Scott Turow is a fine writer of legal fiction. I know a lot of people enjoy the novels of John Grisham. So do I, but Grisham is not a great writer. Scott Turow is a very good writer. “Great” might be too strong a word, but not by much. That is the difference.
Limitations is one of Turow’s legal thrillers. But like all good books–in fact like all good art–the real subject is empathy. The book is designed to make us walk in the shoes of someone else. No it is designed to make us walk in the shoes of others. The book explores the connections between people and the world. It shows how they (and of course, we) are all linked. We all have affinity for each other and for the world in which we are located. Great literature is like religion. The original meaning (I would even say the correct meaning) of “religion” is connection or linkage. Art and religion are what link us. They are metaphors by definition.
The story of the book is the problems encountered by an appeal court judge who is given a difficult case to decide. The appeal court consists of 3 judges. 2 of the judges have quickly decided what they think and they are on opposite sides. Of course, the case is not as simple as the other 2 judges make it out to be. So the protagonist George Mason effectively must decide the difficult case. He has to agree with one or the other. And truth, as always in good novels, as in life, is murky.
The case involves young men who commit a horrible crime against a young woman. They are clearly guilty, and were found guilty at the the trial, but the questioner the Appeal Court is whether or not the case is statute barred by the Statute of Limitations. In other words is it too late to legally find them guilty?
The case becomes more difficult to decide for 2 reasons. The first is someone is making mysterious threats against the judge. This distracts him. That makes deciding more difficult. Is the threat related to the case the judge must decide? As well, the case reverberates with the judge because of similarities to an incident in his life many years ago. As a result he feels uncommon sympathy for the 4 convicted youth of a heinous crime when perhaps he otherwise would have felt not any sympathy for them at all. And remember, sympathy or empathy is the point. How could a stellar judge, a kind man, have see any resemblance between himself and these loathsome appellants?
The judge asks his boss, the Chief Justice of the Appellate court, if he is disqualified if the case reminds him of himself. The Chief is wise, he replies, “They’re supposed to remind us of ourselves, aren’t they George? Isn’t that a quality of mercy (echoing Shakespeare’s exploration of similar themes in The Merchant of Venice)?” The judges are forced to ask themselves, “Who are we to judge?”
In the case the 4 youth clearly committed the horrible act but the legal question is whether or not the statute of limitations applies or not. Should guilty youth be acquitted for nothing more than the passage of time? The question in the book is summed up well by the judge in the final decision:
“As crimes so often do, this case has riled passions, broken hearts, and left behind a wake of lives forever disturbed. At is core, it asks us to reconsider a question the law has long pondered: how long and under what circumstances, punishment may be delayed before the balance of justice tips against it?”
People who would never want to acquit just because too much time has passed must consider that as time passes witnesses memories fade; it is more difficult for the defendants to mount a defence because evidence has dispersed, and should accused people be kept hanging, waiting for justice forever? This is an important question.
Even more fundamental is the question of what is to be done when the law (or justice) conflicts (perhaps) with empathy or fellow feeling? Which should prevail? What are the limitations to law or empathy? Really these are the same questions that Shakespeare reflected on in his great play.
The novel invites us to consider that “suffering has many faces.” It also warns, “Sainthood is not required.” And finally, in the end, each of us must ask, was justice done?
I urge you to consider this book. Its worth the read.