About the Book:
When a homeless war veteran is beaten to death by the police, stormy protests ensue, engulfing a small New Jersey town. Soon after, three cops are gunned down. A multi-state manhunt is underway for a cop killer on the loose. And Dr. Tessa Thorpe, a veteran’s counselor, is caught up in the chase. Donald Darfield, an African-American Iraqi war vet, war-time buddy of the beaten man, and one of Tessa’s patients, is holed up in a mountain cabin. Tessa, acting on instinct, sets off to find him, but the swarm of law enforcement officers get there first, leading to Darfield’s dramatic capture. Now, the only people separating him from the lethal needle of state justice are Tessa and ageing blind lawyer, Nathaniel Bodine. Can they untangle the web tightening around Darfield in time, when the press and the justice system are baying for revenge? Justice Gone is the first in a series of psychological thrillers involving Dr Tessa Thorpe, wrapped in the divisive issues of modern American society including police brutality and disenfranchised returning war veterans.
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The US justice system – does it work?
Some facts about the US justice system are often overlooked,
such as the fact that more than 90% of criminal cases never go to trial, and
trial by jury is the exception rather than the norm. But when they do, does the
trial process work?
In the novel, Justice
Gone, two steps of a criminal trial are examined. The first is the Grand
Jury proceedings. Many of us don’t realize the extent of the state’s influence
in these hearings. The District Attorney decides what evidence can be admitted,
selectively issues subpoenas, and basically runs the show, while the defense
plays little or no part. Commonly, overzealous prosecutors will make a case for
an indictment that might not be warranted, generating criminal trials for those
who may very well be innocent of the charges.
On the other hand, if an indictment is sought against law
enforcement officers, the shoe may very well be on the other foot. Law
enforcement is on the same side of the fence as the DA, and consequently a conflict
of interests is difficult to avoid. That is why indictments against police for
using excessive force are rare.
The second step of the trial process is trial by jury, which
decides whether to convict or not. And this is where the public and the media
can play an unwelcome part.
The trial of O.J. Simpson lasted over eight months and was
watched by over 100 million television viewers (comparable to the Super Bowl),
and was a sign that even in 1995, the people of the United States had yet to
bridge the divide over race, as well as raising doubts over the behavior of law
enforcement. But most of all, it provided an intimate glimpse into the US
justice system, from jury selection to the jury’s verdict.
Although we had a celebrity athlete on trial and the finest
criminal defense lawyers in the US – the “Dream Team,” the real
centerpiece was the jury. Although the trial took eleven months of testimony,
it took the jury only four hours to acquit.
So, the question is: Was the verdict of ‘not guilty’ responsible,
impartial and correct?
A poll gave the obvious result that most African-Americans
felt that Simpson was innocent, while most Caucasians felt the opposite. Was
the fact that 80% of the jurors were African-Americans influence the outcome,
i.e. did they acquit Simpson solely due to he being the same race as they?
In my view, race didn’t matter for this particular case,
because the defense succeeded in raising reasonable doubt. Even if the jury believed Simpson murdered those people,
according to the principles of American justice, he should not have been
The strongest piece of evidence the prosecution had was the
DNA forensics, but chain of custody became a big issue. In fact, the handling
of all the evidence by the police came under scrutiny, and rightly so. Later
during the trial, with the jury absent, Mark Furhman, the detective who found
the bloody glove and socks, invoked the Fifth Amendment against
self-incrimination when asked “did you plant or manufacture any evidence
in this case?”
Then there was the bloody glove found at the crime scene,
which the prosecution challenged Simpson to try on. Simpson could not get his
In post-trial interviews, a few of the jurors said that they
believed Simpson probably did commit the murders, but that the prosecution had
failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Three jurors together wrote
and published a book called Madam Foreman,
in which they described how their perception of police errors, not race, led to
Even more controversial was the Casey Anthony case. Equal to
the Simpson trial in terms of attention grabbing, the trial of Casey Anthony, who
was accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, was quite different. The
big difference was that while the country was divided over Simpson’s guilt, the
public and the media overwhelmingly assumed Anthony was guilty, which in turn
fueled the outcry over the not guilty verdict. One charge, that of first degree
murder, was problematic, in that forensics experts could not determine the
cause of the little girl’s death, but in general the questions of how, why
where and when were never answered satisfactorily. According to many legal
experts, the not guilty verdict for Casey Anthony can be seen as a victory for
the U.S. justice system, despite strong public opinion opposing it, mainly because
it upheld the concept of reasonable doubt.
In an ABC News interview, juror Jennifer Ford said that she
and the other jurors cried and were “sick to our stomachs” after
voting to acquit Casey Anthony of charges that she killed her daughter. “I
did not say she was innocent,” said Ford,. “I just said there was not
enough evidence. If you cannot prove what the crime was, you cannot determine
what the punishment should be.”
So is the flaw in the system reasonable doubt itself. How
can legal experts exclaim victory, even if a guilty person is allowed to be
released back into society?
It’s because the opposite case, convictions of innocent
people are not only possible, but probably occur at a rate that would alarm
Let us look inside John Grisham’s true crime study, An Innocent Man, a revealing and well
documented account of three separate trials, and the wrongful conviction of five men
(perhaps the title should have been The Innocent Men). In one case, the police and prosecutor used forced
“dream” confessions, unreliable witnesses, and flimsy evidence to
convict Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz of murder and rape. After suffering
through a conviction and eleven years on death row, Williamson and Fritz were
exonerated by DNA evidence and released on April 15, 1999. Similar narratives apply to the trials of Tommy
Ward and Karl Fontenot, and the trial of Greg Wilhoit, namely horror stories of
persecution, harassment, fraud, lying snitches, and fabricated evidence. If
reasonable doubt had been applied, those men would have never been incarcerated
on death row (this was in Oklahoma, where the death penalty still exists).
Fortunately, these men were exonerated before they could be put to death.
One could surmise that so much of a trial outcome depends on
the jury. That is why I dedicated a whole chapter in Justice Gone on the jury deliberations in the trial of Donald
Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, for court cases in the
US, justice is in the hands of ordinary citizens.
About the Author:
N. Lombardi Jr, the N for Nicholas, has spent over half his life in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, working as a groundwater geologist. Nick can speak five languages: Swahili, Thai, Lao, Chinese, and Khmer (Cambodian).
In 1997, while visiting Lao People’s Democratic Republic, he witnessed the remnants of a secret war that had been waged for nine years, among which were children wounded from leftover cluster bombs. Driven by what he saw, he worked on The Plain of Jars for the next eight years.
Nick maintains a website with content that spans most aspects of the novel: The Secret War, Laotian culture, Buddhism etc.
His second novel, Journey Towards a Falling Sun, is set in the wild frontier of northern Kenya.
His latest novel, Justice Gone was inspired by the fatal beating of a homeless man by police.
Nick now lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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