Thursday, November 7, 2013

Defending Jacob

In William Landay’s mystery and courtroom drama, Defending Jacob, 51-year old Andy Barber is a successful assistant district attorney, happily married to Laurie, the girl he met in college thirty-odd years before and for whom he still feels the thrill of first love. After 20 years on the job, Andy has seen it all, but then a shocking crime occurs in their peaceful community, a 14-year old boy is found stabbed to death in a park. Initially assigned the case, Andy is determined to find the culprit, focusing his attention on Leonard Patz, a sex offender new to the area, but as questions arise and facts are brought to light, the unthinkable happens and Andy’s own 14-year old son, Jacob, is accused and charged with the heinous murder of his classmate.

Forced to recuse himself from the trial, Andy steps down from his job and focuses his attention and experience on helping to defend his son. Jacob insists that he is innocent and Andy believes him for to him he is still that little boy of four whose bedtime routine included the question, “Who loves Jacob?” and the answer “Daddy does.” The Barber’s hire a local defense attorney to represent Jacob, and Andy determined to prove his son’s innocence begins the arduous task of digging for the truth; questioning Jacob’s past friends, stalking Patz, and even turning to someone from his own tortured past in hopes of vindicating his son. As they await the trial, the family is abandoned by friends and treated like pariahs in their community; as secrets are revealed Andy’s once loving marriage begins to crumble under the weight of fears and doubts, and he is forced to face his own demons and face a trial of his own.

This was easily my favorite read of the past year. It is no exaggeration to say it is as haunting as a specter, for upon finishing it you’ll find it stays with you and pops into your thoughts at random times, making you ponder the incredible journey, revelations, decisions and the moral dilemma posed on its pages. Despite the trial and courtroom scenes, it has a rapid fire pace, full of twists and turns, which will keep you on the edge of your seat and turning those pages long into the night.

The novel starts at a grand jury hearing in which Andy is answering questions from Neal Logiudice, his ex-colleague and current prosecutor, and flashes back through his testimony to twelve months earlier and the events surrounding Jacob’s trial; with Logiudice’s questioning continually interspersed throughout the book in between Andy’s narrative. The reader is in the dark as to the why of the grand jury and what has occurred; was the case won or lost, until near the end when the truth becomes horrifyingly clear.

Through Andy’s eyes we see a father’s heartache and fear at both his son’s uncertain future and the possibility, which doesn’t bear considering, that his boy is the monster he’s being made out to be by the law. While Andy’s blind faith and devotion in his son is seemingly never broken, Laurie’s character offers the perfect counterbalance, as she gives voice to the fear and doubts which most parents might have about their child’s capability and culpability in committing such a violent act, and if guilty, what role they played and guilt they bear in what occurred. Whether strengthened by his faith or sheer determination, throughout the ordeal Andy stands strong, the rock that both his son and wife lean on for support, but Laurie is beaten up by the trial and the limbo preceding it; becoming withdrawn and seemingly aging 10 years in a matter of months. Defending Jacob offers an honest look at the agonizing pain and uncertainty faced during a trial not only by the victim’s family but by that of the accused as well.

In addition to the heart-wrenching family drama, Defending Jacob raises numerous questions, such as the issue of nurture vs. nature, the impact of bullying in our society, the almost laughable standard of a presumption of innocence, which as Andy and his family painfully realize is closer to guilty until proven innocent, as well as the larger moral question of the extent to which a parent would go to protect their child, whether right or wrong, innocent or guilty.

Defending Jacob is moving, poignant and utterly unforgettable. The last few pages and in particular the last sentence in the book will hit you like a punch to your gut that both takes your breath away and brings tears to your eyes. Defending Jacob is a book that will stay with me forever and is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve ever read.