True trial drama reads like legal thriller

Issue October 2003 By Lisa C. Johnson

Smoking Gun
About the book …

Title: "The Smoking Gun"

Author: Gerry Spence

Description: Up against prosecutors and judges who were willing to ignore and even suppress exculpatory evidence, Gerry Spence's defense team stood up and fought for a poor woman who had no one else to help her

Publisher: Scribner

Released: September 2003

I love John Grisham. Okay, not him, but I love the way he writes. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is to curl up with one of his novels and savor every word, sentence, paragraph and page like different chocolates in a box of Godivas.

Gerry Spence is just as good a writer as John Grisham. Many of you may vehemently disagree with me even daring to compare the two. Please pardon the comparison and the double negative, but I couldn't not compare them and honestly write this review.

Maybe it's not even the difference between the two authors, but the difference between truth and fiction. In this age of reality television and love of celebrity, maybe America will love this book. Or maybe it is a bit too real.

Gerry Spence's new book, "The Smoking Gun," is a true story. The title is based on a picture of defendant Sandy Jones literally holding and aiming a smoking gun and the narrative follows the woman's trial in which she was accused of murdering real estate developer Wilfred Gerttula, who was shot and killed, in Lincoln County, Ore. Gerttula's wife, Monica, was the eyewitness and she stated she saw Sandy Jones shoot her husband. Mrs. Gerttula was also the one who took the "smoking gun" picture.

When Sandy Jones was arrested in July 1985, she was a 39-year-old wife and mother of two children, a son and daughter. Both Sandy Jones and her 15-year-old son, Mike, were charged with the same murder.

The Joneses and the Gerttulas had been involved in a longtime land dispute that resulted in several lawsuits between the two families that further spread to suits Sandy Jones filed against judges involved and the prosecuting attorney.

During these lawsuits, Sandy Jones' first of several attorneys dropped her because she could not afford to pay. So she had to represent herself. She was poor and seen as a troublemaker and an outcast in her community. And this was before the shooting.

Spence writes that it was a letter calling to him for help that got him interested in the case.

"One day in November 1985, I got a letter from a woman named Carol Van Strum," writes Spence. "She and her husband were waging their own lonesome battle with the Forest Service. She wrote me that a citizen in Lincoln County, Oregon had been charged with murder and that the woman's husband, a man named Mike Jones, whom she'd never met, had driven two hours in the cold of night to ask her for help. He had a small girl with him, his daughter Shawn, about ten. The child was sick with the flu, and the woman put the child to bed while she talked with him. Why Jones had sought her help she didn't know. But from what he told her she thought something was fishy. The cops were holding the man's wife in isolation. … When Mike Jones asked the Van Strum woman for help, the only help she could think of was to write to me."

It was a letter that led to Spence - the Wyoming attorney who has tried and won many noteworthy cases, including the Karen Silkwood radiation poisoning case, the defense of Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge and the defense of Imelda Marcos - to eventually taking on the defense of Sandy Jones pro bono.

I found myself wincing as I read about the horrible treatment of Sandy Jones while in prison and her subsequently failing health as each chapter turned to the next.

Spence's writing brings her to life. I could not enjoy reading this book the same way that I can enjoy a novel. Obviously when the writer of a legal thriller is an attorney also, it is more likely than not that they are taking bits and pieces of reality and somehow weaving it into their stories. But at least we don't know which part is real and which part is fiction; which parts we can enjoy and which parts are just plain sad and should not be a source of entertainment.

Maybe we are not supposed to "enjoy" every book in the traditional way, all smiles and apple pie with a happy ending.

But when we read and learn something new, have empathy for a fellow human being and go through the roller coaster of emotions, which is life, then maybe we have read a good book.

"The Smoking Gun" is a good book. It is also a very long book, more than 400 pages. While interesting, it was not a fast read. We literally learn about the events of each day during the trial, the events leading up to the trial and what happened to the people involved after the trial.

I think I felt so much emotion reading this book because Spence felt so much for his clients. The feelings emanate from the pages. This is how a defendant wants their attorney to fight for him or her - not just with their head, but also with their heart.

The book is obviously written from Spence's point of view. But while reading, I felt not only for him, the defendants and his assistants. He writes so well and is able to capture the multidimensional aspects of everyone's personalities with such precision that I even felt for the judges and prosecutors. The book contains pictures from the trial, so we are able to see everyone also.

While I have never met Spence, based on his book, he is a very likeable guy. He reveals a great deal of himself, giving us a sense of him as a person. Before reading this book, I just knew of him as the cowboy lawyer and that he was a great defense attorney.

While there is no doubt that he has incredible legal skills, based on this book, it is his humanity, empathy and compassion for others that makes him a superb attorney.

"The Smoking Gun" shows the artistry of a master trial lawyer. It also shows us that our justice system is not always so just. Most of us all live with a little bit of denial that certain things just cannot happen to us. One of them is that we will not be wrongfully arrested for a crime that we did not commit, especially for murder. This book takes away a little bit of that denial. It leaves an unsettling feeling in our minds. Although this is not a story about you or me, it could be.

While this is a very serious book, there are some moments of levity.

Gerry Spence
Master trial lawyer Gerry Spence turned author to tell the tale of a celebrated murder trial.
During closing arguments a marching band appeared. "Suddenly through the open window and from the street below came drifting up, as if on cue, the patriotic strains of John Philip Sousa's 'Stars and Stripes Forever.' As the band music swelled into the courtroom and the drums joined in, I felt an immense euphoric lift. 'Your Honor," I said to the beat of the drum and the roll of the music, 'if justice cannot be heard here' - I was shouting above the music - 'if justice cannot spread her protective wings over the likes of Sandy Jones, over the poor and the humble and the forgotten and the damned, if this case does not belong to justice, then there is nothing left, nothing but the mocking black hole of despair and degradation. … 'Thank you, Mr. Spence,' the judge said looking toward the window and shaking his head as if to say he couldn't believe that this man from Wyoming who seemingly left no stone unturned had even brought in a marching band to accompany his final argument. As Brown approached, I whispered to Eddie, 'Godamighty, where did this band come from? Did you have something to do with it?' 'No. Must be the angels are looking down on us.'"

And I think the angels were, up to a point. But this is a true story and there are no fairy tale endings.

Lisa C. Johnson is a tax counsel at Velosant LP / Financial Supply Chain Solutions and Taxware Technology.