Nonfiction author John Temple took a gamble.
The former Greensboro News & Record reporter and current West Virginia University professor wanted to write a book about a team of death-penalty appeals lawyers, and so he focused on a single case at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. In exchange for access to confidential files, he promised not to publish the book until convicted inmate Bo Jones was either executed or taken off death row.
"There were times in there when I really wondered: Am I going to be following this case for 20 years?" Temple said.
But five years later, Temple is able to tell the story of the center's efforts to save Jones from lethal injection in his book, "The Last Lawyer."
The book delves into a tangled web of death-penalty jurisprudence, where judges and prosecutors look all too human and life-or-death decisions sometimes hang on hapless defense attorneys. Temple doesn't spare his protagonists, either. Former center director Ken Rose, the hero of the story, uses his condescending "West Point look" on colleagues who have disappointed him; Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Klein schmidt, another center lawyer, reveals a smoking habit.
"It does a good job of capturing the stress and the anxiety," said Kleinschmidt. "It may reveal more ... than we may have felt comfortable with."
But Rose gave Temple the access because he believes the public would not tolerate the current death-penalty system if people understood how it works. Jones, with a low IQ and mental illness, went to death row though there was no evidence of his guilt other than the testimony of his impoverished ex-girlfriend, whom prosecutors had paid to testify.
"He was poor. He had no money. He was borderline mentally retarded. He had serious issues with mental illness. He had difficulty assisting his trial counsel and assisting with his defense," Rose said. "Those were the reasons why he was convicted and sentenced to death, and that shouldn't be."
"The Last Lawyer" leaves open the question of Jones' innocence. An ineffective justice system bears the only clear burden of guilt in the story. His co-defendant, Larry Lamb, remains in prison for life, solely on testimony from the same witness.
"It's a burning question in this case," Rose said of who actually killed bootlegger Leamon Grady in 1987 in Duplin County. "... We didn't get that [answer, in the book], and we didn't get that in real life."
Temple said he had to come to terms with the lack of a resolution early in the process so he could focus on painting a real-life portrait of Rose and his colleagues.
"I understood that I was never going to know and no one was ever going to know," he said. "That's never going to be found out. The investigation was so cold by the time they even identified Bo Jones as a suspect. There was not some kind of big-time investigation where you could go back and kind of dig something up."
Rather than a typical murder mystery, "The Last Lawyer" is more like a "conviction mystery," telling the story of how Jones ended up on death row. The eventual outcome shocked Jones' lawyers, and this article will not spoil the ending for readers unfamiliar with the case.
Temple, whose previous book described the lives of coroners in Pittsburgh, set out to write a book on lawyers and ended up latching onto one particular case. Published in November by the University Press of Mississippi, "The Last Lawyer" received favorable notice in Publishers Weekly.
"[The books are] about unusual jobs - jobs that a lot of people wouldn't want but are really interesting and sort of dramatic," he said. "[For my next book] I want to do something a little lighter than the last two subjects. Something without death in the title."
Rose said Temple took a complicated topic and translated it for a lay reader. He hopes the book will result in more cases getting judicial review and perhaps influence legislators to shield mentally ill convicts from capital punishment, as a current bill in the General Assembly proposes.
email@example.com or 919 -932-8760