We might be tempted to think we know our system of justice is broken, and just how this came to be. The exoneration of those whom editor Leslie S. Klinger calls (terrifyingly) “the factually innocent” goes on, and the cases we hear of now and again are absolutely enraging and heartbreaking. Intellectual understanding is one thing, but immersion in life stories is another. Now, it is not as if these stories have not been told before. They have. But to truly get an insight into how each cog in this machine can break, simple linear storytelling is not sufficient.
Credit editors Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger for the brilliant insight that informs Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted, an anthology of exonoree stories told to top-notch mystery writers. The entire collection offers an in-depth view of every broken bit of our justice system, from the arrest of an innocent man or woman to their release, generally decades later.
Each portion of the wrongfully-accused-and-convicted story arc is from a different exonoree’s story. After introductions by Scott Turow and Barry Scheck, and a forward by the editors (all alternately compelling, informative and alarming), S. J. Rozan starts off the arc with “The Knock On The Door: The Arrest.” Rozan effectively and economically tells the story of Gloria Killian, a woman whose twisted story is so chock-a-block filled with convoluted idiocy and deliberate legal malfeasance that it seems utterly horrific. Factually innocent, which is to say the suspect did not commit the crime, period, Killian spent some seventeen years in jail. Wisely, each entry offers a brief introduction to set up the very short story that follows, and the story is followed by an afterward that follows up with a précis of the aftermath.
The book breaks down the wrongful accusation process into fifteen parts, and the cumulative effect is powerful. The men and women are from all stripes of life and all levels of income, though, not surprisingly, it’s a lot easier to end up here if you’re under-funded or under-educated. Many here are young enough to be both. And while the genre is non-fiction the feeling is often one of immersion in a Kafka-esque nightmare. Turow’s introduction is aptly titled “The Ultimate Horror.”
The storytelling within each segment is very taut and very powerful. Writers have been matched well; for example, ex-Marine Kirk Bloodsworth spent much of his life on death row and bonds well with Lee Child. Each writer takes the tack that works best for them, but the uniting theme of the progression through the arc of exoneration ensures an unsettling coherence. It’s a page-turner, stunningly well-paced and executed, but the hooks it plants stay with you. It helps to remember that as you read this, you are innocent, lucky and ultimately vulnerable.
Like democracy, the American system of justice may be the worst form of justice – except for all the others. That said, we know it is broken and this book goes a long way towards immersing readers in just how it is broken. Before we can fix anything, we have to not just know, but feel that it is broken. Anatomy of Innocence breaks the story into pieces, and in so doing, is exactly the first step in a new, better story about how justice gets fixed.
I sat down with editor Leslie S. Klinger and contributor Laurie R. King to talk about Anatomy of Innocence and indeed, the innocence Project itself. This is a passion project not just for these two, but all of the contributors. You can follow this link to enter other people’s nightmares, or just ask your jailer employer to lock your cubicle door so your responses to the powerful work will not disturb your fellow inmates co-workers.