One of the reasons I love writing legal thrillers is that the stakes are as high as they can get – life and death. You might say that’s true of any thriller and you’d be right. But legal thrillers are different because we expect the criminal justice system to level the playing field for those accused of a crime, guaranteeing that justice is done. When that doesn’t happen, when greed or revenge or fear or lust or any other human weakness threaten justice, well that’s when things get interesting.
Suppose you were the lawyer defending a man charged with a vicious murder and you got him off. If you found out he was guilty, you might tell yourself that it’s better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to go to jail.
That might get you through the night but it wouldn’t be much help when your client is accused of murdering the people who testified against him. Would you defend him again?
Now imagine that your client threatened to rape the woman you love. What would you do? Would you trust the system that got it so wrong the first time or would you do whatever it took to see that justice was done?
These are the questions that Alex Stone has to answer. And who is Alex Stone? Here’s some of what you’ll find out about her in Stone Cold.
Stone Cold opens with the trial of Alex’s client, Dwayne Reed, a drug dealer, who is accused of mutilating and murdering Wilfred Donaire, one of his competitors. The Prosecutor wants to show the jury gruesome photographs of the victim taken at the crime scene. Alex knows the photographs will inflame the jury and she fights hard to keep them out of evidence. After a lengthy battle she knew was lost, the judge asks her is she has anything else to say.
“Alex ran her fingers through her short brown hair, twisting the ends, an unconscious habit from childhood that cropped up whenever she was stressed. They’d been arguing over the photos for half an hour. It was a lost cause. She’d known that from the start, but she was a public defender who specialized in lost causes, defending the Constitution as much as her clients.
The dismal odds only encouraged her. Long, lean, and ropy from years of early-morning workouts, she knew only one way to live and one way to try a case: bear down and go all out.
Judge West hadn’t let her drag out the argument because he might change his mind. He’d done it so that the appellate court would realize that he’d bent over backward to be fair to Dwayne Reed, and would uphold his conviction. She was spinning her wheels and everyone in the courtroom knew it. She slipped on the black suit jacket she’d draped over her chair after the jury left.
“No, Your Honor. I don’t.”
Alex’s clients are the worst of the worst, used to getting their way through fear and intimidation. Here’s what happens when the Prosecutor calls his star witness, Jameer Henderson, to testify against Dwayne.
Reed squeezed her wrist, his eyes cold and hard, the sour smell of the jail oozing through his pores.
“I ain’t gonna get another chance. You got this?”
Alex had been a public defender for fifteen years, and Reed was just the latest accused murderer she’d represented. If she let the Dwayne Reeds of the world shake her, she’d never be able to give them the same measure of justice the rich and well-bred received. That’s what everyone, guilty or innocent, highborn or low, deserved, and that’s why she’d become a public defender. At times like this, that higher calling mattered to her more than what her clients had done. She pulled her wrist free and nodded.
“Yeah. I got this.”
Alex dismantles Henderson on the witness stand and the jury acquits Dwayne Reed. Afraid that Dwayne will go after Henderson and his family, she drives past their house in the middle of the night.
Her fear for the Henderson family was enough to make her detour to their house before going to police headquarters. They lived on the east side, a part of Kansas City where the name of one of the long-defunct homeowners associations, Forgotten Homes, told the story of too many people who lived there. The promises of generations of politicians to root out the crack houses, revitalize the economy, and protect the law-abiding citizens who got caught in the crossfire had been broken more often than they had been kept.
She drove east and north, passing rundown retail strips barricaded behind iron bars, untended and abandoned houses, and vacant lots choking with weeds and trash. The bright spots—well-tended homes, churches, schools, and businesses ready for the coming day—were muted in the darkness.
The closer she got, the more she heard Jameer Henderson’s plaintive question echoing in her head. What am I gonna do now?
Her creeping sense of dread went viral, and by the time she turned onto his block, her chest was pounding and her heart was breaking. When she didn’t see any squad cars or ambulances with flashing lights, she skidded to a stop in the middle of the street. There were no cops, crime scene investigators, or TV trucks set up for live remotes.
If Dwayne Reed had murdered Jameer Henderson and his family, investigators would still be on the scene and neighbors would be holding a vigil. But there was none of that. There was only quiet. She sat for a moment, letting her pulse slow, wiping off the thin sheen of sweat that had blossomed on her face. Resting her head on the steering wheel, she clasped her hands and said a prayer.
“Thank you, God.”
Alex may have mixed emotions about getting Dwayne acquitted but Detective Hank Rossi doesn’t. Rossi built the case against Dwayne and is certain that Alex helped a guilty man go free. When Rossi arrests Dwayne on a bogus charge the night after he’s acquitted, Alex goes to police headquarters to get her client out of jail.
Detective Hank Rossi was waiting for her, nursing a cup of coffee, the only one in the bullpen. Tall, rangy, and dark eyed, he was rumored to have a drinking problem. Whether it was true or not, he kept up a perpetual head of steam.
In twenty years as a homicide detective, he’d skated past accusations that he’d planted evidence and strong-armed confessions. Quick to use his gun, he’d been involved in more shootings than most detectives over their entire careers, killing four suspects and wounding six others, the prosecuting attorney ruling that each shooting was justified.
Criminals were his least favorite people, but defense counsel ran a close second, a status he relished making clear.
“You’re looking particularly rugged this morning, Counselor,” Rossi said. “Must drive the ladies crazy.”
Alex neither hid nor broadcast that she was gay and didn’t care who knew or didn’t know. She just lived her life. She didn’t keep her hair short, choose clothes that were more masculine than feminine, and avoid wearing makeup as a gay badge of courage. That’s what she liked, plain and simple, but it made her an easy target for men like Rossi, who were okay with lesbians only as long as they could watch them have sex in a porn movie. She wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of letting him piss her off.
“Something to think about the next time you polish your pistol. Where’s my client?”
“He’s only been out twelve hours. Who’s he supposed to have killed?”
“Jermaine Jones,” he said, pointing to a file on his desk bearing the Cold Case stamp.
“A cold case? You’re joking. How cold is it?”
“It’s got some hair on it. Jones was a drug dealer in Reed’s neighborhood. They came up together. Could be they had a beef, things got out of hand.”
Alex shook her head. “Is that all you’ve got? I expected more out of you, like maybe some newly discovered evidence you just planted or a confession you beat out of him.”
Rossi shrugged. “It’s early in the investigation. Could be something will turn up.”
“Which means you don’t have anything to hold him on and you’re just jerking him around because you’re pissed off that he was acquitted. You ought to be harassing the jury instead of my client.”
Rossi stood and squared his shoulders, crowding her. “Wilfred Donaire was my case. I worked it from day one. I know more about it than you could ever hope to know, and I know that your client is guilty. He’s got no business being back on the street.”
Alex stood her ground. “So the jury hurt your feelings. He was acquitted. Get over it. It’s still an open case. Pretend you’re O.J. and find the real killer. Arresting Dwayne on a bogus murder charge you know you can’t make stick isn’t going to change that.”
“Maybe not, but it’ll send him a message.”
“Yeah. What message? That cops like you can harass him whenever they feel like it? I think he’s gotten that message his whole life.”
“The message is that this isn’t over. That I’m going to be on him from now until his luck runs out, and when it does, I’m going to be right there to take him down.”
So there you have it. Did Alex Stone help a guilty man go free? Will Dwayne Reed take revenge on Jameer Henderson? Grab a copy of Stone Cold and find out how far Alex Stone goes to defend her client, protect the innocent and speak for the dead.