BY RANDALL JACKSON
On Monday, April 10, the author who inspired and terrified a generation of law students addressed a packed Ames Courtroom. Scott Turow ’78 had returned to Harvard Law School.
Turow began his talk on “Life and Death After HLS,” which was sponsored by the HLS Forum, by acknowledging that at HLS he is more famous for the nonfiction work that he composed as a student than for the four best-selling novels which received more popular acclaim. “Around here,” he said, “I know I’ll always be known as the author of 1L.”
The author avoided discussion of that book, however, instead focusing upon discussion of his work since leaving law school. Though he could have supported himself as an author, Turow has never stopped working at least part-time as an attorney. He is currently a partner at the Chicago office of the international law firm Sonnenschein, Nath, and Rosenthal, and has worked as an Assistant United States Attorney.
“I’m a very loyal person, and part of that is loyalty to the person who I was when I graduated from this law school,” said Turow. He explained that he had always been a writer but developed into a person who loved being an attorney and was reluctant to relinquish either part of himself.
Turow spoke at length about his involvement in capital cases in Illinois. The state has been at the focus of recent debate on the death penalty because of the widely publicized moratorium on the death penalty that Governor George Ryan imposed after several death row inmates were exonerated. Turow sits on the Governor’s Commission considering the reform of the Illinois capital punishment system and worked to obtain a reversal of the murder conviction of Alejandro Hernandez. The trial of Hernandez and co-defendant Rolando Cruz received a great deal of media attention. Turow talked about his initial reluctance to take the case and how his views changed as a result of the experience.
“I learned two very important things as a prosecutor interacting with families of murder victims. One is the unique sense of loss that is experienced when someone you love is murdered. It’s very different from that person being killed in an accident or dying of tragic illness because you aren’t left with the sense that this was something that no one could have prevented. Secondly, I learned that there is an extraordinary amount of disgrace that survivors associate with the idea that the person who murdered their loved one could kill again,” said Turow. He went on to talk about how the Hernandez case came to him and forced him to challenge some of his beliefs.
“Hernandez had been convicted twice of murder, and my initial belief was that our system simply could be so messed up that it could get it wrong twice,” said Turow. He went on to describe how he was convinced to take the case and how he later was led down a trail of dubious evidence and prosecutorial misconduct that eventually led to Hernandez’s conviction being reversed. Turow contrasted this case with that of another individual whose execution he was able to prevent under very different circumstances, and for more philosophical reasons.
“These two diametrically opposed cases haven’t changed me from being a death-penalty agnostic,” said Turow.
When asked by one audience member what he thought it would take in this country in order to end capital punishment, Turow theorized that it would have to involve a highly-publicized mistake to occur. “I think it probably would take a celebrated execution like Timothy McVeigh’s to later be proven to be a case of an innocent man having been executed to bring about the end of the death penalty in America,” said Turow.
“Germany is an example of a country that could never have the death penalty again, because the German people in World War II saw the system utilized to kill so many innocent people that they would never give the state any portion of that power again.”
In discussing his life as an author, Turow encouraged the audience to hold on to whatever interests they had outside of the law. He explained how years ago he rejected the notion that the practice of law was so time-intensive that one had to choose and felt that others didn’t necessarily have to do so either. This theme resounded with a lot of audience members.
“Scott Turow’s insights provided a glimmer of hope that graduation from HLS does not have to mean endless hours of corporate work. Furthermore, his experience as a prosecutor and an author illustrates that rewarding career opportunities aren’t solely found working for big firms,” said David Axelrod, ’03.
Turow acknowledged, however, that the time requirements placed on young lawyers today exceed significantly what was expected of him twenty-three years ago. “I had a situation recently where a first-year associate at my firm called my office at six-thirty in the evening and asked if she could go home because she had some pressing personal business, and I had to just tell her ‘You know, you are entitled to go home.’ She said to me that for $120,000 a year, she didn’t expect to get to go home,” said Turow.
He went on to suggest that even in the midst of significant time pressure, there are opportunities to hold on to passions outside of law practice. “I wrote Presumed Innocent over four years entirely in longhand during my 25-minute subway ride to work. Twenty-five minutes a day goes a long way towards maintaining the creative impulse.”