Dead Men Walking Free

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Early in Scott Turow's new novel, Reversible Errors (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 434 pages), defense attorney Arthur Raven realizes his death-row client is almost certainly innocent. Raven, a low-profile corporate lawyer who has been drafted into the case by the federal appellate court, is close to panic. "If something goes wrong here I will feel like somebody sucked the light out of the universe."

Turow, who works as a full partner at a big Chicago law firm while turning out best sellers every three years or so (Presumed Innocent, Personal Injuries, The Laws of Our Fathers), nearly had the life sucked out of his own universe when he handled a similar case in 1991. As if that weren't enough, halfway through writing Errors, a book that harks back to that traumatic case, he was appointed to a controversial commission examining all the death-penalty convictions in his state. Following up on that commission's highly critical report, Illinois Governor George Ryan last week said the flawed state system could not be trusted and launched a mass hearing of clemency appeals from 142 of the 158 people on Illinois' death row.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Talk about hyping a book. But Errors is no crude anti-capital-punishment tract. Moral ambiguity is at the heart of Turow's fictional Kindle County, where the truth is never the whole truth and justice is often merely a point of view. The story of how a wrong man is sentenced to death for a triple murder is told through the eyes of four flawed characters: the middle-aged, despairingly single Raven; Muriel Wynn, the cynical prosecutor; Larry Starczek, a hard-boiled cop; and Gillian Sullivan, a judge known for taking bribes. Turow never promised it was pretty out there.

But the book's central drama of an innocent man facing execution comes just as doubts about the fairness of the capital-punishment system are spreading nationally. "Even [Supreme Court] Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has said she is disturbed at the number of innocent people on death row," says Turow, wiping sweat from his forehead after a golf game near his home on Chicago's North Shore. Golf is the only time Turow doesn't work. He writes his novels on the train to his office, works all day on the 77th floor of the Sears Tower for clients at $450 an hour, then takes the train home for more writing before bed.

The idea for the new novel came from the case of Alejandro Hernandez, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 rape and murder of a young girl. Turow was alerted to the case by a friend. When he read the evidence — which largely rested on a single sentence in English spoken in the midst of a conversation in Spanish — and learned that a convicted child murderer had already confessed to the girl's killing, he says, "I became virtually unhinged. I couldn't believe this was happening in America."

But it was, and it happens more often than anyone wants to admit. Turow eventually won Hernandez's acquittal, making him one of 13 people on death row in Illinois who have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. In 2000, Governor Ryan declared an indefinite moratorium on executions and appointed Turow to the death-penalty commission.

Turow is not morally opposed to the death penalty; nor were a majority of the 14 members of the commission. According to Turow, detailed reviews and cross studies showed "no evidence that killing a killer makes murder less likely." The stronger argument for the death penalty, in the commission's view, was that it provided solace to some of the victim's relatives. "Until the commission," says Turow, "I didn't really understand what it means for some twisted creep to change your life forever." But the mounting evidence of unfair application of the ultimate penalty to minorities, along with sloppy defense counsels, prejudiced juries and forensic errors, finally persuaded Turow and most of his colleagues that the present system was not fixable.

The light does not go out in Arthur Raven's universe — in the end justice is seen to be done. But if Raven achieves a weary self-enlightenment, nowhere does Errors deliver a clear judgment on the death penalty. Instead it conveys a deep sense of unease. A wrongful execution, after all, is one legal error that can never be reversed