Sunday, January 1, 2012

A (True?) Confession

In The Appeal, John Grisham took on the important issue of electing state judges and allowing them to collect huge campaign contributions from people and institutions who might have business before the courts to which they are elected. Now, in The Confession, he takes on an even more important issue in the death penalty.

Keith Schroeder, a Lutheran minister in Kansas, is working in his study one morning when Travis Boyette, a career criminal currently out on parole and residing in a local half-way house, asks to see him. Boyette had attended services at Schroeder's church the previous Sunday and had been impressed by the minister's sermon on forgiveness. Boyette claims to be suffering from a terminal illness and has something that he'd like to get off his chest before he shuffles off into that long good night. He's decided that Keith is the man to hear his confession.

Boyette claims that nine years earlier, he had kidnapped, raped and murdered Nicole Yarber, a popular high school cheerleader in the small town of Sloan, Texas. He left Texas shortly thereafter and then was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for a subsequent crime. In the meantime, officials in Sloan arrested a young black man, Donte Drumm, a classmate of Nicole's, who confessed to the murder that Boyette claims to have committed. Complicating matters is that fact that Nicole's body was never recovered.

Donte Drumm quickly repudiated his confession, claiming that it had been coerced. He was defended by a bulldog of an attorney, Robbie Flak. But in spite of all of Flak's efforts and in spite of the fact that there was no body and no proof that Nicole was even dead, a judge and jury convicted Drumm of the killing on the basis of his confession and sentenced him to death. For the last nine years, Flak has done everything possible to delay the execution, but all of Donte's appeals have been exhausted and he is scheduled to die within days.

After his confession to Keith Schroeder, Boyette suggests that he might be willing to go to Texas and tell his story in the hope of saving Donte. But then again, maybe he wouldn't. He vacillates back and forth while the minister attempts to determine whether Boyette is telling the truth or if he is just another one of the nutcases or publicity seekers who turn up on such occasions looking for their fifteen minutes in the limelight.

The story takes off from that point as the clock rapidly ticks down toward Donte Drumm's execution, and as the story progresses, the reader gets a vivid look at the death penalty and the machinery by which it operates, especially in the state of Texas, which executes far more people than any other state in the Union. Irrespective of how one might feel about the issue, this book is bound to provoke some soul-searching on the matter.

In truth, while this is a very good book, it does lag at some points. Grisham obviously feels strongly about this issue and he sometimes overloads the reader with a bit too much detail and slows the momentum of the story. Some of the characters are also a bit one-dimensional in service of the argument that Grisham wants to make. Still it's a compelling story and once it grabs your attention, you're likely to keep reading well into the day or night in order to see the conclusion.

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