Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Review: Death Benefit.

It takes one to know one.

In this case, it took a lawyer to recognize and write about the heroic work of a fellow lawyer, Steven Keeney.

David Heilbroner followed up his book, Rough Justice: Days and Nights of Young D.A. (reviewed here on August 27, 2007) with Death Benefit.

Death Benefit chronicled how Keeney transformed essentially a pro bono case involving his client's claim to a $3500 insurance policy for burial expenses into a first-degree murder conviction.

A defense attorney in the subsequent murder case questioned Keeney's motives and demanded that he be cross-examined. "I think this idea that a pro bono lawyer could, out of the goodness of his heart, prosecute and investigate this case needs to be destroyed as a myth." (p. 275.)

Keeney took the stand and testified: "I came into this case believing it was an accident. I hoped it was an accident. It looked like an insurance claim for burial insurance...

"As I sit here and look at my wife in the back of the courtroom, sometimes I wish I hadn't done it, but I think it was the right thing to do.


"But you all didn't want to stop there. You also wanted to see if you could slur my character. It's not material to this case; it has no relevance. But if you wanted to go further ....

"We teach by example. And in this merry-go-round of pleadings and hearings and pitiable subpoenas, we have not taught the law that we have dedicated ourselves to. My client's daughter is dead. And if the meticulous care that I have shown to the rights of the defendants were extended to my client, that would be one thing. But it has not been so here...." (pp. 275-76; emphases in original.)

At great personal cost, with little prospect for reward, Keeney bulldogged this case when no one else cared or perceived any wrongdoing. After a woman in Keeney's Presbyterian church asked him to help her get burial expenses paid following the death of her twenty-something daughter, Keeney's persistence uncovered a much larger pattern of death and destruction surrounding the woman who was present when Kenney's client's daughter died off a cliff in Big Sur, California. (Keeney and Heilbroner even suggest she is a serial killer). Monterey's DA even passed on prosecuting anyone over this death.

Keeney got this prosecution into the hands of the San Diego DA, who agreed to pursue the case despite the fact the death occurred about 500 miles outside of its jurisdiction. This jurisdictional issue as well as many others makes the book especially good for trial and other lawyers (although lay people will also enjoy its mystery and who-done-it aspects).

However, I think Heilbroner got carried away when he made it appear the public defenders' office had some kind of resource advantage over the prosecutors. As a former prosecutor, Heilbroner had to know this purported imbalance is farcical.

As I mentioned in the review of Rough Justice, Heilbroner left the law to pursue writing. Death Benefit displayed some flourishes suggesting Heilbroner was angling for novels. An example:

"As Keeney left his office, he caught a last glimpse of the city going through its nightly transformation. Street lamps and steeple lights came on. White and red car lights ran in streams along the avenues, and offices in nearby skyscrapers glowed in Mondrian strips and squares against a sunset that modulated from orange embers at the horizon to a magenta velvet sky." (p. 22.) Does Heilbroner expect us to believe that Keeney reported this scene to him? And if Heilbroner wasn't there (which he wasn't) why is he writing it as a percipient witness?

Mercifully, Heilbroner didn't indulge in such unnecessarily baroque language throughout the book. They were circumscribed to only a few other passages in the 350-page text.

On balance, Death Benefit is an entertaining explication of an intricate story where an attorney does the right thing for the right reasons and to the right result.