BRIGHT IDEAS: John Temple on The Last Lawyer

Last Lawyer 2John Temple is Associate Dean of the P.I. Reed School of Journalism. His new book, The Last Lawyer, follows Ken Rose as he handles a post-conviction death penalty case. Whether one is for or against the death penalty, the book reveals how any system with capital punishment must face the problems of inadequate defense, mental retardation, mental illness, and sketchy witness testimony. John is not, however, a lawyer. His post today explains what drew him to this story and the difficult choices the story made him face as writer. For those interested in chronicling major social issues and for those who want to know the details of what it takes to do capital defense work, this book should be a great place to start.


By John Temple, author of The Last Lawyer

Unlike many authors who set out to write about hot-button issues, I was not motivated by ideology, but rather by a journalistic impulse — what Tom Wolfe calls the desire to chronicle “the way we live now.”

About 10 years ago, I saw a news brief about a team of lawyers who were flying in to Texas to defend a man who faced a looming execution date. It had never occurred to me that there were lawyers who specialized in last-minute capital appeals. That was a book, I thought. It would have the scope, the ticking-clock narrative, the characters with goals.

In 2004, I began looking for the right setting. I settled on North Carolina. It had a large death row, an organization exclusively devoted to fighting death sentences (the Center for Death Penalty Litigation), and it was within driving distance of my home in West Virginia. I contacted Ken Rose, the executive director of the CDPL, and explained my plan. He helped me arrange a visit to Durham to meet some attorneys who might have a case I could follow. He was clear that he thought the attorney should be someone other than himself.

In May of that year, I drove to Durham and spent the first couple of days interviewing CDPL attorneys, including Ken. None of the other lawyers were litigating cases that seemed quite right for my idea. Meanwhile, I was growing more interested in Ken, a self-effacing, driven man who’d been doing the work for more than a quarter-century. But Ken brushed aside my queries about his own cases.

At Ken’s request, I had carried along a manuscript of my then-unpublished first book, Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office. I was nervous to give it to him because it was a book about courts and homicide cases, Ken’s area of expertise. I worried he’d find something offensive – or worse, incorrect – and cut off my access.

But he read the manuscript in one night, and the next day, he gave it back to me without much comment. Whatever he’d thought, he had apparently come to a conclusion. He sat back on his couch and said the words I’d been hoping to hear: “You know, I have a case you might be interested in.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

That was the beginning of my four-and-a-half year journey into the world of capital post-conviction law. But just because Ken was willing to share the story of one of his cases for me didn’t mean that I had gained full access to the case. For the next several months, Ken and his co-counsel and I negotiated an agreement that would give me the detail I needed to write a full and honest account of the case.

We eventually struck a deal. They agreed to give me full access to their case files and allow me to shadow them during strategy sessions and witness interviews.
In exchange, I made several concessions. I agreed not to publish the book until the case had reached some sort of conclusion, whether that meant a reduced sentence, exoneration, or execution. This was difficult because capital post-conviction cases can drag on for decades, and I had not yet earned tenure. It was a gamble, but one I was willing to take, because I simply didn’t want to write a book about an unfinished case.

I also agreed to let the CDPL lawyers read the book before I published it, though I would retain full editorial control. As a former newspaper reporter, I’d been trained to never allow sources to read your work before publication. However, I didn’t think the rationale behind this journalistic tradition applied to a book of this scope. Why not give sources the chance to correct factual errors, I thought, especially when I had retained editorial control on a story that was years in the making? It wasn’t a difficult concession.

After all the years of work, the book is now finished, and we all adhered to our agreement. When I sent Ken Rose the completed manuscript last year, I was very concerned about his reaction. Some parts of the book paint him in an unflattering light, and he’s not a guy who loves the limelight in the first place.

Though he was initially concerned about a few aspects, and clearly uncomfortable in the role of the book’s protagonist, Ken has handled the book’s publication in the most gracious manner. He recently participated in a panel discussion with me at West Virginia University, and has invited me to North Carolina to speak together.

It’s impossible to sum up what I learned over this five-year journey, but from a writer’s standpoint, I’ll offer what I deem to be the biggest lessons. First and above all else, choose a subject that fuels your passion, because when things break down or seem like they might not work out (as was the case for an almost 18-month span during my reporting), you’ll need that inner strength to continue. Second, don’t be afraid to jump outside of your comfort zone. It felt awkward and “unjournalistic” to allow the characters in my book to read the manuscript before publication, but the product was much more accurate as a result. Finally, a little luck can never hurt — and a happy ending is the icing on the cake.

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1 Response

  1. The Last Lawyer grants hope that a less than perfect legal system can be made to work in at least one case, after years of unjustness. I recommened this book for attorneys and non-laywers alike. Pose it in on top of the heap of fiction by your bedstand — this is one you’ll want to read for the dramatic play alone. Thank you John Temple! .