By Charles Skoller, Bridgeway Books, Austin, Texas, 228 pages, $19.95
On March 13, 1964 a young woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed outside her Kew Gardens apartment, left for dead, and then finally stabbed to death by the murderer who returned to finish her off, while more than 30 of her neighbors witnessed the attack from the safety of their apartments and over the course of almost 45 minutes took no action to help her! The indifference of almost all of her neighbors, several of whom might have saved her life without putting themselves at any risk, simply by making a telephone call, elicited outrage from across the country and even included a reaction from then president Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The crime became a symbol of urban indifference and painted New York and Queens as cold and uncaring places for some time. This crime would also lead to what would be “the trial of the century” of its time. The prosecutor assigned to this trial was a young and relatively inexperienced lawyer named Charles Skoller. “Twisted Confessions” is Mr. Skoller’s memoir of his experiences trying that case as well as related trials.
Alan Dershowitz recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that great trial accounts read like novels but are as documented as scientific papers (The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2009). To this I would add that if the events out of which the trial arose are compelling, the account of the trial is likely to be as well. In the case of “Twisted Confessions,” the underlying facts are significant from both a sociological and historical perspective (particularly, New York history). In fact, I first became familiar with this crime, which occurred before I was born, in an undergraduate sociology class taught by Professor David Agnew at Emory University. The significance of the underlying crime, combined with several novel issues relating to prosecuting different murder trials where more than one person had confessed to the same crime, make this an interesting read for those interested in the sociological and historical aspects surrounding the trial, as well as a useful book for litigators who may gain insights from Mr. Skoller’s handling of various aspects of the case.
“Twisted Confessions” reads like a novel and is not footnoted. While it might have been helpful to have seen some of the objective or historical sources, such as newspaper articles of the day (which according to Mr. Skoller were often incorrect anyhow) or parts of the trial transcript, Mr. Skoller’s book is written as a memoir not as a history textbook or trial strategy hornbook. One also wonders how the book might have been different if Mr. Skoller had written it closer to the time of the events, as opposed to looking back from the vantage point of more than 40 years later. However, this does not prevent it from offering useful tidbits on trial strategy that can be appreciated by trial lawyers at all levels of experience. The book would be particularly useful to any lawyer thrown in to the fray of a high profile trial with a lot of press coverage.
Mr. Skoller combines a prosecutor’s eye for relevant details with a novelist’s ability to create urgency in the reader. You will want to find out how this true story ends. He writes with the voice of a trial lawyer (or a New York Post columnist) The people who hang out at the courthouse and watch the trial are “court buffs, rubbernecking retirees, curiosity seekers and voracious consumers of tabloid news.” Opposing counsel is “a stocky man in his late forties with pronounced jowls . . . One of the slowest moving people I had ever seen. A man who made his way around the defense table and moved toward the jury box, and looked as if his every step was a painful ordeal.” The reader feels as if he is there himself and the trial lawyer can hear the clinking of swords as Skoller seeks justice for the victims of horrible crimes.
While it is not written as a trial strategy book per se, the reader who is a trial lawyer will pick up a few ideas and the non litigator will find it an interesting primer on some aspects of trial strategy. Many of the more novel issues related to the fact that the killer in the Genovese case also confessed to the murder of another young woman, Barbara Kralik, and to how this impacted both cases and how Mr. Skoller and his office reacted to that. Mr. Skoller offers useful tidbits on everything from his voir dire (jury selection) strategy to demonstrating why so many cases are won or lost outside of the court room in the investigatory process. While many lawyers will interview jurors after a trial, I found to be notable Mr. Skoller’s habit of talking during a trial to court buffs “who had useful things to offer . . . for example areas of testimony to pursue.”
‘Twisted Confessions” is a quick and compelling read that will be of interest to trial lawyers as well as to those who are interested in the Kitty Genovese case for historical or sociological reasons.
Alan Willig is an account executive for TVEyes, a search engine for television and radio broadcasts, and an attorney.