Tuesday, May 13, 2008

GUEST BLOGGER: SHELDON SIEGEL

One of my favorite authors has graciously offered to be my guest blogger. Sheldon Siegel is the author of the Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez legal thrillers. It's been a couple of years since The Confession, but Judgment Day was worth the wait! Here's what Shel wanted to share...

I’m frequently asked where I get the ideas for my stories. For the most part, the ideas come from things I see or hear in my everyday life. That’s exactly how it worked for my latest book, JUDGMENT DAY.

I live about ten miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. For the last twenty years, I’ve commuted by ferry to my law firm’s office in downtown San Francisco. One of the first things I see every morning is the ominous stone fa├žade of San Quentin State Prison. When the first rudimentary jail was built on the isolated, rocky point in 1852, the desolate area was inhabited by more wildlife than humans. Nowadays, the crumbling, antiquated facility sits on four hundred pristine bay front acres in the middle of some of California’s most expensive real estate.

A couple of years ago, I was on my way to work when I happened to read a story in our local newspaper paper about the death (by natural causes) of the oldest man on California’s Death Row. This wasn’t unusual. There are more than six hundred and sixty men on Death Row at San Quentin. At most, California executes only one or two of them a year. As a result, the vast majority of the Death Row inmates die of natural causes.

We take our executions seriously in California and we’ve had a lot of practice. The first recorded hanging at the San Quentin site was in 1893, and an additional two hundred and fourteen inmates were put to death on the gallows before the State Legislature approved the construction of the gas chamber in a little stone building in 1936. Between 1938 and 1967, one hundred and ninety men and four women were executed in the odd-looking little room that resembles an olive green space capsule. We took a break for the next twenty-five years while the battle over the death penalty played out in our judicial system, and in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court took the dramatic step of banning capital punishment altogether. That decision didn’t sit well with California voters, who subsequently approved an amendment to our state constitution to reinstate it. The legal challenges continued until 1992, when the executions started up again. A year later, the gas chamber was restored and reconfigured to accommodate executions by lethal injection. Nowadays, its looming presence is never far from the minds of the denim-clad prisoners who pass their time going about the business of being incarcerated and trying to prolong their lives.

As I read the article and watched the inmates in the exercise yard that’s enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, I became curious about the day-to-day lives of the six thousand prisoners who live inside a facility that was built to hold half that number. I wondered what it was like for the six hundred and sixty men awaiting execution on Death Row, the overwhelming majority of whom will die long before they are led into the little green chamber where California conducts its executions. I decided to write JUDGMENT DAY to try to find out.

I’ve never handled a Death Penalty appeal, but I must confess that I’ve always had a morbid fascination with capital punishment cases. The stakes are high. The legal and policy issues are compelling. I’ve also had an interest in the attorneys who are involved in death penalty litigation. I’ve long wondered why people subject themselves to such an intense, high-risk, low-reward endeavor—in most cases, for a client they barely know. Everybody involved in the process is ultimately judged by a single criterion: whether a man lives or dies.

As I was reading the article about the death of the oldest condemned prisoner, I wondered what would have happened if his number had came up shortly before he was about to die of natural causes. Would the State have proceeded with his execution anyway? Or would they have let him die of natural causes in due course?

I raised the issue with a friend of mine named David Nickerson, who is the husband of one of my law partners. He’s also one of the finest appellate lawyers in California. David spends much of his time trying to prolong the lives of the inmates at San Quentin. He told me that the State would have proceeded with the execution in such circumstances. When I asked him why, he replied, “Because it’s the law.”

Next I asked David what it’s like to be an appellate lawyer during the final days before an execution. I listened attentively as he told me about the round-the-clock machinations, the endless preparation of briefs (most of which are rejected quickly), and the almost-always fruitless search for new evidence and witnesses. When David finished, he looked at me and said, “You know, this might be a good storyline for a book.” I told him that was exactly what I had in mind.

A few weeks later, David took me inside San Quentin to meet one of his clients and to give me a first-hand view of the life of a condemned inmate. It was a sobering, albeit eye-opening experience. I decided that I wanted to write a story that would take my readers inside Death Row. In addition, I wanted to write a story that would put my readers in David’s seat in the final days before an execution.

For the next few months, I spent time with David and several lawyers who handle death penalty cases for the California Attorney General’s Office. They were not capital punishment zealots or bleeding heart liberals. They were highly-skilled professionals who were doing their best to make an imperfect legal system work. I am grateful for their generosity and candor.

In the course of writing JUDGMENT DAY, I tried not to inject my personal views about the wisdom of capital punishment. In general, I think it’s a bad idea to interject a political agenda into mainstream fiction. Moreover, I believe it would have detracted from the authenticity of the story. As David and his adversaries at the Attorney General’s office frequently told me, you simply don’t have time to worry about policy issues when you have a client who is set for a lethal injection.

JUDGMENT DAY was the most difficult story that I’ve ever written because of its somber subject and the emotions associated with capital punishment cases. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I wrote it. I still ride the ferry past San Quentin every day. Nowadays, when I see the inmates in the exercise yard, I like to think that I have a little better understanding of what goes on inside the walls.


Sheldon Siegel has been a practicing attorney in San Francisco for more than twenty-five years. A graduate of Boalt Law School at the University of California at Berkeley, he specializes in corporate and securities law with the international law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. JUDGMENT DAY is the sixth novel in his series of critically acclaimed, New York Times best-selling courtroom dramas featuring San Francisco criminal defense attorneys Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez. He lives in Marin County with his wife, Linda, and their twin sons, Alan and Stephen. He is currently working on his seventh novel.

Monday, May 12, 2008

THRILLERFEST SCHOLARSHIPS

Are you a debut author with a book out in 2008 or 2009? Would you love to attend ThrillerFest in New York City but haven't quite figured out how to pay for it?

ITW is offering two scholarships for debut authors to attend ThrillerFest 2008 in New York City July 9-12. The scholarship is for the conference registration fee, craft fest, and any ITW sponsored meals (including the Thriller Awards Dinner.) Lodging and transportation is not offered as part of the scholarship.

Criteria:

You must have a debut novel published or scheduled to be published in 2008 or 2009 by an ITW recognized publisher. Individuals previously published by non-ITW recognized publishers or in a short story format (under 40,000 words) are eligible provided that the novel to be published in 2008 or 2009 is their first full-length novel published by an ITW recognized publisher.

You do not need to be an ITW member to apply.

Please send the following information to the Scholarship Committee Chair, Allison Brennan at scholarship@thrillerwriters.org:

Name

Contact information (address, phone number and email)

Pen Name (if any)

Book Title

Publisher

Editor

First Book? (yes or no)

All applications also must include the following:

Release date (tentative is okay)

Brief synopsis (one page or less)

Essay telling the committee in 500 words or less why you would like to attend ThrillerFest and what you hope to gain from the experience.

All submissions are blind. Only the committee chair will know the identity of the applicant; the synopsis and essay will be sent "blind" to the committee for review and discussion.

The deadline for applications is May 27, 2008. Two scholarship winners will be notified by June 3, 2008.

If you have any questions, please email the committee chair at scholarship@thrillerwriters.org.

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