Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Wednesday, February 23, 2022: Maximum Shelf: With Prejudice

Grand Central Publishing: With Prejudice by Robin Peguero

Grand Central Publishing: With Prejudice by Robin Peguero

Grand Central Publishing: With Prejudice by Robin Peguero

Grand Central Publishing: With Prejudice by Robin Peguero

With Prejudice

by Robin Peguero

Robin Peguero's penetrating legal thriller begins with seven strangers in a jury deliberation room, preparing to decide a man's fate. By the end of the first chapter, it's clear these people are far from being unbiased, for every single person has come to the table--as the title says--With Prejudice.

The story then shifts to introduce an ambitious young prosecutor named Sandy Grunwald, who's preparing to start the murder trial of Gabriel Soto, accused of killing a young woman named Melina Mora two years ago. An eyewitness claims Soto was arguing with Mora at a bar earlier in the evening on which she disappeared, though the witness originally described the suspect as being of an ethnicity different from Soto's. Mora's body was never found, only a set of bones in a morgue that were identified as hers. The night before the trial begins, Grunwald receives a stunning blow to her case.

Gleefully lapping up this development is Grunwald's formidable opponent, public defender Jordan Whipple. His rejection from all the Ivy law schools has become "a chip he carries on his overdeveloped shoulders." Whipple will do whatever it takes to win, including going against his client's wishes to paint a false picture of Soto in court.

Back in the deliberation room, readers get to know the diverse group of jurors: a white man who considers himself the enforcer of rules in his neighborhood; a Black tax collector who follows rules even though sometimes they work against him; a white progressive lawyer engaged in social justice for marginalized people; a Nicaraguan American doctor who's not against fudging facts when the truth is too painful to reveal. These are some of the people sitting in judgment of the defendant, but are they truly his peers?

With Prejudice, Peguero's first novel, delivers more than just a complex mystery; it pulls back the curtain to provide a 360-degree view of the American legal system's inner workings. Besides delving into the backgrounds of the prosecutor, public defender and jury members, Peguero also serves up personal histories for the judge and the lead detective on the witness stand. Most of the key players show up with good intentions, but when everyone's world views have been shaped by drastically different life experiences, it's hard to agree on what's right.

Peguero's writing is striking for the stark observations about the legal system, such as this description from Grunwald, the prosecutor: "The jury is a crew of misfits. The scraps that neither side particularly wanted.... You don't pick a jury. You're left with a jury. If you're too informed... then you might know too much. The court itself kicks you off. If you're too opinionated... then you might think for yourself too much. It's a race to the bottom." Such a pronouncement might seem cynical, but it's hard to argue that it doesn't ring true.

The author also doesn't pull punches when it comes to the goals of the attorneys on both sides. Instead of aiming for truth and justice, Grunwald and Whipple are more concerned about who will put on the best performance in the courtroom. At one point Whipple asks Grunwald, "How does it make you feel that you're about to spend day after day pummeling a poor closeted gay kid in order to earn a conviction?" Grunwald snaps back, "The same way, I assume, you'll feel about portraying a poor dead girl as a reckless, drunk whore who brought this all on herself." As if these statements aren't startling enough, both Grunwald and Whipple believe they have the moral high ground. The novel makes one ponder: Will either side's actions deliver justice for the victim and reveal the truth about what happened to her?

While some of the characters have noble goals and others have questionable motives, none are portrayed as stereotypes. A good cop can still have shameful secrets from his past, and a doctor who heals patients can hide the harm and violence in her own family. Peguero shows the reasons that compel some people to move in gray areas, and how sometimes, regardless of intention, the consequences can be devastating.

As the omniscient narrative flits from person to person, it also travels back to when some of the characters were younger. Peguero cleverly depicts points in time without giving specific dates, years or even decades. Instead, he mentions someone buying VHS workout videos, or two young friends--one white, one Black--being called Riggs and Murtaugh, a reference to the characters in the 1980s Lethal Weapon movies. The absence of clear time markers helps stories move smoothly between time periods, and sharp-eyed readers won't have a problem determining in what year a scene is set.

No matter the year, Peguero's debut novel is a timely one, asking hard questions and revealing harder realities about an imperfect system. But for fans of legal thrillers, objectivity isn't necessary. The verdict is that With Prejudice is a thought-provoking and satisfying read. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Grand Central Publishing, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9781538706282, May 17, 2022

Robin Peguero: Exposing What's There

(photo: Chris Gillett)

After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law, Robin Peguero spent seven years telling stories to juries, most recently as a Miami homicide prosecutor. Currently he works for the U.S. House of Representatives as investigative counsel on domestic terrorism. His first novel, With Prejudice, will be published by Grand Central on May 17, 2022.

With Prejudice is told in omniscient voice, delving into many characters' psyches. Which ones did you identify with most or find easiest to write? Which were most challenging?

