Behind the Book: “The Guilty Ones”

A new novel explores the fine line between guilt and innocence during the excess of the 1980s

by Joanna Crispi ’78

In 1982, socialite Claus von Bulow was convicted in Newport, Rhode Island, of twice attempting to murder his wife, Sunny, with insulin injections that resulted in an irreversible coma. The year before, I had graduated from Harvard Law School. In a Greenwich Village café on a beautiful spring evening, my former law professor, Alan Dershowitz, asked me to return to Harvard to work with him on the von Bulow appeal.Joanna Crispi
That summer, as I began sifting through transcripts and boxes from the first trial, a story very different from the one created by the prosecutor emerged. The story I gleaned from the evidence could be told in three words: No insulin injection. I remember Dershowitz leaning across his cluttered desk—so cluttered that he often wrote on his lap—and waving a few pages of the von Bulow trial transcript. “If we can't get a reversal in this case, we don't deserve to be lawyers," he said. Von Bulow's conviction was reversed on appeal, and in June 1985, at a second trial, he was acquitted. The difference between the first and second trials was that at the second trial we mounted a defense based on testimony and evidence that Sunny had never been injected with insulin.
As a result of the von Bulow case, I learned a very important lesson at the outset of my legal career: Innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes they did not commit. I also saw firsthand that "lawyering" makes a difference. A trial is about what can be proven in court. Guilt and innocence remain the province of a higher authority.
My novel, The Guilty Ones (NYQ Books, 2012), stems from this premise. The book draws from both sides of the line that criminal defense lawyers walk, the line between what constitutes a crime and guilt.
The Guilty Ones coverSet in Rome at summer's end in the late 1980s, it tells the story of three individuals: Juliet, who abandoned her career as a criminal defense attorney for life with Francois, a wealthy Parisian banker, and Mike Chase, a New York prosecutor whose career is about to take off with a high-profile international case. All three are skilled at manipulating the world around them until they find themselves in a situation they cannot control. "We've all cheated a little," Juliet tells Mike. Inside the courtroom the familiar rules govern, and truth means whatever the evidence allows. Yet the true question of guilt or innocence must pass through the heart before it can be resolved in the conscience. This is the inescapable reality. An anguished triangle of intimacy emerges as they become trapped by events that span continents with implications of terrorism and murder. Uncertain of the future and confused by their own emotions, each holds a card to play in this game where the stakes are greater than what happens in court.
Practicing criminal defense law is no small task for women—perhaps more so in the '80s, when the world was not quite "politically correct," and the same jurors who watched me handle a case all day in court would later see me on the street and catcall.
Skirts were required attire for women attorneys in those days. I remember in 1990 I dared to wear a Chanel pantsuit to the office, justifying this breach of law firm decorum with the excuse that I was spending the day in a warehouse going through trading records. The irony of wearing Chanel and being considered as “dressed down” appeared lost on those who whispered and exchanged sidelong glances of disapproval behind my back. The '80s was also a time when high-paid criminal defense attorneys traveled by Concorde on 24-hour jaunts to Europe for meetings in jails or 5-star hotels with the cohorts of dictators and arms dealers. It was an exciting time, and The Guilty Ones attempts to capture the exhilaration and trauma of those days.
Harvard Law School taught me how to think; the reductive reasoning of the Socratic method is an invaluable analytical tool. But it was Smith that gave me a life-abiding love of literature, thanks to the inspiring instruction of professors like David Ball, among others. Though I arrived at Smith with a desire to write, desire risks being little more than whim in the absence of confidence. Smith gave me the confidence I needed to write a book like The Guilty Ones.
Joanna Crispi '78 has practiced as a criminal defense attorney in many high-profile cases. The Guilty Ones, available in August 2012, is her third novel. She lives in New York City and Milan, Italy.