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Book Review: ‘Justice Failed: How “Legal Ethics” Kept Me in Prison for 26 Years’ by Alton Logan with Berl Falbaum

People often tend to equate ethics with morality. Alton Logan can unquestionably tell you that is a misconception. After all, when two lawyers adhered to their ethical obligation not to reveal information from their client, Logan was incarcerated for 26 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Logan tells his story in Justice Failed: How “Legal Ethics” Kept Me in Prison for 26 Years. And while Logan’s case epitomizes close to the worst dilemma attorney-client privilege might create, it is also a devastating commentary on ongoing problems in the criminal justice system. In a lengthy introduction, the journalist who collaborated with Logan on the book, Berl Falbaum, makes clear that he views the lawyers’ action show the law and the legal system are immoral. Yet the bulk of the book, written from Logan’s standpoint, is a fairly straightforward narrative of his life, one in which he appears much more understanding of what happened.

How Logan was ensnared by legal ethics is readily explained. He was arrested for the January 1982 murder of a security guard at a Chicago McDonald’s four blocks from his home. Age 28 at the time, Logan faced the death penalty. He was initially convicted in February 1983, the jury sparing him the death penalty by just two votes. Yet just a week after Logan’s arrest, Andrew Wilson, who actually shot the guard, was arrested for murdering two Chicago police officers. Less than six weeks after Logan’s arrest — and nearly a year before his trial — Wilson told his two public defenders that he’d killed the McDonald’s guard.

Wilson’s refusal to disclose that himself or to let his attorneys do so put the attorneys in a Catch-22. Not only could revealing this information mean Wilson likely would have another capital murder charge, it could be used as an aggravating circumstance for the death penalty in the killing of the two officers. On the other hand, the attorneys knew an innocent man not only was in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, he too faced the death penalty. Their solution? They prepared and signed an affidavit saying “privileged sources” informed them that Logan was “in fact not responsible” for the McDonald’s shooting.

Fortunately for Logan, they also obtained Wilson’s permission to disclose the information after Wilson’s death, which they did in 2008. Still, the affidavit sat in a locked strongbox under the bed of one of the lawyers for 26 years. And, interestingly, the lawyers disagreed on whether they would have revealed the information if Logan had been sentenced to death.

Yet Logan’s conviction also involves police and prosecutorial misconduct. The biggest example is when police found the two guns used to kill the police officers. That search, just six days after Logan’s arrest, also turned up a sawed-off shotgun. Ballistics tests revealed the shotgun fired a cartridge shell found at the McDonald’s murder scene. The police did not investigate the connection between Wilson and the shotgun. Then, at Logan’s first trial, the state convinced the judge that the shotgun and shell shouldn’t be admitted into evidence. Although an appeals court ordered Logan retried because of that, prosecutors managed to keep out evidence that it was Wilson who’d possessed the gun. Without that context, the jury had no reason to doubt the claim that Logan was the killer.

Logan and Falbaum both contribute to telling Logan’s story. Falbaum’s introduction delves into attorney-client privilege overall, its effect on the case, the frequency of prosecutorial and police misconduct, and resulting wrongful convictions. Perhaps because of this division of labor he is much more critical of the confidentiality rule. For example, he points out that one exception to attorney-client privilege includes a dispute over legal fees. That means, he says, lawyers can “violate” confidentiality to collect a fee “but not when an innocent person is facing execution or serving a life sentence in prison.” (While another exception allows disclosure when necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm,” it didn’t apply. When the attorneys gained the information the guard’s death had already occurred and Logan’s death was not “reasonably certain” because no one knew if he would get the death penalty.)

Logan, in contrast, tells us the story of his life and his experience. In so doing, he comes off as far more reasonable about what happened than one might expect. Although at times guilty of a bit of repetition, Logan’s account is thoughtful and gives insight into what many criminal defendants, particularly those of color, experience. Yet this double barreled approach weakens the book.

While the authors may have felt an introduction to the issues was necessary, it creates a situation in which Falbum’s argument comes before readers are fully familiar with Logan’s story. Additionally, while Falbaum spoke with a large number of people, including multiple lengthy interviews with the attorneys, their thoughts and comments aren’t really weaved into Logan’s story. Instead, they are largely confined to the introduction and footnotes in Logan’s narrative. There is also a distinct difference in style. Logan writes in plain, everyday language in contrast to the analytical tone and content of Falbaum’s introduction. And Logan may leave you scratching your head at times. For example, he says that when police first came to his home after the McDonald’s murder he assured his mother he didn’t have anything to do with it. He then writes that he was at home with his mother and two other trial witnesses, the night of the killing. If they were together when the murder occurred, why would Logan need to tell his mother he wasn’t involved?

Ultimately, though, regardless of whether a different route would have improved the book, Justice Failed is an intriguing look at critical legal issues of which the general public is unaware.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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