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Character Flaws

In the following excerpt from 'Private Eye for the Bad Guy,' author Kelly Luker heads out from her home base to track down character witnesses in a Santa Clara County town. The name of the town has been changed in order to protect attorney-client privilege.

Intro | Private Eye for the Bad Guy Excerpt

Kelly Luker.

With an overwhelming number of police and detective hours spent on this case, here's what the prosecution had as far as who committed the crime itself: He said-she said. Nothing was found in the way of forensic evidence that definitively linked Jason to the strangulation itself. Nor, for that matter, did anything solidly point the finger at Lisa.

Our only hope was to sway the jury with a parade of witnesses who would testify to Jason's gregarious and peaceful nature or horrify them with tales of Lisa's vengeful hatred for her mother. It was my job to dig up these character witnesses for both Lisa and Jason.

I started with Baxter, an hour east, where Lisa grew up and her mother Isabel lived until she was murdered. The map directed me to Isabel's address, located in an older subdivision on the outskirts of town. Someone else now lived in Isabel's house, but that was irrelevant; whoever was now there had nothing to share, but surely neighbors would. I began with the first house to Isabel's right and rapped sturdily on the door, hoping it sounded harsher than the Bible-toting evangelicals' door knocking. They were my fiercest competitors in the unannounced-visitor contest, and I was convinced, the reason many people would not answer the door.

Nothing. I pounded a little harder. Getting ready to leave, I heard sounds from the back yard.

"Hello?" I yelled over the tall wooden fence. A man pushing seventy walked around the corner and peered quizzically at me as he lifted a fisherman's cap and wiped sweat from his face with a wadded bandana.

"I'm an investigator," I said as he drew closer. "Got a minute?" The expression that greeted that line usually let me know if I'll get my minute or not. Suspicious, curious, frightened, the word "investigator" conjures up a different Rorschach in each person. While the Billy Harsdales of this world see yet another piece of the System barreling down in their direction, others flash to their favorite television detective shows and quickly insert themselves in a high-stakes drama that must certainly be unfolding.

As required by law, I quickly told the perspiring gentleman that I worked for Jason's attorney. Only in the movies do gumshoes get to be vague or, worse yet, pretend they're police detectives. If the door was going to slam in my face, it was at this juncture. He seemed unfazed, however, and willing to talk even though I was not invited in.

"Yeah, I knew Isabel and John," Joe Voltak said, referring to Isabel's late husband who had died of cancer ten years earlier. "Isabel loved her roses, was always giving me tips on keeping mine healthy."

"And Lisa?" I asked.

"Lisa." Joe exhaled as if the word itself tasted bad. "Now that was a rotten kid. Poor Isabel and John. "She'd scream—scream at the top of her lungs if she didn't get what she wanted."

"How old was she?"

Writing 'Private Eye for the Bad Guy' helped Kelly Luker grapple with conflicted emotions during her years as a criminal defense investigator.

"I don't know, maybe eight? Nine? It was just the way she was. And then there were the fights with her mom as she got older."

"You heard these fights between them?"

"The whole neighborhood could hear them!" He laughed, but there wasn't much humor in it. "You could hear Lisa—'You effing bitch!'—at the top of her lungs, yelling at her mother."

"Did you see bruises or scratches on Isabel after these fights?" "Hmm," Joe thought. "No."

"Did Isabel ever talk to you about these fights? About problems with her daughter?"

"Never," said Joe. "Isabel wasn't the type to talk about her personal life. At least not with me."

What Joe described sounded a little more heated than typical mother-daughter troubles. Not for the first time, I wondered if Lisa could have possibly killed her mother. No one expected the jury to be convinced of this; they just needed reasonable doubt.

I finally understood the concept one afternoon during our work on the case. Our very chatty attorney, Jeremy, had trapped me in my office so he could sharpen the closing argument for his current trial. I edged toward the back door with my briefcase, a crab scuttling to safety in the rocks, as Jeremy began to summarize his defense to the jury. The role of rapt juror was one I had gotten accustomed to playing for various attorneys who sought to practice their upcoming performances.

"A crime has several elements to it," Jeremy intoned as he attempted a lawyerly back-and-forth pacing in our micro-office. "You must believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that my client is guilty of every one of those elements." One step, a turn at the desk and another step toward the opposite wall. Jeremy revolved more than he paced.

"If there are eleven elements, and there is just one—just one!" he emphasized, "that you have not been convinced of beyond a reasonable doubt, you must find my client not guilty. That's our justice system, ladies and gentlemen."

Jeremy paused as he gathered his thoughts. "Let me give you an example." I glanced forlornly at the door, knowing my exit had been delayed for at least another half-hour. "An auto burglary. One of the necessary elements in an auto burglary is that the door of the vehicle must be locked. So, let's say the defendant was found with the cell phone, the purse, and the jacket that was taken from the car. But the prosecutor could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the door to the auto was locked. You cannot, in good conscience, convict."

Jeremy now had my attention. He'd unintentionally supplied me with another piece of the jumbled legal puzzle that often seemed bound and determined to trump common sense.

The reasonable-doubt door had creaked ever so slightly open as Joe recounted a child's explosive rage. Could Lisa's have grown through the years to the point of homicide? That uncontrolled fury could have led to regrettable actions.

If a cynic like I had doubts, perhaps there was hope for my client's future. We needed just one juror to hold out, one juror who would not cave under the pressure of his or her peers.

'Private Eye for the Bad Guy' is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and online at bookshopsantacruz.com.