The Innocence Gameby Michael Harvey
A cold case is about to do supernova and three students will learn the price of innocence.
At Northwestern's renowned journalism school, Ian Joyce has been invited to participate in a prestigious seminar that investigates wrongful convictions and forgotten cases. With only two other classmates--beautiful, strong-willed Sarah Gold and enigmatically brilliant
A cold case is about to do supernova and three students will learn the price of innocence.
At Northwestern's renowned journalism school, Ian Joyce has been invited to participate in a prestigious seminar that investigates wrongful convictions and forgotten cases. With only two other classmates--beautiful, strong-willed Sarah Gold and enigmatically brilliant Jake Havens--he begins to investigate the long-ago murder of a young boy, ten-year-old Skylar Wingate, last seen walking home from school, his body discovered three days later in a forest preserve. His alleged killer was murdered decades ago in jail. But two chilling clues delivered to Jake's house suggest that the killer is still very much alive, and, in fact, in their midst. As the evidence mounts, the three classmates find themselves drawn into web of distrust, deceit, and corruption that will lead from the grittiest corners of Chicago and to the shores of Lake Michigan.
“Michael Harvey should be read by all.”—John Grisham
“Harvey does for the Windy City what Michael Connelly did for Los Angeles.” —Chicago Tribune
“Harvey’s the best Chicago novelist . . . since Nelson Algren.” —Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“Harvey [writes] with crack timing, never allowing the reader a moment to unfasten his seat belt.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Ingenious . . . Engrossing . . . Michael Harvey is a writer with a bright future.” —Illinois Times
“Harvey takes us into the dark underworld where guilt and innocence aren’t just debated in the courtroom—the losers lose big, and winners manage to simply survive . . . Complex, twisting plot, loaded with well-staged surprises, great summer read.” —Blue Heron Journal
“Michael Harvey portrays the city of Chicago and its environs to wonderful effect . . . Suspenseful from the start, the last third of the novel becomes much more than ‘just’ a page-turner, when I found that I could not put the book down until the final page, with an ending this reader absolutely did not see coming. It is highly recommended.” —Midwest Book Review
“Wily and surprising . . . The appealing kids at the book’s center . . . leave us wanting more.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Ambitious . . . The suspense remains high throughout.” —Publishers Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
The seminar met in Fisk Hall, one of the oldest buildings on Northwestern’s campus and the crusted, beating heart of the university’s Medill School of Journalism. I took a seat at a table in the back. The pile of red hair at the front shook itself like a dog shaking off the weather. A hand beckoned.
Won’t do, Mr. Joyce.”
I sighed, grabbed my backpack, and found a place up front. The pile of hair parted itself, revealing a considerable length of nose and eyes of violent blue.
“My name is Judy Zombrowski. You can call me Z. Do you know Ms. Gold?”
The hand directed my attention to a woman sitting directly to my left. She had a perfectly square chin, high cheekbones, and long, brown hair that turned crimson in the late--afternoon sun. Sarah Gold waved. I felt queasy. Gloriously so.
“We know each other from undergrad,” Sarah said, smiling at me as if we’d exchanged more than three words during our four years together.
“Of course you do.” Z cast a look toward the back of the room. “We’re waiting for one more.”
A door banged open.
The third student in the summer graduate seminar was tall and angular. He had thick shoulders and a long jaw covered by a blond scruff of beard. His eyes were shaded and hard to read.
“Jake Havens?” Z’s voice rang down the empty aisle and echoed off the walls. Havens took the same seat I’d picked out for myself.
“What is it with you people?” Z waved Havens forward. “Up here.”
“I’m good, thanks.” His voice was ragged, like a car knocking through its low end of gears. He looked older. In his thirties, even.
“Fine. Sit where you want.” Z poked at the mass of papers piled up around her. From underneath a legal pad she pulled out what looked like a Big Mac and unwrapped it. She took a bite, then found a Coke with a straw and sipped.
“So, can someone tell me what we’re here for?” Z took another bite and watched us as she chewed.
“We’re here to work on wrongful convictions.” Sarah Gold tapped a pen lightly against the table as she spoke. “Men who’ve been sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit.”
“You mean murder, Ms. Gold.”
“And what if, heaven forbid, the son of a bitch is guilty?” A pickle dropped out of Z’s Big Mac. She ignored it. “What if you spend the quarter working a file and, at the end of the day, he raped the little girl, cut her into pieces, and stuffed them all into Hefty bags. Just like the state said he did.”
Sarah opened her mouth to speak.
“I’m not finished,” Z said. “What if you work a case and are convinced the poor bastard is innocent? Not a doubt about it. But you don’t have the evidence. Or you do have the evidence, but for some reason it’s tainted. Inadmissible. What then?”
Z took another bite of her sandwich, put it down, and held up her hands like she was a doctor getting ready to operate. “I’m not supposed to eat this stuff, but I love it.” She wiped her fingers with a napkin, wrapped up what was left of the burger, and stuffed it into its paper bag. “My point is this. We have a lot of files. And a lot of possible outcomes. But we don’t root for one result over the other.”
