James Sheehan, the author of Mayor of Lexington Avenue, is a Florida trial lawyer, and he has undoubtedly seen the justice system from any number of angles, some more flattering than others. His debut novel exposes some of the very real warts in the American capital punishment system, albeit in a story that drifts occasionally into melodrama and actually stacks the deck in its favor at the outset.
In a small Florida town, a brutal murder leads local police to target Rudy Kelly, a young man of borderline mental capacity whose only real crime (as the reader already knows) is that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s quickly charged for a murder he didn’t commit, after a corrupt cop manages to coerce a confession from him while keeping Rudy’s mother cooling her heels outside. Provided with a public defender whose ineffective representation was only slightly better than if Rudy had defended himself, Rudy is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Ten years later, a hotshot Miami lawyer named Jack Tobin reads an article about the death of Mikey Kelly, a man who just happens to have been Jack’s childhood friend. It turns out Mikey died under somewhat suspicious circumstances while looking into the evidence of his son’s guilt. Given Jack’s history with Mikey (which is told in flashback), Jack embarks upon a crusade: first to prevent Rudy’s execution (if not to establish his innocence and exonerate him), and subsequently to pursue those responsible for sending Rudy to death row despite knowledge of his innocence.
That’s right: during Jack’s efforts to get Rudy a new trial, he discovers that the local police and the prosecutor covered up critical evidence regarding the murder (much of which would have suggested Rudy’s innocence, if not proven it absolutely). Jack’s crusade transforms from an effort at simple exoneration and becomes something more: a campaign to demonstrate corruption and malice that allowed government officials to seek the death penalty against a man they knew—or categorically should have known—was innocent.
The plot is somewhat straightforward (more on that in a moment) and the dialogue, especially, is a bit clunky and overwrought. And there’s a touch of melodrama, especially when Jack is targeted for assassination by his opponents. But Sheehan also must be given credit for striving to articulate in novel form the arduous, often brutally dehumanizing process of litigation, whether criminal or not (in truth, while reading Sheehan’s book, I was reminded of Dickens’ Bleak House, if only in the context of litigation which spans a decade and more). Many people want to talk about whether capital punishment is by its very nature “cruel and unusual punishment” or not; the debate is often locked into all sorts of extraneous issues. The real problem: regardless of theory, in practice the death penalty is frequently plagued with incidents of prosecutorial bias (whether intentional or not), arbitrary differentials based on race or gender, and the very real prospect of error.
Yes, there are those who will read those above lines and muster all sorts of lines of attack. However, a system of justice premised upon the notion that we’d rather have a hundred guilty folks go free than an innocent man go to jail (or to his death) is the one I was taught we’re after. And I’m not really worried at this point about defending my perspective on the death penalty, or critiquing others (though I’ve done both). Instead, I think that Sheehan’s book demonstrates some of the very real risks associated with the death penalty—the fictional case of Rudy Kelly is, in that regard, almost a case study for death penalty opponents.
The principal problem with the book (apart from the dialogue quibbles and the like noted above) is that Sheehan stacks the deck in his favor from the outset. While many might think it unimportant that the readers know from the very beginning that Rudy is innocent of any crime, in presenting his story in such a fashion Sheehan deviates significantly from the real world. There’s a reason Akira Kurosawa’s Rashamon resonates in its presentation of a criminal trial in which the tales of each witness vary wildly from one another. It can be very difficult to determine “the truth” in the real world; in the usual case, there’s always the suspicion that the defendant could have committed the crime in question.
In that regard, if Sheehan had wanted to truly be honest about the death penalty problem, he would have written the story in a different way—he would have played with the issue of Rudy’s possible innocence far more dramatically. Instead, we’re stuck with a fellow we know to be innocent, and as such we react viscerally to the prospect of his execution. It might have been far more intriguing to see how readers might react to a defendant who they hadn’t been told, through omniscient narration, was as blameless as a baby.
All in all, Mayor of Lexington Avenue is a challenging first novel which tackles a serious issue, offers realistic courtroom scenes, occasionally plunges into melodrama, and sets up a factual scenario to support its theme. It’s not one of those novels that shows the lawyer rescuing the client from the brink of death through some quick courtroom tap dancing; instead, it painstakingly develops a sense of realism about Rudy’s plight. No matter what you might think about the merits of the death penalty, you might well find Mayor of Lexington Avenue to be worth the effort.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.