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William Lashner on guilt

William Lashner, author of Blood and Bone, has also worked as a prosecutor. Here he talks about the space between guilt and innocence (for all Bouchercon author posts, click here): When I write about lawyers and the law, or talk about writing legal thrillers as I will be doing with a brilliant group of lawyer-writers at a Bouchercon panel on Saturday morning, I always think back on the sad case of Caleb Fairley.

Twenty-one year old Caleb Fairley’s life was a flat out mess. This is all true, by the way. His younger brother had accidentally killed himself which left a huge hole in his life, Caleb had been ridiculed at school for his weight, and his mother was a nightmare of blame and recriminations. Not to mention that Fairley was avid a collector of pornography and one of those guys who lived to get lost in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. On the night of September 10, 1995, a fateful night in a number of lives, Caleb attended the concert of a gothic rock band and asked the keyboardist if he could help Caleb establish a more personal relationship with Satan. If ever there was a lost boy, it was Caleb Fairley.

Earlier on that same evening, in a small town outside Philadelphia, Lisa Manderich took her 19 month old daughter, Devon, into a children’s clothing store called Your Kidz & Mine to go shopping. I could spend paragraphs talking about their lives, their loving family, the hopes for their futures, but it’s enough to say they were mother and daughter running an errand. Neither Lisa nor Devon were ever seen alive again.

It didn’t take long for the police to connect our Caleb Fairley with the disappearance of the Manderichs. Lisa Manderich had told her husband exactly where she was going to shop and Caleb Fairley was the clerk on duty at the store.

In fact, Your Kidz & Mine was actually owned by Caleb’s parents. An examination of the store indicated that something untoward had gone on there, blood and hairs matching the missing woman were found. In addition, perverse little peepholes were discovered that gave a view of the children’s changing areas.

Fairley was the prime suspect in the investigation by the time he was first questioned by the police. He denied everything, and though he had scratches all over his face, he claimed he received the scratches in the mosh pit at the concert he had attended. Everything pointed his way, yet the evidence against him was still only circumstantial and the bodies of Lisa and Devon Mandarich had not yet been found. It wasn’t until they dug up the body of young Devon in Valley Forge Park that Caleb Fairley was finally charged with murder.

The prosecutor sought the death penalty against Caleb Fairley, but nothing on the child’s body linked it to Fairley. There was the expectation that Lisa Mandarich’s body would definitively link Fairley to the crime, either through Fairley’s DNA found beneath her nails or through evidence of a sexual assault. But as the days went by, the possibility of that evidence deteriorating beyond usefulness became more and more likely. Without Lisa Mandarich’s body there was no sure route to conviction. Against the sharp wishes of the public, the D.A. offered Fairley a deal: Tell us where the body is and we’ll take death off the table.

Okay, now you’re the defense attorney trying to figure whether or not to take the deal. Remember, you don’t represent society, that’s the D.A’s job; you only represent young Caleb Fairley, lost boy. It’s a winnable case, not a certain win, but you see a definite avenue to an acquittal, which would be Caleb’s only chance of ever spending a single day out of prison. Not to mention that an acquittal would make you famous. Also you figure that with Caleb’s background and sad sack story, even if he gets convicted you’ll have a chance to save his life based on extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, taking the deal would, yes, save your client’s neck, but also consign him to prison for the rest of his life.

So quick, what do you do?

When I write about lawyers, I’m always trying to write within the gaps between guilt or innocence. Of course I throw in mystery and humor, action and sex, because these are all the things that make any life worth living, even a lawyer’s life. And yes, I am especially talking about the sex. But lawyers have their own series of questions that are raised in every case.

What does it mean to truly represent an individual? Does the truth of things really matter? Can a lost boy ever find himself? Where lies the greatest opportunity for repentance and salvation for both the defendant and the lawyer?

This is the juice in all our novels, where the facts end and the more difficult questions await. This is where the writer and reader both have to ask themselves the fundamental question that awaits all criminal defense attorneys, what kind of defense is truly in the best interests of Caleb Fairley?

William Lashner is the New York Times bestselling author of seven legal thrillers that have been sold world wide and translated into over a dozen languages. His first standalone, Blood and Bone, is to be released in February by WilliamMorrow.

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