“What do we root for?” Sarah said.
“The truth, if we can find it. And a good story. As for the actual workings of our legal system”—-a flick of hands to the heavens—-“sometimes it’s necessary to let things fall where they may. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
We all nodded.
“Like hell you do. But that’s all right. Just keep in mind rule number one. The evidence is what it is. Allow it to tell its own story. Don’t shape it to support a certain outcome. We’ll talk more about all of this later. For now, why don’t we get started?” Z gestured to the stack of brown files climbing the wall behind her. “These are just a few cases you can look at. We have another roomful down the hall.”
“Do we start anywhere in particular?” I said. “Or just dig in?”
“This seminar is all about instinct, Mr. Joyce. And who has it. In fact, our very first case relied on little more than a hunch. Have any of you heard this?”
We all shook our heads. Z seemed pleased.
“Our first case involved a man named Charles Granger. He was convicted of shooting a man dead over a drug deal and sentenced to die by the state of Indiana. In the spring of 1999, we read through the file in this very classroom. None of us bought it. No one was sure why,
but the facts just didn’t hang together. So we ordered up Granger’s trial transcripts and began to work the case. We eventually zeroed in on the state’s eyewitness. At first, she was scared to talk to us. We sent her some letters from Granger. Then we sent her a calendar with Granger’s scheduled execution date circled. She wound up recanting her testimony, and the whole thing came apart. Charles Granger spent fifteen years on death row. At one point, he was forty--eight hours from being killed. And we saved his life. This seminar has saved eight other lives since then. And gotten at least that many released from decades of prison time for crimes they didn’t commit. This will be the best work you’ll ever do. It will also be the most demanding. And a lot of it will depend on you trusting your gut.”
Z rattled the ice in her Coke and sucked on the straw until she hit bottom. Then she threw the cup in the vicinity of a barrel. “You’ve been chosen for this seminar because you’re the best. At least that’s what they tell me. I’ve won three Pulitzer Prizes in my career, so I know talent. And from where I sit, the screening committee for this course gets it right a little more than half the time. Which means at least one of you doesn’t belong. But we’ll see. Now, I’d like to head down the hall for a walk--through of our filing system.”
Z stood. Sarah and I got up with her.
“I’ve already got a case.” Jake Havens was still slouched in his chair, eyes fastened on the floor. “Name’s James Harrison. Fourteen years ago, he was convicted of killing a ten--year--old kid in Chicago.”
Z smiled so I could see her eyeteeth. “Mr. Havens. Nice of you to check in. We tend not to focus as much on cases in Illinois since the state abolished its death penalty.”
Havens looked up. “What happened to ‘trusting your instinct’?”
“I didn’t say we couldn’t take a look at an Illinois case. Just that, all things being equal, it might not be a priority.”
“But all things aren’t equal.”
“I’m not following you.”
“First of all, Harrison’s dead. Fourteen months in prison and they found him stuck in the neck with a shank.” Havens climbed to his feet and moved down the aisle until he stood on the other side of Sarah. He pulled a thick file from a tattered backpack and thunked it down in front of him. “This is everything I could find. Mostly newspaper clippings. And the original police report.”
Z ignored the paperwork. “Why would we look into a case where the convicted man is deceased?”
“Does the fact that he’s dead make him any less innocent?”
Z licked her lips. First day and the prof was pissed. Great.
“Mr. Havens, let’s take this up after class . . .”
Havens pulled a wrinkled gray envelope out of his pack and laid it beside the file.
“You have something else for us?” Z’s voice rose with her eyebrows.
“It’s a letter, ma’am.”
“I can see that.”
“I received it four days ago.”
“In the mail?”
“There’s no stamp,” Sarah said, tilting her head to get a closer look.
“It was tucked under the front door of my apartment.”
“When, Mr. Havens?”
“I told you. Four days ago.”
Z nodded. “Go ahead.”
I could feel the shift in the room. Z was no longer the teacher. And Jake Havens, no longer just a student.
“I woke up and it was sitting in my hallway. So I opened it.”
“Who else has handled it?”
“And what do you think is in there?”
“I know what’s in there. It’s a note from the killer. The real killer.”
Z walked to the back of the classroom and closed the door. She returned with a box of latex gloves. We each took a pair and snapped them on. I couldn’t take my eyes off the envelope. Z’s cloak--and--dagger only made things better. She picked up the envelope and studied it. There was no address, just jake havens printed in block letters of black ink.
“Was it sealed, Mr. Havens?”
Jake shook his head. Z didn’t seem surprised. She opened the envelope and eased out its contents—-a single sheet of paper filled with more block lettering. Z pressed the page flat on the table and we all read.
98--2425 . . . i kilt the boy.
“There’s something else.” Havens reached into his pack again, this time pulling out a small piece of cloth. He placed it down beside the letter. My hand picked it up before the rest of me realized what I’d done. It was a ragged cut. The fabric, white with a black stripe running through it.
“Looks like it’s from a shirt,” I said.
