After a 2014 gubernatorial moratorium and a 2018 state Supreme Court decision invalidating the death penalty, the Washington State legislature has now passed and Governor Inslee has signed a bill officially abolishing the death penalty in Washington State. Here’s more from the Seattle Times, including the role of racial bias in the decision. Twenty-three states have now abolished the death penalty; Oregon has a moratorium.
Several states, including Idaho, have reinstituted the firing squad, in response to the increasing difficulty getting the drugs used for lethal injection.
More on the death penalty, its history, and the factors used in imposing it in Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure.
When I started this blog, shortly after publication of my guide for writers, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books, 2011), I often wrote about how to write about legal issues. And occasionally, I see an article, case, or topic I want to share with you. Today, I’ve got two.
If you’re writing about criminal cases in the justice system, you need to be aware of plea agreements: what goes into them, what are the benefits, what are the costs.This NPR story discusses a recent report from the American Bar Association, noting that 98% of criminal cases in the federal courts end with a plea agreement. (I suspect the number is slightly lower in state court, where most cases are brought, but is still very high.) Pleas provide efficiency and certainty, but at what cost to the defendants — and to society? Worth thinking about in your story.
And too many trials result in wrongful convictions. One is too many. I wrote about such a case in Blind Faith, my latest standalone (written as Alicia Beckman), based on an actual case in Billings, Montana, where the book is set, involving faulty testimony from a state crime lab employee on hair analysis. I was pleased to see this article in the Billings Gazette about two University of Montana law students who worked with the state’s Innocence Project to overturn a wrongful conviction.
Crime victims, their families, and our communities deserve justice, and that’s often the thrust of our stories. But wrongful convictions and unfair plea agreements serve no one.
In my guide for writers, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011), I gave a quick overview of the issues related to voting by those with a felony conviction, noting that this was a rapidly changing area.
Last month, I attended a Washington State Bar continuing legal education seminar on voting rights and voter suppression, and one resource cited was this report from the Sentencing Project, the national organization promoting sentencing reform that I cited in Books, Crooks, titled Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Due to a Felony Conviction. If your story involves any issues related to voting, racial justice, or post-prison life, or you’re simply interested in these issues, you’ll find it a valuable resource.
A few findings, to give you a taste:
“As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has declined by almost 15 percent since 2016, as states enacted new policies to curtail this practice. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, 5.85 million in 2010, and 6.11 million in 2016.
One out of 44 adults – 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population–is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.
One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population.
Approximately 1.2 million women are disenfranchised, comprising over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.”
Remember that the law varies from state to state and is always changing. Do what you can to get the facts about the law right.
From time to time, I write about legal issues writers may want to use in their fiction, or mistakes to avoid. I spotted two recent articles on topics I wrote about in Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver, 2011). Whether you’ve read the books or not, you may want to know a little more about when teenagers can be charged as adults, as described in this NPR piece about the teenage shooter in Oxford, Michigan, which provides a good overview. The trend toward “Raise the Age” legislation is new since BCC; many states have now set a presumptive age, typically 17 or 18, at which a juvenile can be charged as an adult; below that, such a charge is still possible but certain criteria must be met.
I also wrote about drug courts, an approach aimed at keeping nonviolent offenders charged with drug offenses out of jail and on the road to recovery and productivity. This piece from the Washington Post focuses more broadly on addiction in northern New Mexico, but the highlights on the drug court and its judge are worth a look. (It’s part of a Post project on the importance of regional stories and what is or could be lost when local papers shut down, another important topic.)
As always, check law and practice in your story state. We may be writing fiction, but getting the facts right matters.
After three top ten lists – 10 Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law, 10 Favorite Novels About the Law, and 10 Essential Books on Writing – I thought I’d list some of my trustiest reference books that aren’t about craft. I already included my own Books, Crooks and Counselors in the list of writing essentials, so I won’t list it here, but it certainly would fit.
In no particular order:
The Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, by Steven Kerry Brown (2003) – A terrific guide to finding information from knocking on doors to skip tracing and beyond. Technology has advanced since this book was published, but it’s still very useful.
Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensics Questions for Mystery Writers, by D.P. Lyle, M.D. (2003) – Lyle’s written several other useful books in the same vein. And yes, his Q&A format inspired mine in Books, Crooks.
Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers, by Lee Lofland (2007) – The name says it all. By the force behind The Writers’ Police Academy, also a short story writer.
The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior, by Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D. – Not just a useful book; an article by the author in a writing magazine led me to submit my proposal to her publisher, Quill Driver Books, which then took on Books, Crooks.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the DSM – The professional reference, loaded with detail about specific conditions; surprisingly readable. A therapist friend gave me her copy of the DSM III when an update was published; you can find older versions in used bookstores.
Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds & Injuries, by David W. Page, M.D. (1996) – An older book, but still useful, especially if you don’t have a doctor in the house!
You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. (1990) – I devoured this book, long before I started writing, but have found it and Tannen’s other books terrific explanations of how people really talk, useful in creating realistic dialogue laden with subtext.
The Writer’s Legal Guide: An Authors Guild Desk Reference, by Tad Crawford & Kay Murray – I’ve got the 4th edition, published in 2013, and hope there’s an update in the works. If not, look for a similar book from a reputable source, to guide you on issues such as copyright, defamation, taxes, and much more. If you’re self-publishing, there are references to guide you with contracts and other legal issues, as well.
The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, from Nolo Press, updated regularly
And the Constitution of the United States, 1787, Madison, Jefferson, et al. Many libraries and courts and the ACLU provide free pamphlet-sized copies.
I’m continuing the 10th anniversary celebration of Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.
This week, a list of ten books that should be on every writer’s shelf – with a cracked spine and plenty of page markers!
The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass (2016) – We read in part for emotional experience, and Maass, one of my teachers, is a master at showing writers how to evoke emotion in the reader.
Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell (2004) – crammed with practical approaches
Writing A Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun (1988) (she wrote mysteries as Amanda Cross) – I discovered this book long before I started writing, when my interest was in women’s history, but it’s just as applicable to novelists
Scene & Structure, Jack Bickham (1993) – these days we want our “sequel” or reflection interwoven with the action, but Bickham’s breakdown of scene and its function is enormously useful
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose (2007) – the name says it all
The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, Ted Kooser (2005) – a guide to working with the language, as important for novelists as for poets
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg (1986) – half inspiration, half therapy
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (I’ve got the 2012 edition but it’s since been updated)
How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, Ed. by Lee Child with Laurie R. King (I’m a contributor!)
and of course, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure, Leslie Budewitz (2011)
Obviously I’ve left off basics like a dictionary and thesaurus. Grammar guides, whether you’re partial to The Elements of Style or Sin and Syntax, and Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner (3d ed., 2009). In the inspiration category, I chose Goldberg because I discovered her early in my own writing journey, but you can’t go wrong with Ueland’s If You Want to Write, Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, or Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Books on creativity and on medicine, psychology, and police procedure fill another shelf. (Hmm, I sense another list coming on!)
This month I’m celebrating the publication of my first book, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.Two weeks ago, I shared the backstory of how the book came about and linked to my list of Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law, first published in The Writer in September 2013. The editors asked me for a list of favorite novels about the law, published in a sidebar. And you know what? Though I’ve read hundreds of novels since then, I don’t know that I’d change a single one.
Herewith, one lawyer-writer’s list:
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960) – None of us will ever be Atticus Finch, but we’re better for trying.
Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson (1995) – Trial and prejudice, with brilliant courtroom dialogue.
The Firm, John Grisham (1991) – A newbie with a dog named Hearsay outwits his wily bosses—what’s not to love?
Rumpole of the Bailey series, John Mortimer (1978-2009) – Taught me everything I know about the British legal system.
Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (1987) – The epitome of the legal thriller.
Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver (1958) – A classic by a Michigan judge, basis of the fine and fiery movie.
Every Secret Thing, Laura Lippman (2003) – A castoff Barbie, a missing baby, and two young girls—a heart-breaking look at juvenile justice.
If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him, Sharyn McCrumb (1995) – Domestic violence is nothing new.
The Trial, Franz Kafka (1925) – Still gives me the chills.
The Indian Lawyer, James Welch (1990) – A tale of anger and revenge, beautifully told.
