In my last post I started a review of Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult providing my perspective as a lawyer on the evidence as it unfolded in the book. This post carries on with that review with my comments as a lawyer in italics.
Now the parents are convinced this black woman murdered their child. They hate her. Jefferson’s public defender, Kennedy, wants to keep race out of the trial.
That is impossible. The note cannot be ignored. The baby’s parents are not merely prejudiced. They fervently believe in the superiority of the white race. The issue of race will be in every juror’s mind.
Ruth has spent a lifetime living the race consciousness of America. A prominent African American broadcaster and minister reaches out to her wanting to publicize her charges as racist.
Not a good idea. The parents of Davis had nothing to do with the actual circumstances of death. A public campaign does not help a defence in Canada. From the North I am not sure whether American jurors can be swayed by such overt public appeals.
Jefferson’s pride will not let her take financial assistance for her living expenses. She takes a job at McDonald’s.
Pride is more often a vice than a virtue when you are a criminal defendant. I have told many clients (I am a private counsel rather than legal aid) in trouble that they need to find the resources to properly defend their case and, if they lack the resources, they may need to seek out assistance from family and friends. Refusing help is a bad idea. I know if Ruth had a friend or family member in trouble she would offer assistance. It is not weakness to take help when it is needed. Her stubborn unwillingness to accept help when she is facing life in prison and is the single mother of a 17 year old son is great for literary tension but simply perverse when it risks his future as well as her own.
I thought of famed San Francisco defence lawyer Jake Ehrlich on his fees for defending murder. His fees were E-V-E-R-T-H-I-N-G the client owned for what could be more valuable than saving a client from execution. Ruth was not facing execution but she was facing life in prison.
It is on the eve of trial that expert evidence for the defence is found providing a credible defence.
Only in fiction to build drama would an expert be consulted so late in the process. In real life it would be one of the first steps of the defence. The author could have built just as much drama from such an early consultation and the State’s refusal to accept the evidence of the defence expert.
While my review above concentrates on the legal case Picoult’s focus in the book is building a powerful portrayal of the perception of race dominating American life through the examination of the charges and the trial.
For the second year in a row there is a finalist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction fraught with the tensions of race relations in America.
Last year it was The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson. Young black lawyer, Regina Mary Robichard, goes to Mississippi in 1946 to investigate the murder of a decorated Negro (the description of the day) war veteran. She encounters a rigidly segregated American South.
Sixty-nine years later Ruth lives a life in which there is subtle segregation. She can work in a prominent hospital. She can live in a mainly white neighbourhood. Her son can attend a mainly white school. However, she is not really a part of the life of her white colleagues nor is she really a part of the neighbourhood nor is her son really a part of the school. There is tolerance rather than equality.
Small Great Things is an exceptional book. My only disappointment is in the ending but not in the result of the trial. The finish of the book after the trial felt contrived after the scorching realism of the rest of the plot. I know I expect too much of popular fiction to have a realistic ending.
Reading Small Great Things forces white readers to face their personal attitudes towards race. Looking at my own attitudes left me uncomfortable.