The Last Lawyer
By John Temple
University Press of Mississippi, 224 pp.

Just before the exciting climax of The Last Lawyer, Ken Rose, the titular hero, steps down as director of the Durham-based, Indy Citizen Award-winning nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation. His staff throws him an exit party, and someone asks aloud, rhetorically, “So who is Ken Rose?”

“A ripple of laughter electrified the crowd, then transformed into claps as the question sank in.” But no one hazards an answer.

In hindsight, that’s no surprise. Despite the title’s promise that Rose is the subject of the book, and despite his manifest commitment to his work, he is less the last lawyer than the lost lawyerlost, that is, on the reader, who experiences him as the primary puzzle among many in John Temple’s impassioned, principled and streamlined yet oddly opaque book. The “single-minded and brilliant” Rose led the CDPL’s appellate defense of Levon “Bo” Jones, who was sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of a Duplin County bootlegger, despite “no confession, no informant testimony, no physical evidence, no fingerprints, no DNA evidence,” as Rose tells the last of a dozen judges to hear Jones’ case.

But although Rose helms the ship, he stays below decks for much of its course, which is carried instead by his co-counsel (including Mark Kleinschmidt, now mayor of Chapel Hill) and an array of staff, witnesses and others. Rose prefers to work alone, does little to mentor his younger lawyers and so deeply alienates his first co-counsel that she resigns. Temple variously calls Rose “impenetrable,” “deadpan,” “patronizing,” “aloof” and “indifferent,” with a “capacity for sternness” that manifests in an “implacable squint.” Other than some trial transcript excerpts, there are no quotes from Rose in The Last LawyerRose was reluctant to accept Temple’s book proposal. He appears to have cooperated little after doing so, and he turned out to be a frustrating, elusive protagonist with indecipherable motives, so we seldom get inside his head.

The closest we come is an act of ventriloquism performed by Temple well into the book, a speculative interior monologue that hints at why The Last Lawyer struggles to justify not only its nominal hero but its larger legal topic. Musing on the difficulties of defending Jones, Temple (in Rose’s voice) concludes, “The death penalty system seemed ridiculous, each case a halting, bureaucratic, decades-long march to the execution chamber.”

The author’s problem is that a book written in that spirit could also seem ridiculous and haltingthat is, boring to all but a few readers. Temple chose a more popular approach, but is a slam-bang, wire-rack dramatization appropriate for the byzantine complexities of the death penalty system? The urge to appeal to the mainstream is understandable, and in some ways admirable, but the resulting oversimplifications are potentially dangerous, and in the end it isn’t clear what kind of book The Last Lawyer really isor should be. It does offer some insight into the legal methods of avoiding state execution, but they are often tedious and sometimes unpleasant, and Rose’s refusal (or inability) to climb the pedestal Temple wants to put him on suggests that a book about the death penalty isn’t suited to making heroes out of lawyers.

Nor villains out of lawyers, but every hero needs one, and so North Carolina state prosecutor Valerie Spalding suffers a merciless character assassination: “The CDPL lawyers loathed her more than anyone else at the attorney general’s office…. The [British] accent, the ferocious arguments, the eyelinerall of it lent her a bloodthirsty aura and an inevitable nickname at the CDPL. They called her ‘Cruella’ and mocked her accent behind her back.”

The 50-ish Spalding flatters and flirts with a state judge in court. She relentlessly harries the CDPL team, crying out countless objections, “tugging at her short skirt … in a voice suffused with indignation … her mascara-ed eyes bulging.” During one exchange, she “periodically bared her teeth in a carnivorous grin.” (Might as well get it over with and call her a bitch.) Temple’s book-long ad hominem attack on Spalding is probably meant to give The Last Lawyer novelistic color, but it’s distasteful to read him subjecting her to a version of what the state of North Carolina did to Bo Jones: degrade and overprosecute.

