Thursday, September 20, 2018

My Kind of Case: Guest Post by Jeanne Winer

My Kind of Case 

Lee Isaacs, Esq., the central character in my latest mystery, Her Kind of Case, isn’t unlike myself. She, like me, is a strong, feminist who’s a criminal defense attorney—a field heavily dominated by men—in Boulder, Colorado. In the book, she and I tackle the twin issues of homophobia and religious intolerance, as well as the inevitable onslaught of aging, while handling the heaviest of responsibilities—the lifetime fate of a troubled young man who’s confessed to a particularly nasty murder. During my own 35-year career as a criminal defense attorney, I represented thousands of clients, including those accused of kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, drug offenses, and murder. When I was much younger than Lee, I also represented a teenage boy accused of helping a group of skinheads kick a man to death. I didn’t end up trying the case like Lee, but I did my best for him and kept him out of adult prison, which was a great result. I think I saved his life.

My political activism from a young age led me to become a criminal defense attorney. When I was sixteen, I attended a ban the bomb rally in downtown Boston. After that, I became active in the anti-war movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the LGBTQ movement. I came out as a lesbian in my early twenties. I loved defending people, saving them in any way I could. I was honored to be one of the two lead trial attorneys in Romer v. Evans, a landmark civil rights case that paved the way for the Obergefell decision in 2015, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

When I started writing Her Kind of Case, I wanted to describe the feeling of taking on a high-profile murder case where the evidence seemed initially insurmountable, but then persevering until reaching the best possible result. I wanted to tell a story where the reader would see how much work, and how much strategic thinking, are required. Most books about lawyers don’t describe the emotional toll it takes to defend someone whose life is in your hands. And the books aren’t funny, even though criminal defense attorneys have an extremely well-developed, black sense of humor. Without it, they’d burn out in a few years.

I also wanted the book to be realistic and borrowed liberally from my own experiences. For instance, the scene in which Lee accidentally spills water all over her colleague’s legal research during a critical motions hearing actually happened to me. A criminal defense lawyer grows a thick skin after a thousand or so of these mortifying incidents.

Much like Lee, I’m also a martial artist with a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do; it was the great love of my life. I practiced nearly every day except for when I was injured, which was a regular occurrence because I loved to spar and didn’t care if my opponents were ten inches taller, sixty pounds heavier, or twenty years younger. Nowadays, my body is inclined to the gentler art of Tai Chi, but when I was practicing karate and still lawyering I felt the two were complementary—each taught me how to be better at the other. The speed, skill, experience, courage, and creativity that Lee possesses as a martial artist are, in my opinion, what also make her an exceptional attorney.

By design, Her Kind of Case depicts a woman’s experience in the criminal defense profession. Women are just as savvy as men when it comes to lawyering, and we might have a leg up when it comes to connecting with our clients and getting them to trust us. In every criminal case I took, I always tried to find something about my client that I could relate to, something we might have in common. The goal was always to get my client to trust me enough to take my advice, even if it meant agreeing to go to prison for a very long time.

Throughout Her Kind of Case, Lee is also concerned about turning 60. Toward the end of my career, I often felt like her. I had a lot of pride in my work and couldn’t stand the idea of not being as good as I was at my peak. I often wondered about the optimal time to quit. Luckily, as soon as I noticed that the party was winding down, I didn’t linger; I grabbed my coat, thanked my hosts, and left.

No good criminal defense attorney can do it by herself, though. I had a number of wonderful colleagues who kept me going: mentors who taught me, lawyers who inspired me, coworkers and investigators who helped me cope with an active caseload of more than a hundred felonies. For the last twenty years of private practice, I had a fabulous law partner, Curtis Ramsay, who shared my worldview and had a great dark sense of humor, which made practicing law less lonely. I also had, at different times, two longtime investigators, Eli Klein and Patti Mazal, who worked with me on my most serious cases.

As for my writing process, plotting a novel involves prolonged walks on the mesa outside my casita in Taos, New Mexico, and along the hiking trails of my longtime residence in Boulder, Colorado, where I tell myself a new story every day and think it’s the one I want to write. I usually end up scrapping it the next day, and then continue to walk for weeks until one morning I wake up and think, “Yes! That’s the story!” Once I start writing, of course, the story changes, but I have to think I have the whole story before I start because otherwise I’m too scared. When the writing gods are looking favorably upon me, I write five days a week for about five or six hours, editing constantly instead of just writing a first draft. It’s a long tedious process, but I’m unwilling to consider a different way. And I think it pays off in the end.
Jeanne Winer was a Colorado-based criminal defense attorney who quit lawyering for writing after 35 years. Her first novel, The Furthest City Light, won the Golden Crown Literary award for best debut fiction, and Her Kind of Case, her second novel, has earned starred reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist. 

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