Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Limitations

Earlier this week I finished the Scott Turow novel Limitations. An author of legal thrillers, Turow probably first came onto our radar as a storyteller of significance by means of the Harrison Ford thriller, Presumed Innocent.

I wouldn't call it a great book, but the story does make an interesting read in that Turow explores some of the limitations and constraints of the law and shares why some of these things exist. Law is, after all, simply a network of limitations designed to help civilized communities in the administration of justice.

No one likes limits. That is why legislators have to spell them out because some people like to win at any cost. That is, there are police who would do anything to get a confession, so statutes are created to restrict them and protect the common person who may be getting railroaded. Hence, they are Miranda laws (a limitation) and laws regarding how long we can be held without a reason.

In the courtroom there are restrictions, too, one of them being the statute of limitations that is the centerpiece of Turow's story. George Mason is a judge on the Court of Appeals. The three-man tribunal must determine whether or not to overturn a lower court ruling involving heinous acts by four high school boys with an unconscious fifteen-year-old black girl. The issue gets complicated because one of the boys made a videotape of their actions and four years later was showing it at his frat house for entertainment. Someone turned him in, a trial ensued and the boys were given a six year sentence. They are currently free on bond while the higher court determines whether they got a fair trial since the frat house incident was more than three years after the crime, and the girl, Mindy DeBoyer, never spoke up about it at the time.

As it turns out Mason is the swing vote on the matter because one judge believes the defense has a case. Mason, a black judge who has done well for himself in life, is also aware of a dark incident from his own college days many decades ago, with unsettling parallels that make it difficult for him to be fully impartial. Finally, the screws are tightened when he starts getting warnings and even death threats via email.

The book is not so much of a thriller as much as an inside perspective on the way law works. Its novella length makes it a fast read so that it's not overly tedious. And it shows us why sometimes the bad guys go free... because lawyers and even judges have to operate within the limitations established by the law.

The Founding Fathers who wrote the Bill of Rights sought to spell out some of the limits of our government to restrict the abuse of power they experienced under the King of England. In short, limitations matter, for which reason the courts exist to interpret the meaning of the laws by which free peoples co-exist.

Food for thought. Till the morrow.

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