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Spence overdoes argument in 'Gun'

THE SMOKING GUN: DAY BY DAY THROUGH A SHOCKING MURDER TRIAL WITH GERRY SPENCE, by Gerry Spence, Scribner, 435 pages, $30.

Famed defense attorney Gerry Spence is almost as experienced at writing books as he is at trying cases. And "The Smoking Gun" is the story of one of his most difficult cases.

This is not a high-profile case, as were those for Karen Silkwood or Randy Weaver — both of which he won. This is the story of an ordinary woman named Sandy Jones, and her teenage son Mike, who were accused in 1985 of murdering a real-estate developer and neighbor, Wilfred Gertula, on their farm in Oregon over a land dispute.

Spence refers to this as a classic legal battle between a "poor woman" and "the good old boys" of Lincoln County, Ore. It is an ideal case for Spence to argue one of his most prescient beliefs: that it is virtually impossible to get justice in America, especially for someone who cannot hire top lawyers and experts to testify.

He tried the case pro bono, meaning he was not paid.

Spence's reputation preceded him, and he was presented with major difficulties from both prosecutors and judges as he tried to free Jones. Spence believed in her, and he thought the evidence was in her favor. But the powers that be continued to put up roadblocks.

The result was a case that went through various stages, verdicts and appeals, lasting a ridiculous four years.

Even though Jones does not come off as a sympathetic character, the reader finds it easy to believe she was railroaded. Spence relates that local authorities quickly threw her in jail without any regard for her rights.

Then, because she was allegedly exposed to someone with Hepatitis A, she was kept isolated in a cold jail cell for four months.

As Spence describes it in an editorial aside: "I see it in nearly every case. Innocent or not, hold them long enough in some miserable jail, frighten them enough, make them desperate enough, and the state won't have to prove its case."

When Spence went to Oregon to meet Jones, she was dressed in men's prison garb; she was thin and emaciated, her bare feet stuffed in rubber sandals. She had no socks and "sat huddled on the steel prison cot embracing herself against spasms of shivering." She had never heard of Spence and refused to look at him when he talked to her.

Although the publisher compares this book to a novel, it is too slow to be called a good novel. Often it is tedious, mostly because Spence persists in giving speeches about justice and interspersing them into the text. The reader can get a glimpse of how hard-hitting and determined the man is by the way he tells the story, and he is undoubtedly very good in court. But he overstates the case here. In many instances, it would have been more convincing had he simply allowed the facts to speak for themselves.

On the other hand, Spence's arguments about the way justice is carried out are persuasive. All readers, except perhaps prosecutors, will probably identify with the characters and the story and even feel as if they ought to do something about it, as Spence continues to do.

He has convinced at least one reader that justice in American courts is sometimes very, very hard to come by.


E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com