Long Way Home by Laura Caldwell (Free Press Books)
When Jen at Devourer of Books told me about her plan to dedicate the month of October to Chicago area authors, I said I would be happy to join her. She had gathered a list of Chicago authors with upcoming books, and there was a new one by Laura Caldwell that caught my eye.
Long Way Home is the remarkable story of Laura Caldwell's pro bono work on behalf of Jovan Mosley, a young Chicago man who gave a false confession to the Chicago police, and then sat in prison for nearly six years awaiting trial for first-degree murder.
Caldwell was a civil litigation attorney in Chicago before she quit to be a full-time writer. She calls herself a "lapsed lawyer" although she is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University of Loyola School of Law. I knew she wrote a detective series with a high-heeled heroine, but I'd never read any of her books before.
I picked up Long Way Home expecting an interesting journalistic piece, but I was wrong. It was so much more. While the book does provide all of the details of a tragic murder on Chicago's South Side and exposes the shocking flaws in the criminal justice system at 26th and California, this is no dry tale. This book has the pace and suspense of a well plotted courtroom drama, with the heart and soul of the best memoirs. I was in tears by the time the verdict was announced.
I had expected to be a harsh critic. Before I read this book I was skeptical about the notion of false confessions, at least in the absence of outright fraud or torture. Isn't a "false confession" just a confession that the accused later regrets? Back in my law school days, I worked both sides of the fence, first as an intern in a public defender's office and then in a D.A.'s office. Call it bias, cynicism or just plain reality, most of the defendants I met had the opposite problem: false claims of innocence. The jury in Caldwell's story had to struggle with these same doubts.
Jovan Mosley's story changed my mind. There were overzealous cops, missing police reports, delayed Miranda warnings and false promises of leniency. Add to that the problem of Chicago's outrageously overburdened criminal court system, and a nice, innocent kid, and you have a six year nightmare that never should have happened.
But Laura Caldwell's book isn't necessarily about blame and tragedy. It's an old-fashioned, big-hearted story about truth and justice and the courage to believe that good things can happen to good people in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. There's laughter and humor along the way, as Caldwell and Mosley's lead attorney Catharine O'Daniel work to keep Mosley's spirits up through the ordeal. Long hours of trial preparation turn the trial partners into punch-drunk girlfriends. Caldwell does a great job of capturing the surprising collegiality among the judges, cops and attorneys who work in the courtrooms at 26th and California. I would have to agree that the practice of criminal law seems way more "civil" than civil law in Chicago. And best of all, the courtroom scenes and jury deliberations are as well drafted and dramatic as those in a Scott Turow novel.
Long Way Home was a wonderful discovery for Chicago Author Month. I've already put Caldwell's detective novels on my reading list, especially the Rome Affair. As Caldwell explains, it was the research for The Rome Affair that led her to Jovan Mosley. And it's Jovan Mosley's story that will lead me to Caldwell's other fiction.