The Jefferson Case

I got the bare idea for the opening situation of my novel from a real case—of a man who was exonerated of rape after spending almost two decades in prison.

According to the Innocence Project, more than 300 persons have been exonerated in similar cases since the 1990s. Often these people have been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony.

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Most of the time, the witness is simply mistaken, especially if the witness is a victim in the crime, and traumatized, and especially if the perpetrator is someone the witness has never seen before or hardly knows. Rarely is the victim blamed or even scrutinized, and rightly so.

Lay Death opens with a scene in which my main character, Kate, learns that a man she accused of rape has been exonerated.  It is my purely fictional premise that she was lying when she testified against him. Such a case would, in reality, be highly unusual. Realism, in murder mysteries, is almost always an illusion! A trick of character, a good plot, and setting.

So Kate has done something unthinkable. At the age of twenty, after witnessing a murder and being beaten and raped, she has deliberately accused an innocent man. And for twenty years she has lived with the knowledge that he was in prison for something he didn’t do—because of her.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains

The original murder in Lay Death takes place in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Lynchburg, Virginia.

Why would anyone do such a thing? It’s an appalling situation, one that cries out for explanation. I worked out a situation in which a person might lie on the stand to protect herself. Then I invented a plot that would begin with the exoneration and end with the whole truth coming out.

Most of the exonerations I’ve described, including my fictional one, hinge on modern DNA profiling. The fact that I open my story with a forensic result might suggest that my book is a police procedural. It isn’t, at all.

Some people expect that the book will be about Jefferson. It’s not. The poor man was innocent. He had nothing to do with the long-ago crime. The exoneration is the jumping off point for a classic mystery story that turns on character, motivation—and deception.

Lay Death is a mystery in which someone has gotten away with murder. It’s also about a person who is living with a lie. It is the job of the book to drag the murder and the lie out into the light. That’s the job of any murder mystery (according to me): bring wrongdoing to justice.

One more thing: Lay Death is not a detective story, although one implacable detective—Elsa Gabriel—serves as a nemesis. The resolution in Lay Death comes about not because a detective ferrets out the truth, but because the characters who committed the crimes and told the lies self-destruct from within.

In Lay Death, the exoneration of Jules Jefferson comes about through the efforts of what I call the Justice Project–a fictional counterpart of the Innocence Project. You can read about real cases of people being exonerated by DNA profiling at www.innocenceproject.org.