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Night of the Devil by David Stout (Camino Books, 228 pages, $24.95) Forty years ago, two police officers in Lodi, N.J., entered a bar in the early morning in response to noise complaints. Peter Voto and Gary Tedesco did not emerge from the Angel Lounge alive. Drinking in the Angel Lounge that night were two young career criminals who had met while serving prison terms. Upset at seeing the police officers enter the bar, the volatile patrons decided instantaneously to commit murder. Frank Falco and Thomas Trantino escaped the murder scene. But within a couple of days, Falco had been shot dead by police in pursuit, and Trantino had surrendered separately. The local prosecutor took Trantino to trial, winning a conviction and a sentence of death by electrocution. It appeared the system had worked well. On the day the two police officers died, David Stout was a 21-year-old college student living in Pennsylvania. Fourteen years later, in 1977, Stout accepted a job at The Record, a New Jersey daily newspaper that includes Lodi in its circulation area. Trantino, not put to death by the state but still incarcerated, made the newspaper once in a while — sometimes his case came up because of debates about the morality and legality of the death penalty; because of his seeming rehabilitation while imprisoned, including development of his talent as a painter; because of his state parole board hearings. After five years at The Record, Stout joined The New York Times staff. He published three mystery novels, all of them superb. The 1963 cop killing in Lodi had become buried deep in Stout’s mind. Then, in 1999, Trantino re-entered the news. It looked as if New Jersey authorities would grant him parole after his long stretch in prison. Lots of citizens were outraged. A smaller number of citizens applauded the development, believing that the state had played politics with Trantino’s legitimate petition. No matter how heinous the crime, they believed, there’s no excuse for breaking the rules. After receiving an overture to write a book about the Trantino case, Stout decided to try. What his effort has yielded is an unorthodox case study of the criminal justice system. The book has little inherent suspense. Readers know from the start that Trantino will be convicted and sentenced to death. The fascination of the meticulously reported book is not the what, but rather the why of the criminal justice system. For example, why did Trantino escape execution? Why did the prosecutor fail to win two murder convictions, with the sentences to be served consecutively, rather than one? Why did New Jersey authorities appear to manipulate the parole process? Why did Trantino eventually win his release after so many failed, apparently hopeless, attempts? Stout is sensitive to the surviving members of the Voto and Tedesco families, many of whom fervently wished for Trantino’s execution. Stout is not opposed to the death penalty. If Trantino had been executed by New Jersey, Stout probably would have seen the justice in that result. On the other hand, Stout believes Trantino has changed, is remorseful, is no longer a threat to society. On a cosmic scale, the most important lesson of Stout’s book is that no two murder cases are the same, nor are all murderers the same. Justice and mercy must be measured out in differing doses depending on the circumstances. On a more earthly scale, Stout’s book is an exposé of a criminal justice system that, while convicting the right man, malfunctioned by not meaning what it said and not saying what it meant. The parole system malfunctioned egregiously. Stout’s accounts of parole hearing upon parole hearing might seem monotonous. But monotony is the point. The system feels monotonous to the imprisoned criminal who has been led to believe that a release date is near based on time served and good behavior. The system feels monotonous to the police officers, prosecutors, and crime victims who must jump back in year after year to oppose a criminal’s release from prison. By shining a light into a dark corner of the system, Stout has made a tangible contribution to understanding how the system works and sometimes fails to work. Steve Weinberg of Columbia, Mo., reviews books regularly for Legal Times.

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