a new face that is a prosecutor’s dream, and you are left with nothing with which to stop it. So you always hold back the last peremptory for emergency circumstances only. I learned this the hard way as a baby lawyer when I was defending a man accused of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. I felt sure that the assault charge was bogus, an add-on by the arresting officer because of personal animosity. The officer was white and my client Black. During jury selection I gambled with my last peremptory to kick out a potential juror who was yellow on my meter. There were still several African Americans in the courtroom pool waiting to be randomly called to the box. I figured my chances were almost fifty-fifty that one of them would get the call to take the open seat for questioning. The move paid off. A Black woman was called, but under questioning she revealed that she was the daughter of a retired law enforcement officer who had served in the Sheriff’s Department for thirty-two years. I questioned her at length, trying to elicit an answer that would get her bumped for cause, but she maintained her stance that she could view the case impartially. The judge denied my request to dismiss her, so there I was, with a cop’s daughter on my assault-on-a-police-officer jury and no peremptory to change it. My client went down on all charges and spent a year in a county detention center for a crime I believed he had not committed.
And here he describes the financial considerations of posting bail:
I had done the math and it wasn’t worth it. Even if we persuaded Judge Warfield to cut bail in half, I was still looking at needing $250,000 to buy a bond that really only amounted to three months of freedom. After all, I had refused to waive my right to a speedy trial and had the state on a clock — sixty court days within which to put me on trial. This meant that the trial was only two months away, in February, and the verdict would either give me back my freedom or permanently suspend it.
On many previous occasions, I had counseled clients to save their bond money and nut it out in Twin Towers. Usually that was to make sure they had money to pay me. But now, that was the counsel I gave myself.
Connelly also provides more general observations on the nature of the judicial process:
A trial often comes down to who is a better storyteller, the prosecution or the defense. There is evidence, of course, but physical evidence is at first interpreted for the jury by the storyteller.
Story A: A man kills an enemy, puts the body in the trunk, and plans to bury it late at night, when there will be no one around to see.
Story B: A man is set up for the murder of a former client and unwittingly drives around with the body in the trunk until he is pulled over by police.
The physical evidence fits both stories. One might be more believable than the other when writ small. But a skilled storyteller can even the scales of justice or maybe even tip them the other way with a different interpretation of the evidence. This was where we were now and I was starting to get the visions I got before all trials. Visions of witnesses on the stand, visions of me telling my story to a jury.
A murder case is like a tree. A tall tree. An oak tree. It has been carefully planted and cared for by the state. Watered and trimmed when needed, examined for disease and parasites of any kind. Its root system is constantly monitored as it flourishes underground and clings tightly to the earth. No money is spared in guarding the tree. Its caretakers are granted immense powers to protect and serve it.
The tree’s branches eventually grow and spread wide in splendor. They provide deep shade for those who seek true justice.
The branches spring from a thick and sturdy trunk. Direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, forensic science, motive, and opportunity. The tree must stand strong against the winds that challenge it.
And that’s where I come in. I’m the man with the ax. My job is to cut the tree down to the ground and burn its wood to ashes.
Connelly's story takes a few implausible turns — especially in the middle third of the book — and it lacks the L.A.-specific details that make his Bosch novels so strong. But this is an exceptionally well-structured legal thriller, and another strong entry in Michael Connelly's tremendous body of work.