Author: Frederic Block
Publisher: Select Books, Inc
ISBN: 13: 978-1-59079-438-8
In his Preface to Race to Judgment, Frederic Block states that he has been intrigued in the manner in which authors have based their novels on true events but take literary license with the characters and events to create great stories. As he further notes, there is a name for this fiction, “reality-fiction.” The dictionary describes it as a type of novel that places a strong emphasis on the truthful representation of the actual in fiction. With this in mind, Block has crafted a novel that is based on several actual cases he handled as a federal trial judge.
Block's protagonist, defence attorney Ken Williams a graduate of New York University Law School who had escaped unscathed from the projects (a government-subsidized housing development with relatively low rents) had seen police brutality within his neighbourhood targeted particularly toward young black men. He was determined that one day he would do something about it.
The narrative opens when Williams receives a phone call from the wife of a young man, Troy Jackson, a twenty-four year old high-school guidance counselor, who had been arrested for the murder of Menachem Mendel Bernstein seven years ago on Chess Street in Brooklyn. Jackson tells Williams that at the time he was seventeen, that he never heard of the murdered person, and that he had not lived on the street since he was fourteen. Williams, who is baffled as to why Jackson was arrested, hires a private investigator, Mickey Zissou, who he describes as a “crackerjack private eye,” although a little rough around the edges, to find out what this is all about.
As a result of the Jackson case and the publicity surrounding it, Williams receives several letters from African-American inmates that all had one common theme, they were incarcerated for crimes they swore they never committed and what was startling was that they were prosecuted on trumped-up evidence by Anthony Racanelli, the chief prosecutor for the Brooklyn District Attorney.
One of these letters in particular stands out and that is from a prisoner who had been locked up for 16 years. Apparently, the prisoner, JoJo Jones had been told by a fellow prisoner on the latter's death bed that he had been pressured by Racanelli to testify that he saw Jones kill the son of Rabbi Israel Bernstein. It should be pointed out that Racanelli's boss, James Neary, the Brooklyn District Attorney, who had not lost an election in twenty-four years had vigorously prosecuted a number of black youths for committing crimes against Hasidic shopkeepers and landlords. It seems that he was trying to appease the Hasidic community that over the years supported his re-elections. With considerable digging Williams and his team's are able to set the scene for a retrial of Jones.
If these two cases were not enough to complicate Williams life, he is also hired by a Hasidic young woman claiming that her father raped her and as a result is now pregnant. Not only is she faced with the possibility of her father going to prison but also the painful choice of an abortion-something strongly forbidden by her community. Incidentally, Block provides his readers with a great deal of background information concerning Hasidic customs and their way of life.
And to top it all off, Williams is now also thinking about running for District Attorney against Neary considering that he has discovered that there seems to be a great deal of illegal shenanigans transpiring in the D.A's office and something is not “kosher.”
This novel is quite wide in its scope and Block creates a convincing picture of several complex issues, including the framing of African Americans for crimes they did not commit, dirty politicians, attorneys, judges and law enforcement officers, and the intricate world of the Hasidic community, all of which forces the reader to engage in this emotionally involving yarn. The sprawling story is well organized although I felt that several scenes could have been left out including a tour guide of some areas of Brooklyn and the inclusion of song lyrics. Do we really need these scenes which may even put off some readers.
In the final analysis, to say everything is resolved happily would be misleading, however, I will refrain from saying more so as not to spoil your read.