It’s been a decade since I wrote my first legal thriller. Like many authors, I was caught in the updraft of John Grisham and Scott Turrow. The Letter of the Law was the first novel I’d written that became a bestseller, and it changed my career. Since my first legal thriller—a story about Casey Jordan, a tough, resourceful female lawyer—was the catalyst that propelled me to a new level as a writer, my editor thought revisiting that character might prove itself again. I’ve done that with my last two books, Above the Law and now False Convictions.
As I did when I first wrote about Casey Jordan in The Letter of the Law, I went to my wife for inspiration. I needed a story that would entertain and inspire. Since my main character was a woman, I needed a woman’s perspective. But I also needed a subject rooted in the legal system, a subject that anyone could relate to, and that also carried with it the weight of life or death. My search began with a simple conversation about the law, about crime and punishment.
My wife has an uncompromising view of the justice system: if someone is guilty, he should be punished. The death penalty? Well, that’s okay, too. Some crimes are so bad they deserve the death penalty, if the person really did it.
There’s the rub.
“But how do you ever know that for certain?” I ask.
“Well,” she says, “just in the cases where you really know, like someone saw them do it or something, or if they get the DNA. Those people should never get off.”
While I agree with her ultimate goal, the lawyer in me argues about her certainty.
“What if the witness is lying?” I ask.
“DNA and a witness,” she says. “That’s proof.”
And a great setup for a thriller.
The O.J. Simpson trial first opened the public’s mind to the possibility of corrupted DNA, throwing back the curtain on the magic of science. The defense brilliantly called into question the validity of the processes and the people who give us the 13 matching loci that constitute a match with a billion-to-one certainty.
When we think about human manipulation, so many things become possible, and the switch between right and wrong is easily flipped. Of course, those with the power or the opportunity to flip that switch need motivation. For the rich and powerful, it’s often greed that motivates them and money that fuels their mission.
We regularly hear about prisoners who’ve spent 20 years or more in jail being set free. The mechanism is DNA testing where physical proof directly refutes the evidence that led to their conviction. Many times these people were unjustly convicted by witnesses who, for one reason or another, lied or were mistaken. The DNA may have been taken from the murder weapon, some matter on the victim’s clothes or person, or some other object from the scene of the crime, proving that it was someone else who committed the act instead of the convicted prisoner.
Twists and turns drive suspense novels to make the story fast-paced and hard to put down. The obvious is a story about a lawyer working hard to overturn an unjust conviction in order to free an innocent man from nearly two decades of imprisonment. We’ve seen thousands of those.
As a writer, I can turn up the heat by giving reasons why other people would want the accused to pay for the crime instead of the real criminal. And I can create a close-knit, politically charged small town where nearly everyone will present an obstacle to the lawyer because she is a mistrusted outsider. However, the real twist comes from the unexpected, from challenging people’s perceptions of reality: can a smudge of matter from 20 years ago prove guilt or innocence? And, if it can, how can we know for certain that the smudge is what someone says it is? Where did the smudge come from and how do we know?
I love that DNA can free men wrongly imprisoned for decades. I’m hungry to lock up murderers, rapists and pedophiles and throw away the keys and know that modern forensic science can help. Still, at the end of the day, contrary to my wife’s wishes—even with the power of DNA—the ultimate arbiters are imperfect humans. The guilty don’t always get the punishment they deserve and the innocent don’t always go free.
A former lawyer and pro football player, Tim Green is the author of several legal thrillers, a memoir and a children’s chapter book series. When he’s not writing, he is hosting the ABC show “Find My Family” or spending time with his wife and five children at home in upstate New York. You can find more information on his website.