“It was in with the note,” Havens said. “I think it’s got blood on it.”
Sarah had taken the piece of cloth from me. Now, she let it slip from her fingers.
“My guess,” Havens continued, “is that it was cut from the shirt the victim was wearing.”
“How do you know what the victim was wearing?” Z said.
Havens placed a hand on the file. “Case number 98--2425. The victim’s name was Skylar Wingate. According to the cops, he was wearing a black--and--white cotton shirt. Seems to match what we’ve got here.”
Z sighed like she’d heard it all before. “You’re leaving out a few facts, Mr. Havens.”
“You remember the case?” I said.
“It was a pretty big deal in its day.”
“What did he leave out?” Sarah said.
“As I recall,” Z said, “they did DNA testing on blood found on the jeans James Harrison was wearing when he was arrested. Came back as a perfect match to the victim.”
Sarah and I turned our gaze back to Havens.
“The DNA testing was done postconviction,” Havens said. “Harrison demanded and paid for it himself.”
“What does that matter?” Sarah said.
“Why does a guy who’s filing an appeal pay for DNA testing that’s going to remove all doubt of his guilt?” Havens said.
“Desperation,” Z said. “Do enough of these stories, and you’ll learn all about it.”
I picked up the piece of torn fabric. “Would they still have the shirt in evidence?”
“If this guy was killed in prison,” Sarah said, “why would they keep anything?”
We all turned again to Z, who seemed to think long and hard for a moment. She scribbled something on a legal pad and pushed it over to Havens. “The Cook County Clerk’s Office takes custody of trial transcripts and physical evidence once a case is closed. Transcripts and related trial documents are stored off--site, in a permanent records center. Actual physical evidence is kept in the county’s warehouse. I’ve given you both addresses and a couple of names. I doubt there’s anything left, but if there is, they’ll have it.”
“Will they let us in?” Havens said. “I mean if we just tell them we’re from Medill?”
“Not likely. I’ll make a call this afternoon and e--mail you if I get an okay. Assuming I do, you guys go down there and see what you can dig up on the shirt. Show me something substantive next time we meet, something that gives us a way around the DNA match . . . or we move on. Fair enough?”
We looked at one another and nodded. Z tucked the torn piece of shirt into the gray envelope and pinched it between her fingers. “Meanwhile, this stays with me. Now, does anyone else have anything they want to share? A Christmas card from John Wayne Gacy? Richard Speck’s bra and panties? No? Good. If it’s all right with Mr. Havens, I’d appreciate ten minutes of your precious time to talk about the five hundred or so other cases we’re working here at Medill.”
Meet the Author
Michael Harvey is the author of The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor, The Third Rail, and We All Fall Down, and is also a journalist and documentary producer. His work has received numerous national and international awards, including multiple news Emmys, two Primetime Emmy nominations, and an Academy Award nomination. He holds a law degree with honors from Duke University, a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in classical languages from Holy Cross College. He lives, of course, in Chicago.
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Michael Harvey has portrayed the city of Chicago and its environs in past novels to wonderful effect, and in his newest novel, a standalone, he does so once again. The tale is told from the 1st person p.o.v. of Ian Joyce, one of three graduate students chosen for a highly sought-after spot in a seminar at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (considered one of the best in the world), run by a three-time Pulitzer-winning journalist, Judy Zombrowski. (“You can call me Z.”) The seminar, which she has been teaching for more than a decade, is called The Innocence Project, apparently based on an actual program in Chicago and a similar one in New York City, whose purpose is “to work on wrongful convictions . . . [of] men who’ve been sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit.” The three students chosen are Ian, Jake Havens (a brilliant law-school grad) and Sarah Gold, a beautiful girl who had gone through under-grad school with Ian. The case they choose (well, actually, it’s Jake who chooses it) is that of a man convicted of killing a ten-year-old boy in Chicago 14 years earlier who, almost parenthetically, had been killed in prison 14 months after being incarcerated. As Jake says, defending his choice, “Does the fact that he’s dead make him any less innocent?” The young men are discovered to be more complex than they first appear, with their own secrets. But the three turn out to be a great team, each bringing his or her own compulsions to the task, with intriguing results. Their search into old murders morphs into the discovery of others not nearly as old. As the 3 J-School students pursue their investigation, trouble seems to follow them, including and not limited to break-ins and arson. The credo that Z has instilled in them is that above all, their job is to find out the truth. Along the way, they discover several other things, among them: “‘Playing a hunch’ is what journalists in the movies called it. Felt like fishing without a pole;” “In a splintered moment, we knew more about each other than we could in a million lifetimes” and, when corruption on several different levels is found, “This is Chicago we’re talking about. Cops, detectives, prosecutors. I know you’re a smart young man . . . “ Suspenseful from the start, the last third of the novel becomes much more than “just” a page-turner, when I found that I could not put the book down until the final page, with an ending this reader absolutely did not see coming. It is highly recommended.
Michael Harvey tells a story that keeps you guessing. I am a big fan of his series, but this novel is a nice stand-alone.