Former prosecutor takes a novel look at justice
A few days ago, I wrote about James Ochoa, a former gang member who may or may not get state compensation for the 10 months he spent in prison before DNA tests and another man’s confession proved him not guilty. Ochoa had pleaded guilty to a crime he didn’t commit because a witness had wrongly identified him and the trial judge told him he’d throw the book at him if convicted.
Monday, President Bush commuted the 30-month perjury and obstruction of justice sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
James Ochoa, a nobody. Scooter Libby, a somebody.
Aw, there’s probably no great truth to glean from their situations.
Funny thing is, though, the two cases overlapped as I’ve finished up “A Sense of Justice,” a crime novel by Nick Novick, a former Orange County deputy district attorney.
I interviewed Novick last week, and our talk had nothing to do with either case, but many things he said now rattle around in my head. The novel, he said, was “just a matter of how the criminal justice system works when you have clout, money and influence.”
Aha. When a former prosector -- Novick retired in 1987 -- writes about the system and then drops that kind of line on you, you have to ask the obvious.
Just how real is the book? When he writes about prosecutors badmouthing certain judges, a police chief who molested his daughter and a drunken prosecutor showing up in the crime lab and destroying evidence, well, are those taken from his 20 years on the job? Ripped from his secret files?
Novick laughs. “It’s fiction,” he says. “It’s a novel. Novel means fiction. However, as you know, people write from things they know. But it is a novel.”
I believe him, I believe him.
Novick, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant coal miner who settled his family in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1930s, says he wrote the novel as training for the autobiography he’s wrapping up.
But as fictional as his book may be, he doesn’t want it seen as frivolous.
He wants to make statements about the criminal justice system, he says, venturing that “99% of the people in the country” know little about how it operates.
His main thrust is that justice should be dealt equally, regardless of social or economic status. There’s plenty of dialogue in the book to suggest he thinks that doesn’t always happen.
So I ask him: Even if conceding that no judicial system run by humans can be perfect, would people be troubled or assured by how things work?
“I think they’d be troubled,” Novick says.
For instance, he cited a time when another prosecutor in the office asked him to meet with a friend who faced possible charges in a case Novick was handling. Novick said other potential defendants didn’t have that option, and he wouldn’t grant it to a colleague’s acquaintance, either.
“The first couple of months [on the job] when I was running up against this sort of thing,” he says, “I was resolved not to let it affect my judgment, and I told myself that I was going to do battle with people who want me to do things I think are wrong.”
Novick, who’ll be 82 later this month and lives in Irvine, grew up in Frackville, Pa., as Alphonsus Novick and became “Nick” only because that was how he pronounced his last name as a child. His family was so poor that an older brother was embarrassed to bring college friends to his home.
But young Novick learned important lessons amid poverty. When he was 11, local authorities accused him of stealing typewriters from the high school. His denials weren’t believed until an older brother, wise beyond his 17 years, forced officials to present evidence. The actual thief turned out to be a school board member’s son, whose father wrote a check for the items.
The experience forged a sense in Novick that people needed protection from false charges and that it was wrong for influential people get special treatment.
In 1967, after a business career, he handled his first misdemeanor criminal case and was hooked after convincing a jury of the defendant’s guilt.
“I didn’t even know what Miranda was,” he says, referring to the 1966 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case about defendants’ rights. When a defense lawyer invoked the name, Novick says, he thought a witness named Miranda was being summoned.
I don’t know if that’s true or merely grist for his autobiography, but it’s good storytelling.
And that’s what “A Sense of Justice” is, he says. Simple storytelling.
So when he writes about an alcoholic judge and the deputy D.A. who was his drinking buddy and locked his office door in the afternoons to sleep it off ... that’s not true, is it?
And it’s complete fiction, right, when the accused police chief says to his wife: “How many lawyers, doctors or corporate executives have you ever seen being charged with this crime when it happens within the family? Do you think this is a crime committed only by the lower and middle classes? Do you know why the high and mighty aren’t charged?”
To his incredulous wife, the fictional police chief adds: “Power, authority, money, reputation.”
Compelling storytelling. Ripped from today’s headlines, if not Novick’s files.
Fiction, Novick had said loud and clear. His book is fiction.
Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at
firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his recent columns: www.latimes.com/parsons