Conviction, By Richard North Patterson, Random House, 465 pp., $25.95
Trying to prove that a death-row inmate had nothing to do with the crime for which he or she was convicted is one of the most difficult, convoluted processes in law, all the more frustrating because even if the prisoner is finally proved innocent, he or she may still be subject to the death penalty.
While this 13th novel by Richard North Patterson, a former trial lawyer, is fiction, it is obvious that the author has studied and borrowed from many true and similar cases. If you can stay with all of the prosecutors, the multiple appeals, the habeas corpus petitions, the lawyers both bad and good, the state and federal laws and courts, the petitions and rulings, you'll be in for a wild ride, and if you have an opinion on capital punishment one way or the other, prepare to have it shaken to its roots.
Rennell Price, a black man living in the poor Bayview district of San Francisco, and his brother Payton have been tried and convicted of a horrific sex crime against a 9-year-old Cambodian immigrant girl, whose body had been found floating in the bay.
Fifteen years later, close to the time when Rennell is to be put to death by the State of California, Terri Paget, a lawyer representing death-row inmates, steps in to take on the case on a pro bono basis. As she gathers his former lawyers, the police, judges, former wives, and neuropsychiatrists, and meets week after week with Rennell in his San Quentin cell, we begin to question his guilt with her.
Rennell's seeming indifference to the death of Thuy Sen, for example, turns out to be related to the fact that he is severely retarded, and the reconstruction of his nightmare childhood shows that he simply has to hide all emotions to protect himself.
How bad can a childhood be? Start with fetal alcohol syndrome from a drinking pregnant mother who is beaten by her husband, and continue with physical abuse from the father.
The construction of Rennell's social history is particularly vivid, and the speech of the Bayview streets is as real as anything the reader can take. (''Weren't no Disneyland," Payton says, describing the brothers' childhood.) As for the legal terminology, of which there is plenty, only a lawyer could write this story with the detail Patterson injects into it.
By the end of the book, we are convinced that a series of mistakes by incompetent lawyers, uncaring prosecutors, and biased witnesses has put an innocent and needy man on death row, but we find that, unbelievably, the complex set of laws regarding capital punishment may still not prevent him from being put to death.
Terri becomes personally consumed by the case, and so does the reader, because the detailed descriptions of the legal processes involved are interspersed with the intense drama of the crime. Patterson's only flaw is his attempt to put even more drama into the story by having Terri's daughter be the victim of a previous crime eerily similar to the one supposedly committed by Rennell.
Not only is it a gratuitious attempt to keep the reader interested amid the legalese, it's the only part of the novel that does not ring true.