This classic courtroom drama was made into a blockbuster movie in 1959 starring Jimmy Stewart as the main character, defense attorney Paul Biegler. The facts of the killing are well-known from the beginning. The defendant’s wife, Laura, was raped by the local innkeeper and the defendant, an army lieutenant, took a gun, went to the bar, and shot the rapist dead. He reported that he had done so and was taken into custody. It becomes Biegler’s duty to try to get him off. The plot revolves primarily about the defense of temporary insanity.
I never practiced criminal law, but as a retired FBI agent, and attorney, I am very familiar with the issues in the case. I found the tactics and legal theories very well done, as the author is a former prosecutor. That part was fascinating to me, although I’m not sure so much to the average reader. The story is populated with some colorful characters – a crusty old drunk of a defense lawyer helping Paul, a couple of beautiful women, including the rape victim, a sassy secretary, an unrepentant defendant, a weaselly prosecutor, a folksy sheriff, and a comical deputy.
The author writes with too much wordiness for my taste, prolific in his descriptions almost to the point of purple prose. A sterner editor would have made this a better book. The author does not try to present a balanced perspective on the case. He stacks the deck in favor of the defense. It is clear from the beginning that we are supposed to root for the defendant to get off. The judge and sheriff seem to bend over backwards to favor the defense, too. All the clever ploys of the defense worked and all those of the prosecutor backfired. Nearly all the judge’s ruling favored the defense. That part was a bit hard to believe and rankled me both because of its unbelievability and because it’s the kind of thing that makes people distrust the legal system.
I enjoyed the drama of the story, but in the end my biggest disappointment was the blurring of the lines between good and bad. The “good guys” weren’t as good as the reader might have hoped and the “bad guys” weren’t nearly so bad as we are led to believe. I found the ending both predictable and unrewarding, but all in all, the book is worth a read.