The last of my newly renamed and relaunched Starting Over Series is An Imperfect Process, and this was one book I was happy to retitle. An Imperfect Process had been my working title, but the publisher didn’t like it and preferred the very generic Twist of Fate. Oh, well. I think my title suits the book’s theme of an imperfect justice system, and also the heroine’s issues about falling in love.
This story was inspired when I read in the Baltimore Sun about a local man named Michael Austin who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Austin was convicted by the flip-flop testimony of a lying eyewitness, and a business card that turned out to be totally irrelevant. Not only had several other eyewitnesses described a killer of very different appearance, but Austin had been at work at the time of the murder and had a time card to prove it.
It took twenty-seven years for the truth to set him free. His story horrified me. That a man could be convicted and imprisoned when there was absolutely no evidence? While we know in general that the justice system makes mistakes sometimes, this error was jaw-droppingly outrageous.
Another story also caught my attention: the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who killed several people and injured others with letter bombs. He was caught when his brother David and David’s wife Linda realized that the Unabomber must be Ted and contacted federal authorities. Clearly the Unabomber needed to be stopped, but turning in your own brother had to have been a haunting moral dilemma for David Kaczynski.
Those two real life stories helped provide the raw material for my plot. I had my heroine—Val Covington, a lawyer with wild red curls and a whip smart brain. The story begins when Val receives an unexpected windfall large that will allow her to leave her high paid job as a corporate litigator and do law that she can feel passionate about: representing little guys who need legal help.
Val comes by her idealism honestly. She was born in a commune to an artist mother and a middle class kid who eventually quit the hippie life and went off to Harvard Law and a solid position in the upper middle class. Val’s father paid child support, but she was always at the periphery of his life, which may have had something to do with her choice of Harvard Law.
But she has enough of her mother’s idealism to like the idea of helping out underdogs, so she decides to open her own office, which leads to a pair of life changers: Val’s invaluable assistant, Kendra Brooks, says she’ll run Val’s new practice if in return Val will look into the conviction of Daniel Monroe, who is on Death Row. He was Kendra’s lover and father of her only son, and she knows he’s innocent because he was with her when the murder took place. But no one believed her, and time is running out. Val agrees to look into the case, not knowing what she’s getting herself into.
Her next life changer is visiting an old church that is being rehabbed and which might make a good office. She meets the owner/rehabber, Rob Smith, who is tough, smart, sexy and enigmatic—and has a personal interest in death penalty cases. As a former Marine Corp investigator, he also has some skills that will help Val in her quest for justice.
Here’s a brief excerpt of their first meeting:
Val glanced at Rob. Hard to read expressions under that beard, but his eyes were intent. “If you mean can I feel that this was a much loved house of worship, yes. I’m glad you saved it. No new building would ever have such richness.” She advanced, feeling as if she were swimming in light. “Not right for me, though.”
“What sort of business are you in?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
She smiled wryly at the surprise in his voice. “People always have trouble believing that. My first week in law school, one professor called on me by saying, ‘You, the barmaid in the third row.’”
“Isn’t that considered harassment?”
“Probably, but at Harvard Law, the philosophy is to torment students into toughness. If you can’t take it, too bad. I was warned that HLS is not a user-friendly school, but I didn’t really appreciate what that meant until it was too late.”
“In the case of that professor, it meant that he noticed you. Any man would.”
To her surprise, she blushed. “Is that a compliment?”
“Definitely, in a non-harassing sort of way.” He smiled and changed the subject. “Why Harvard? Because it looks so good on a résumé?”
“That, and to prove I could do it.” She turned. Rob was standing in a swath of light, the sun blonding his hair and emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders. Suppressing thoughts of how long she had been celibate, she continued, “My mother says that even when I was a toddler, the surest way to get me to do something was to say it was a bad idea.”
Attraction grows as Val and Rob work together to find new evidence to free Daniel Monroe. But Rob is haunted by his past and Val has commitment issues, so falling in love is indeed an imperfect process. But really—isn’t it always???
An Imperfect Process is one of my most-researched books. I talked to all kinds of lawyers: legal aid, family law, and a public defender, among others. My agent of the time was married to a retired federal judge, and he read the judge’s chambers scene for me.
I did plenty of reading of my own. Most useful was the book Actual Innocence, by Barry Sheck, Peter Neufeuld, and Jim Dwyer. Sheck and Neufeld founded the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating those who have been wrongful convicted, and Dwyer is an award winning journalist.
Each chapter of the book is a case study of an actual wrongful conviction, and the specific systemic failures that resulted in an innocent person being convicted. One of the most common problems is mistaken eyewitnesses, but there are all kinds of other reasons, like faulty lab work, false confessions, public outrage over a particularly heinous crime, and more. The book was a compelling read as well a shocking wake up call, and it helped me construct a plausible scenario for my book.
An Imperfect Process has been called controversial, which I don’t quite get. Granted, capital punishment is controversial (and as a novelist, I can see both sides.) But really, is there anyone in FAVOR of executing innocent people? I shouldn’t think so!
I also researched some other topics, such as the Big Sisters organization, as Val tried to decide how she felt about having children. While driving a Harlequin editor to the airport, I interviewed her about the care and feeding of her wild red curls. I studied eradication of graffiti. And Quakers. And the cost of a Rolls-Royce. <G> I love this job!
Mary Jo, adding the question: do you have any idea how many books are named Twist of Fate???