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Reversible Errors by Scott Turow (Farrar Straus Giroux, 433 pages, $28) Lawyer-novelist (or should that be novelist-lawyer) Scott Turow finished service earlier this year on the Illinois governor’s commission to reform the capital punishment system. A former federal prosecutor in his native Chicago, where he is now a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Turow thought he already had a good understanding of the system. But he and other members of the commission ended up surprised at how often the system breaks down, leading to unfair trials of guilty defendants and wrongful convictions of innocent defendants. The commission’s report, issued last April, calls for significant changes in the way police, prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, jurors, and forensic scientists do their jobs. It seems quite likely that Turow’s experience on the commission informs his sixth novel, which is about the flaws — and the strengths — of the criminal justice system, especially in death penalty cases. Presumed Innocent, Turow’s first novel, made his name a household word in 1987, more so after it became a 1990 movie starring Harrison Ford. He followed with bestsellers The Burden of Proof, Pleading Guilty, The Laws of Our Fathers, and Personal Injuries. His plotting has always been strong, his novelistic techniques (character development, use of dialogue, manipulation of time, among others) heavy-handed but improving. It would be an exaggeration to call Reversible Errors a masterpiece, but it certainly shows growth by Turow as a novelist. The two words of the title refer not only to a flawed criminal justice system, but also to the state of the main characters’ lives. They have all made mistakes in the past, and they are all trying to do better in the present. The novel revolves around a 1991 restaurant triple murder in Turow’s fictional Kindle County, pretty much based on Cook County, Ill. Rommy Gandolph, the slow-witted defendant, confessed during police interrogation, but after his conviction by a jury, Gandolph maintained his innocence from death row. The court victory aided the career of Muriel Wynn, the trial prosecutor who, 10 years later, is running for state’s attorney. She worked closely on the Gandolph case with homicide detective Larry Starczek, who became her lover before she married, and remained her lover after she married. In the present, Gandolph has one last appeal. Arthur Raven, his reluctant court-appointed lawyer, is doing his best, but is nearly certain his best will not be good enough. A former prosecutor, the mild-mannered, physically unimpressive Raven fears that failing to keep Gandolph alive will destroy both of them. His confidence builds, though, as his young associate, Pamela Towns, pushes him to believe in Gandolph’s innocence. It builds further as the normally celibate Raven becomes emotionally involved with an unlikely lover, Gillian Sullivan. Sullivan, the presiding judge during Gandolph’s 1991 trial, has just been released from prison, disbarred for taking bribes and recovering from a heroin addiction. Although some of the writing is awkward — particularly the Wynn-Starczek and Raven-Sullivan dialogue and the descriptions of their sexual trysts — Turow is masterful in demonstrating how the professional judgments of detectives, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges are influenced by the vicissitudes of their private lives. Yet the novel’s special strength, however, is portraying how those in the criminal justice system go about their jobs. Turow explains how police obtain evidence through questionable means, how prosecutors manage to hide possibly helpful evidence from the defense, how defense lawyers can weave plausible stories for juries and appellate judges that omit inconvenient details. Unsurprisingly, the police and prosecutors are portrayed as bending and breaking the rules to convict those they believe are guilty. Just as unsurprisingly, the defense lawyers are portrayed as seeking any edge they can find to prevail, even if they are unsure of the defendant’s innocence. Despite those unsurprising portrayals, Turow’s characters are not cartoonish. Wynn and Starczek, Raven and Sullivan often realize when they are crossing the lines, and sometimes correct their professional sins because that is the right thing to do. Two examples: • The county trial prosecutor worries about appearing before an unfamiliar federal judge, especially when she hears her homicide detective refer to federal court as “like the Union League Club. Everybody talking very quietly and smiling at one another because they’re not the poor peasants.” Reflecting on that characterization, the chief deputy district attorney understands “she was well-treated on those rare occasions when she entered the state’s courtrooms these days. The Superior Court judges were elected, which meant sooner or later almost all of them would be on the same ticket with her. Federal court, however, was another universe, where the judges were appointed for life.” • At the first federal court hearing, the defense attorney worries about the perception of the prosecutor, his former colleague: “It chagrined [Arthur] to recognize that after today, she would regard him the way prosecutors viewed most defense lawyers — another decent mortal whose soul had been sucked out of him by the vampires he represented.” At times, such insights, however perceptive, might lead a reader’s mind to wander from the plot. But the plot, not the insights, is meant to drive the novel. The ending will probably come as no surprise to most readers. How Turow takes readers to that ending might come as a surprise. The twists can be confusing, especially because the novel jumps so frequently between 1991 and 2001. To put it another way, reading Reversible Errors is more taxing than reading most mystery novels. The effort is worthwhile. Steve Weinberg is a free-lance investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo. He is leading a multi-year national study of local prosecutors.

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