Sunday, April 15, 2012

Prof. Levenson reviews 'Death on a High Floor'

By Professor Laurie Levenson

What do criminal law professors do in their spare time? Read legal thrillers, of course. This year, Charles "Chuck" Rosenberg, has given us a gem of a book and it will be particularly fun to read for those even vaguely familiar with some of the high-profile cases Los Angeles has hosted. It is a book that expertly provides an autopsy of what makes our criminal justice system tick.

Rosenberg is a survivor of the so-called Trials of the Century. He cut his teeth as a consultant for such prime time television shows as "L.A. Law," "The Practice," "Boston Legal" and "The Paper Chase." He sat through every moment of the O.J. Simpson trials (criminal and civil). He is an expert in law and popular culture, using his position as an adjunct professor to teach students how the arts mirror real life and how real life can start to mirror fiction.

In his first novel, "Death on a High Floor," Rosenberg takes a candid look at the mega-law firms today by using a most unusual literary vehicle -- an unsolved murder case. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Rosenberg starts his work with the line, "I am a lifer." The "lifer" is not a person on death row (at least, not yet), but rather refers to Robert Tarza, a senior partner at a major law firm who has been accused of killing one of his fellow partners, Simon Rafer. Tarza may be a brilliant civil litigator, but he is an idiot of a client whose mistakes at the beginning of the investigation give the police much too much probable cause to believe he is the killer.

Nothing is ordinary about this case. Tarza picks a "kick-ass associate" named Jenna to be his counsel. There are many reasons she might not be the expected choice to lead one's murder defense. Start with the fact that she has never handled such a case. Add to it the fact that she had slept with the victim and lives with the defendant, and you have a most unusual attorney-client relationship. Jenna, in turn, has the good sense to dredge up the lifer, a seasoned defense lawyer who has played the field forever. He knows murder cases and he knows (often intimately) the judges who handle them. But, his life of experience also makes him jaded, leading him to spar with his client and Jenna over their approach to the case.

The book winds through the discovery of the murder, to the pretrial investigation, to the witness-by-witness description of the preliminary hearing. Jenna is much more than a pretty face. She is a lawyer who has natural instincts for how to work a courtroom. Preparation is key, but being able to read people is probably the most valuable courtroom skill that someone in her position could have.

"Death on a High Floor" is about much more than the twists and turns of solving a great murder thriller. It is about seeing the Los Angeles legal community for what it is. It is populated by different civilizations -- the law firms who rule from their high floors, while criminal prosecutors and defense lawyers toil in the trenches down below.

As richly described by Rosenberg, law firms are worlds to themselves. Minute-by-minute the lawyers are monitored, yet it is still impossible to know exactly what everyone is doing. Moreover, partners will literally "back stab" each other. Associates are banished to separate floors to toil until they can climb the ladder to join the partners' ranks. Money is on everyone's minds, and not just the kind that comes from billable hours.

The book presents us with familiar characters for our Los Angeles criminal justice system. The chief detective on the case, Lionel Spritz, could give the O.J. investigators a run for their money. The preliminary hearing judge is an amalgam of judges we have seen in real life high-profile cases -- they know they must struggle to maintain control over a high-profile case, yet still have enough flexibility to allow justice to prevail when uncontrollable things begin to occur. Rosenberg even gives us the "Blob" (his affectionate term for the media). The Blob is omnipresent, like vultures who lead other animals to the scene of a kill. Little do they know that they, too, are being used by those being preyed upon. Finally, there are the witnesses. Much like they did during the O.J. Simpson murder case, curious witnesses pop out of the woodwork to team up with the defense and prosecution.

"Death on a High Floor" is a fun read, but it is much, much more. It is also a great reminder of how key legal, strategic and ethical issues arise in criminal cases and the challenges in dealing with them. The book repeatedly raises the question of how a lawyer is expected to control the uncontrollable client? How much control should a client have over a case? Does it matter if that client is himself a lawyer? It is often said that lawyers make terrible witnesses. They make even worse murder defendants.

It is also fun to see Rosenberg explore the world of conflict of interest rules. Everyone seems to have a stake in the outcome of the case, with allegiances twisting and turning throughout the plot. While the client may think he understands everyone's role, including his own, new information requires the parties to constantly reassess their ethical obligations. Ethical rules are invoked when they help the lawyer; they are ignored when the lawyer wants to win.

Of course, no one can write a book about a Los Angeles murder case without weaving in a "rush to judgment" by the police and prosecutors. Circumstantial evidence cases are essentially Rohrschach tests. Look at the evidence one way and the client is toast. Look at it through another lens and a great injustice is about to occur. Police are trained to make the pieces fit together. As this books shows, that can be a strength or their downfall. The smallest detail, tucked away in a secret compartment of a partner's cabinet, can make all the difference.

Finally, there is the law professor. He is but a disembodied voice from the past that provides a guiding light for his former students. Criminal law professors often feel like their lessons fall on deaf ears. Sure, students will pay attention if a professor says, "and this will be on the test," but real life lessons too often seem to go in one ear and out the other. For some reason, that type of information rarely sticks. Luckily for Tarza, his professor left a lasting imprint: pick the simplest explanation." Be open to the obvious. Believe in what common sense and reason are telling you.

Like every great "whodunit," "Death on a High Floor" has a surprise ending. But the fun is in getting there and appreciating how realistically Rosenberg captures the nuances and rhythm of our criminal justice system. He knows of what he speaks. Every high-profile case he has watched comes alive in this book. It is the lesson of L.A. Law.

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