In art, as in life, I identify most with characters whose vulnerabilities are on full display. They're often also the most challenging to portray. Detective Samuel Sterling is a man of many virtues who is nonetheless flawed, bruised by an adolescent trauma that haunts him well into adulthood. Jury foreman Earl Thomas is a government employee who innately respects authority and follows the rules, but he has found himself serially entangled in police interactions outside of his control. As the person breathing life into them, I must thread the needle, honoring their complexities and contradictions to form round, flesh-and-bone human beings both charming and unpleasant.

The easier--and most fun--characters to create lay bare an unsavory human condition in need of examination. We see ourselves in them, our ugliest impulses, and it makes us strive toward self-improvement. Characters like Jordan Whipple, the preening public defender who revels in adversarial lawyering, or Joseph Cole, a neighborhood busybody with questionable views, or Arnie Weiss, a woke white man with a savior complex--all are familiar figures that reveal to us the ways in which we can do better.

An incident that happened to your father when you were 11 deeply affected your life.

My father was arrested. He was pumping gas and, while attempting to catch a glimpse of the prices on the oversized board, meandered into the personal space of a woman outside his field of vision. One of her friends called the police. They arrived, my father was disgruntled, and they arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence. To hear that my father--a grade-school teacher who never drank, did not smoke, didn't even curse--had succumbed to the system crushed me.

I distinctly remember thinking that such a run-in (however small) would be my lot in life. That this was, at some point, likely to happen to me. I don't want any 11-year-old to think like that. It all came full circle years later, when my father sought to have the record expunged while I was a first-year prosecutor. I didn't handle the matter myself, of course, but it was somewhat poetic that almost 20 years later, I was serving in the office that had previously prosecuted him and the one that oversaw his formal absolution. The criminal justice system is complicated, and so are the lives of the people caught up in it. I try to never lose sight of that.

What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered after you became a part of the legal system? 

I was surprised by how little of the American criminal jury trial is geared toward getting at the truth. Instead, it's a zero-sum game where two sides of diametrically opposing interests perform before strangers for high stakes: sometimes either complete exoneration or a lengthy prison sentence but no in-between. It's high risk, high reward. If you lose after being treated to a high burden of proof and a defense attorney whose job it is to tell an alternate story--whether it is based in truth or not--stiff penalties somehow feel earned. Often, we never get to hear the truth, at least not from the perpetrator, who knows it best.

So much of a trial is performative. We hide a lot from the jury, like a defendant's prior record. As lawyers, we must pretend certain things are untrue or leave otherwise obvious things unmentioned. Both sides get to tell the jury a story, and so much of how that story is received depends on factors outside of revealing the truth: the oratory skills of the attorneys, the treatment of the lawyers by the judge, and research has even shown that something as superficial as the attractiveness of the advocates can unduly affect outcomes. How much of it all is a show is what shocked me.

When did you start to think you had a novel in you?

I've been writing stories since I first learned to grip a pen. At recess in grade school, I sat myself in a corner and scribbled longform stories into my spiral notebook. For my birthday parties, I'd have penned screenplays (usually horror) that I coaxed my friends into performing and video recording. So I knew--from my days doing journalism in college, to my speechwriting in Congress, to my trial work as a lawyer--that I had stories to tell.

It wasn't until I tried my first homicide as a fairly young prosecutor that it struck me the topic was ripe for a novel. There was so much drama in that frigid courtroom: highs and lows, moments that stole my breath and sank my gut, the full spectrum of emotion and suspense that left me enervated and sleepless for days at a time. Trial is never dull. I wanted to replicate that feeling for readers.

With Prejudice includes blunt truths, such as a description of a jury as the "scraps that neither side particularly wanted." What changes could help make the process more equitable or effective?

There is a legal fiction in jury picking: seeking the tabula rasa--the blank slate--who can set aside all preconceived notions and fairly, objectively adjudicate facts. But we all see the same facts through different lenses and, at times, emerge with wildly different takeaways. There is no such thing as objective. This is what makes our system ultimately human.

In an attempt to make it seem we're stripping a jury of all its biases, critics say we end up with the lowest common denominator: jurors who aren't well read or informed, who haven't given some of life's big questions much thought or don't hold deep convictions on debates central to our cultural conversation. I would not go that far. In my experience, jurors can and do serve admirably and intelligently, trying their best to follow the law even when their impulses say otherwise.

But I think we ought to speak more honestly about the process. Jury picking is a game where both sides try their best to keep jurors sympathetic to their cause and remove those whose views are antithetical. Trial attorneys almost universally confirm that cases are won and lost in jury selection. That's an acknowledgment that outcomes are less contingent on the facts than on who's making the decision. The novel is less geared toward advocating for specific change than it is merely exposing what's there. Because you can't change or improve upon it until you first see it for what it is.--Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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