The black-and-white divide weakens Temple’s case, and it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, anyway: Sure, the state judge’s Bible-beating in court is inappropriate, but the CDPL’s lead investigator is a devout Christian who prays before interviewing witnesses. Switch Rose’s and Spalding’s places in the Jones case and her English accent seems charming and her appearance stylish, his taciturn abrasiveness no longer modest valor but, well, Cruello.

The two of them threw equal weight around on the justice scales, cogs in a “halting, bureaucratic” system that requires interchangeable and replaceable parts, partially because final balances are so often left unachieved: Levon Jones got justice, but the crime remains unsolved. The actual killer remains unknownno one in The Last Lawyer ever seeks that essential makeweight. Nor, for years, did the CDPL fully devote itself to proving Jones’ possible innocencea bridge too far in that “halting, bureaucratic, decades-long march” toward death, which Rose and his legally straitened team mainly tried to delay and divert, not reverse. Even in cases where guilt is uncertain, life imprisonment is often the only alternative to execution. That’s another way in which Temple’s portrait of Rose loses some of its heroic colors, for the book unintentionally exposes the deep resignation and cynicism immanent in the CDPL’s work, which sends even the most virtuous idealist into the glum, grinding bureaucracy of loopholes and technicalities.

One of those technicalities consumes 40 pages of The Last Lawyer. The CDPL labors to help the querulous, slow-witted Bo Jones produce an IQ test score below the mental retardation line, which would exempt him by law from execution. The huge effort reveals that Jones’ absolute human value to the CDPL is, like the true identity of the killer, fundamentally unimportant; the lawyers resort to demeaning their client by playing up his “official” stupidity in order to save him from his original, inculpating stupidity (he was present at the shooting and possibly trying to rob the bootlegger). It calls to mind that old Vietnam War paradox, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

But Jones keeps scoring just above the IQ threshold, and in federal court a new judge, Terrence Boyle, dismisses the CDPL’s retardation claim. Yet Boyle, who had also thrown out the CDPL’s request for a new guilt-innocence hearing, unexpectedly, coolly and without any prodding from Rose, picks apart the problems with the original trial (compromised star witness, incompetent defense), and momentum suddenly and radically alters course in Jones’ favor. The narrative’s final 20 pages go by in an exhilarating surge as Boyle, a keen-eyed deus ex machina, takes the bench and lifts everyoneprosecution, defense, defendantout of their stalemate.

It would seem, then, that the real hero of The Last Lawyer is Judge Terrence Boyleexcept that he is a hero as inexact as Rose, and even more chimerical. This is not a case of words failing, however (“Who is Terrence Boyle?”), but of being withheld. The Last Lawyer doesn’t mention that Boyle “has violated every judicial ethic you can think of,” according to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, in response to Boyle’s 2001 nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit by George W. Bush, which Democrats doggedly obstructed until it was finally withdrawn in 2007. Temple also omits another item on Boyle’s résumé, one of particular interest closer to home: The judge who set Levon Jones free was once a legislative assistant to a well-known death penalty supporter from North Carolina, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Corrections (Feb. 22, 2010): The print version of this story erroneously claimed that former death row inmate Levon Jones was present at the scene of the murder for which he was originally convicted. The testimony of Lovely Lorden, Jones’ girlfriend, was the only evidence that placed Jones at the scene, but Lorden later recanted. According to The Last Lawyer, the affidavit in which Lorden recanted her testimony said she and Jones “sometimes bought liquor at Leamon Grady’s house, but she didn’t know if they had done so on the night Grady was murdered.” We regret the error and have used strike-through on that passage of the text above. Sobsey’s review correctly asserted Jones’ innocence, noting that he was exonerated and freed from prison, and that he “got justice, but the crime remains unsolved. The actual killer remains unknown.”

Also, an editing error removed the word “fully” from the following statement: “Nor, for years, did the CDPL fully devote itself to proving Jones’ possible innocence…” Sobsey’s wording has been restored above.