Key Witness

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Successful corporate attorney Wyatt Matthews has gone and done the unthinkable – traded in the power and prestige of multimillion-dollar deal-making for the life of Public Defender in the gritty maze of the criminal courts system. Against the advice of his partners and the wishes of his wife, Wyatt takes on a seemingly unwinnable case: the defense of Marvin White, a young black man with a criminal record who has been accused of seven vicious rape-murders. With the city on the edge of panic, all odds are against White’s beating the rap – especially when he is identified at the scene of the latest slaying. The trial will exact a price higher than even Wyatt knows. With the State’s entire case resting on the airtight testimony of one key witness, he must assemble his own arsenal of unbeatable legal weapons. His most powerful ally is a black drug dealer who has his own shadowy reasons for offering to help clear White. As he plays for the highest stakes of all in a charged arena where class lines are drawn in blood, sex is used to distort the truth, and erupting racial tensions threaten to divide the city, Wyatt realizes that this is a case that goes beyond one man’s innocence or guilt. Forced to question his own hidden motives as his faith and loyalty are put to the ultimate test, he struggles to discover exactly where true justice lies.


“An intensely accomplished, smoothly written, character-driven page-turner that…manages to push the right buttons while sustaining a high level of suspense and interest.”
- Kirkus Reviews

“Strong prose, characters and insights.”
-Publishers Weekly

“A gritty courtroom thriller in which justice seems on the verge of going out of control…”
-Abilene Reporter-News

Unlike many thriller writers, Freedman is willing to experiment. He followed his debut crime blockbuster, Against the Wind, with a coming-of-age drama, The Obstacle Course, and the mystery melodrama House of Smoke. Now he’s written a legal thriller. But while his big talent keeps him from ever turning out a mediocre novel, sometimes he misses the targetincluding here, despite a crafty setup that sees Wyatt Matthews, 48, a top corporate attorney in an unnamed city that’s probably Boston, dealing with midlife crisis by volunteering for six months as a public defender. Wyatt’s sharp lawyering gets probation for 18-year-old Marvin White, who’s black and rightly charged with armed robbery, but immediately Marvin is re-arrested and accused of being the serial killer known as the Alley Slasher. Readers know that Marvin is innocent of the killings and that the hardened con who’s implicating him in exchange for reduced time is lying. The novel’s suspense, which is only moderate, hinges on Wyatt figuring out how the con is working his scam and successfully defending Marvin at trial. Freedman enriches the novel considerably by depicting how Wyatt’s foray from privilege into Marvin’s world of urban despair strains the lawyer’s family, pushing his trophy wife into hysteria and him into an affair. While the novel sizzles as a sociologic document, it fizzles as legal drama. Wyatt scores one triumph after another at the trial, with his only serious setback due to a shooting that Freedman pulls out of a hat. Arbitrary complications in a similar vein stud the novel, giving it a cobbled-up feel that does ill service to its strong prose, characters and insights. Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Mystery Guild selections.
—Publishers Weekly

Superior, improbable, but gripping post O.J. legal procedural that fearlessly plays well-worn race, sex, and psychokiller cards, and still wins the game. Wyatt Matthews, a middle-aged seven-figure-salaried rainmaker lawyer, is burned out from too much easy money. In an attempt to recapture the illusion of integrity that once seemed so necessary, he signs up for six months of pro bono labor in the Public Defender’s Office, where he gets a stack of color-coded felony files and advice to plea-bargain as many of his charges as possible. When one of them, an incompetent holdup homeboy named Marvin White, is connected to a series of sickening rape-slasher killings, Matthews finds his crusade and decides to defend White with all the tricks of the trade. It isn’t going to be easy: White is an 18-year-old semiliterate black male, and the state has what would appear to be incontrovertible lab evidence showing his guilt. Freedman (House of Smoke, 1996, etc.) piles it on a little thick with some of the villains—one has a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling tattooed on his back, with the Devil sticking his finger out to Adam—but he invests the other familiar summer-stock players with charming eccentricities and puts them in extravagantly over-the-top settings. Despite a manipulatory plot that demands one too many contrivances to keep the suspense churning, Freedman delivers a powerfully absorbing tale of justice gone almost, but not quite, out of control. What we imagine to be a rigid, hidebound legal system is, it seems, a clash of personalities in which, every once in a while, the good guys win. An intensely accomplished, smoothly written, character-driven page-turner that, for all its flaws, manages to push the right buttons while sustaining a high level of suspense and interest.


book excerpt