Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mystery Readers Make Tough Jurors--for prosecutors: Guest Post by Tom Siegel

Tom Siegel:
Mystery Readers Make Tough Jurors--for prosecutors

Before writing my debut novel, The Astronaut’s Son (Woodhall Press), I was a litigator for twenty years, spending eight of them as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York. No surprise, then, that my book involves a son, Jonathan Stein, conducting what amounts to a cold-case investigation of his father’s mysterious death. He chases leads, reviews documents and interviews (and cross-examines) witnesses—all in pursuit of truth and justice. Exactly what I did when investigating mafia murders. If I’ve gotten the book right, you’ll be kept guessing until the very end. This, of course, is the last thing I wanted as a prosecutor. I wanted my opening statement to leave jurors convinced that there was only one possible outcome, that the evidence would only reinforce what I had promised and that their deliberations would be easy. No prosecutor ever wants suspense or surprise. She wants anti-climax from day one.

Whenever called upon to conduct voir dire, the process of jury selection, I kept careful watch for both the lovers of TV crime dramas, like CSI or Law & Order, and for you, dear readers, the consumers of Marple, Holmes, Warshawski, Poirot and so many other fictional sleuths. Those addicted to the pretzel twists and hairpin turns of knotty plots present a unique challenge to the side with the burden of proof. It’s not because you might sharply scrutinize the quality of evidence, studying documents and listening acutely to witnesses. And it’s not because you would hold the government to its burden of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” It’s because most trials, from your point of view, would be an impossible let-down. It’s because you’ve been conditioned by years spent rifling through riveting pages during sleepless nights, rainy Sundays and cross-country flights to expect titillation and obfuscation, to expect the shock of a drawing-room denouement or the gasps of a courtroom confession. Until that moment of high drama, the story must be equivocal, the truth occult. It could be Colonel Mustard, or Professor Plum, or some anonymous scullery maid or vagabond farm hand. The case can’t possibly be solved on page one, or even page two hundred. All must rest in doubt until the final chapter. That word—doubt—still sends shivers down my lawyerly spine. You can begin to understand why I was afraid of you. I feared that you would, albeit unconsciously, impose the template of your passion on what looks like a familiar enough literary setting, the courtroom. I could imagine your reactions to the typical criminal trial. “There’s got to be more to it.” “It can’t be that easy.” “There has to be some puzzle to solve.”

Whenever I had one (or more) of your ilk in the jury box, I went to great lengths to distinguish the fictive universe from the mean streets of New York City. “There’s no mystery here,” was a line oft-repeated in my closing arguments. “Follow the judge’s legal instructions, of course, but remember that trials you’ve seen on TV or read about in books have to hold audiences in suspense to please advertisers and publishers (and readers).” It was all part of my theme of inevitability—everything seen and heard leads to only one conclusion. No doubt. Defense lawyers, on the other hand, love the mystery, embracing (and sometimes creating) contradiction, fog and speculation. They love it so much, in fact, that they don’t ever want it to be resolved. Who done it? Who knows? My plea, on the other hand, was to resist all flights of fancy. I stumped for boring, feet-on-the-ground rationality. You might love drama—who doesn’t—but don’t look for it in deliberations. Just the facts, as Joe Friday would say. Just like I promised.

I hope, however, that as a novelist, I’ve been a very, very bad prosecutor.

Tom Seigel has served as both Deputy Chief and Chief of the Justice Department’s Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force, prosecuting members and associates of La Cosa Nostra. After twenty years as a litigator, Tom earned an MFA in fiction writing. THE ASTRONAUT’S SON is his debut novel.

1 comment:

Paul D. Marks said...

I've always thought that as a mystery writer I would be a bad juror, but I never thought of readers that way. But good point.