The Homicide Chronicle: Defending the Citizen Accused, by Ralph Shamas

Ralph Shamas is a lawyer who has practised for 35 years in Arizona, and is now a judge. This book, The Homicide Chronicle, is a fictionalized account of a major murder trial in which he was the defense attorney. The names of the characters are changed, but the events and the evidence, he tells the readers, are essentially the same. So it is of great interest both to writers of courtroom dramas, like myself, and to readers of true crime.

Mr Shamas has written a slow-burning, compelling detailed narrative. He describes everything from the point of view of an idealistic, impoverished, small-town lawyer – his own younger self. We see his doubts, his detailed, careful examination of the evidence, his conflict with the district attorneys, the strain the trial puts on his own family life, his concern for his own reputation in a small community, and his assessment of the truthfulness or otherwise of the client whom he is defending. The process of the trial is described meticulously.

There are only two possible suspects in this case: the man on trial, and the principal witness against him. So the case might seem simple, but in fact it is extremely difficult. This is a compelling human drama, which I found impossible to put down. Mr Shamas knows what he is writing about, and successfully brings it to life.

And yet, to a British reader at least, there are some curious cultural differences. Mr Shamas writes in a slightly inflated, pompous style, seldom using a short word where a longer one will do. He compares himself directly to Atticus Finch, the ‘good lawyer’ in To Kill a Mocking Bird, and he seems to have lived in a similar small town. But what really surprised me, is his insistence that he – or his lawyer hero – will only defend clients if he really believes in their innocence. That’s what makes a good lawyer, he appears to suggest.

Can this really be true? How could he possibly earn a living with a principle like that? What about all the guilty criminals – don’t they get a lawyer too? Every British barrister I’ve met has a far more subtle code of ethics: they will defend a client who pleads not guilty unless the client actually admits his guilt to them. What the defending lawyer believes doesn’t usually come into it.  Most probably don’t ask. But they don’t work or live in small mid-western towns, either.

So this book raises some interesting questions. For anyone who likes good courtroom drama, it’s well worth reading.

About Tim Vicary

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