Ten years ago today, my first book was published: Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. I actually first saw it in late September, at a display inches inside the book dealers’ room at Bouchercon, the international mystery convention, held that year in St. Louis. Screaming may have been involved.
The book had its origins in my dual life as lawyer and fiction writer. Other writers often asked me questions about the law: How can my character get a search warrant? Can this character inherit from that one? Who is Miranda and why are are we always warning her? So I created 160 Q&A covering 12 topics from Trial and Error to Research and References — and yes, the book proposal included the whole darn list, though they changed a bit as I wrote and under the probing of my editor, Kent Sorsky. (He’s responsible for me expanding a couple of questions about judges into a full-fledged section of the book.)
I was beyond thrilled when BCC, as I call it, won the Agatha Award the next year for Best Nonfiction, over books about Sherlock and Agatha and Sookie! The award meant I’d correctly identified a niche and filled it. Writers, like lawyers, live and die on our judgment, and that stamp of approval of mine kept me committed to writing my own mysteries, while continuing to help other writers get the facts about law straight in their stories.
And even though the book is ten years old now, it’s still pretty darn relevant, IMO!
For years now, I’ve been talking to writers’ groups about common mistakes writers make about the law. Here’s my list, as originally published in The Writer magazine in 2013, along with a few resources for getting it right. (Sisters in Crime members can watch my webinar in the online archives. And if you’d like me to speak to your writing group, drop me a line!)
Once upon a time, I wrote a book called Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books, 2011), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. One section discussed medical examiners and coroners, the two types of death investigation in the U.S. Since I had to look up a few details of Washington State’s system recently, I thought you might need a refresher, too.
Remember that terms and laws vary state by state. Whether your state uses a coroner, an ME, or a mix of the two, as Washington does, the role is the same: to investigate deaths as required by state law. As the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners says: “Coroners and medical examiners use the same forensic death scene investigation process, forensic autopsies, toxicological testing and decedent histories to determine the cause and manner of death, resulting in consistent, professional and high quality death investigations.“
Cause and manner. That’s their focus. In other words, what was the medical cause of death, and was it natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, undetermined, or pending. This summary from Washington’s Snohomish County website gives more detail on the five manners of death and specific considerations for each. Remember that particulars in your story state may vary. Coroners and ME’s don’t investigate the who and why—that’s up to law enforcement, whether it’s local police, a sheriff’s department, or a federal agency.
Coroners may be elected or appointed. In some states, they are independent, while in others, they are part of the country sheriff’s department. Medical examiners are typically medical doctors appointed to the position. Autopsies may be done within the department or done by forensic pathologists employed by a local hospital. Some states, like Montana, have a combined system where the sheriff is also the coroner, although a deputy may take on the primary responsibility, while autopsies and forensic examination are done by pathologists and forensics examiners at the state Crime Lab. How can you find out more about your story state’s system? Start here, with the CDC’s summary of Coroner/Medical Examiner Systems, by State; it also provides links to info for each state. The site also provides additional info that will intrigue crime writers. You might also glean useful details from the National Association of Medical Examiners website, including how to become a medical examiner, the violent death reporting system, and more.
Since last week was the launch of my tenth novel, The Solace of Bay Leaves, the 5th Spice Shop mystery, I figured it might be good, in talking about favorite references, to mention my first book, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011). When I first joined authors’ groups, other writers asked me questions about the law—how would my detective get a search warrant, can this character inherit from that one, who is Miranda and why are we always warning her? Like DP Lyle’s Murder and Mayhem which I highlighted a couple of weeks ago, it’s aimed at mystery writers, but it’s equally useful for nonfiction writers, including journalists. 160 questions and answers in a dozen topics, illustrated with examples from real-life cases, including some of my own, and books and movies.
And yes, I still pull my own copy off the shelf now and then to remind myself of the facts about the law. Because even though it’s fiction, we owe our readers the truth.
By the way, Books and Crooks, as it’s known in my house, won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Such a special moment, because it told me I’d correctly identified a need and filled it. Though it’s been out several years, it is still largely accurate, though there have been quite a few developments in the law of the death penalty since then. Use this blog’s search function for some updates.