Writing about legal issues

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

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.

Wrongfully convicted – or wrongfully released?

The headlines read like fiction: Man released after decades in prison. All across Montana, people are debating the case of Barry Beach, released in early December after nearly 29 years in prison for the 1979 murder of a 17-year-old girl–a murder he says he didn’t commit.

Beach has fought years for a new trial, arguing that a confession he gave police in Louisiana a few years after the murder was coerced, and that new evidence shows Kim Nees was murdered by a group of teenage girls, at a party spot on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northwest Montana. His 2007 request for pardon or parole was denied. In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ordered a hearing to allow him to present newly discovered evidence. That hearing was finally held in November 2011, and included testimony by a woman who as a ten-year-old, heard the murder occur. District Judge Wayne Phillips ordered a new trial.

Beach’s cause has been supported by many Montanans, as well as Centurion Ministries and the Innocence Project. Beach, who’s white, is also supported by an Indian-owned newspaper in Fort Peck.

Sadly, the young reporter, who’s interest in the story was spurred by a 2008 story on Dateline, has reportedly been threatened because of his articles investigating the case.

Beach was released without bond, a decision the state opposed, although Judge Phillips pointed out that a man who went to prison at 21 would not have the assets to post bond. He did impose a long list of conditions.

A new trial date hasn’t been set yet. I suspect pretrial publicity may make a fair trial impossible in Roosevelt County, population just under 11,000, where the murder occurred, and that the trial will be moved to another county.

Life outside prison isn’t going to be easy, though Beach says he’s enjoying it. I’ll try to post updates on major events. Murder cries for justice–and so, if proven, does wrongful conviction.

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