Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s always interesting to learn about how courts and the legal system work in different parts of the world It’s also interesting to see how lawyers do their jobs in different places. To get a look at how it works in Italy, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, the first of his Guido Guerrieri series.
Guerrieri is an attorney who lives and works in Bari. At the moment, he’s at a crossroads in his life. His wife, Sara, has left him and wants a divorce. And he’s getting jaded about his legal career. In fact, he goes through a mental health crisis. Bit by bit, though, he starts to heal. Then he begins to go back to work. And that’s when he gets a visit from a woman named Abajaje Deheba. It seems that her partner, a Senegalese man named Abdou Thiam, has been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam says that he is not guilty, but there is evidence against him. So, he’s very likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. His partner asks Guerrieri to defend him. She, too, says that Thiam is not guilty, but that he’ll need a skilled lawyer.
Guerrieri agrees to at least meet with Thiam, and the conference is arranged. At first, Thiam is understandably reluctant to trust his future to his new lawyer. But very slowly, they start to communicate. As Thiam’s lawyer, Guerrieri has to present his client with two alternatives, and obey the instructions he’s given. One alternative is to opt for a shortened legal procedure. That option has all of the evidence weighed by one judge, who determines whether the accused is guilty. On the one hand, it saves everyone time and money, and this is important when a client can’t afford a protracted trial. It also means the client often gets a sharply reduced sentence (i.e. won’t have to spend life in prison). However, most shortened procedures end in conviction. That means a prison sentence even if the accused is not guilty. So, while a guilty client might instruct an attorney to choose a shortened option, an innocent client is best off with the longer, more traditional trial if it’s possible.
And that’s what Thiam instructs Guerrieri to choose. So, the trial plans are put in motion, and Guerrieri prepares for it as best he can. One thing he wants to do is show that the evidence against his client is not conclusive. So, he’ll have to find places where the evidence is questionable. He also wants, of course, to find any evidence he can that will corroborate his client’s account of events. As the trial begins, Guerrieri plans his approach and his witnesses.
I don’t want to say much more about the trial, so as to avoid spoilers. That said, though, this is a legal novel, so readers follow along as Guerrieri meets with his client and other interested parties, plans his strategies, and so on. Many of the scenes in the second half of the book take place in the courtroom, so readers get to see how a trial is conducted in Italy. It’s worth noting that Carofiglio is a former anti-Mafia judge. So, he’s had plenty of courtroom experience on which to draw for this novel. It’s also worth noting here that the story reflects the time it actually takes for a trial to occur. It doesn’t happen in the twenty minutes you might see on a television show. Carofiglio deals with the inevitable time delays by simply mentioning them (e.g. ‘A week later, I heard that….’).
The story is told from Guerrieri’s point of view (first person, past tense). So, we learn a great deal about him. He has his share of issues, as we all do. But he’s bright and quick. He knows his job, and he does it well. He understands how the rules work in court and uses them. Readers who dislike ‘maverick’ characters who won’t follow policy will appreciate that.
As the story goes on, we see how Guerrieri works on putting himself together again in his personal life, too. He makes mistakes, and he’s willing to admit that there are things he could do differently. But he doesn’t wallow in drink or self-recrimination. And, crucially, he starts to move on a bit. In that sense, the novel ends on what you might call a positive note.
The novel takes place mostly in Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, and the physical setting, culture, and daily life reflect that. So does the way the law works, both formally and informally. And one of the aspects of life in Bari (and, indeed, in many other places) is the reality of racial and ethnic diversity. Bari is a diverse place, and the issues of racism and cultural differences do come up. Without spoiling the story, I can say that not all of the characters are comfortable with diversity, and that plays its role in the novel.
Involuntary Witness is the story of a murder trial. It takes place in a distinctly Italian sociocultural and legal setting and raises important issues that impact the course of a legal case. It features a lawyer who’s picking himself up and dusting himself off, as the saying goes, and it shows how this trial impacts him. But what’s your view? Have you read Involuntary Witness? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 9 July/Tuesday, 10 July – Death on Demand – Carolyn Hart
Monday, 16 July/Tuesday, 17 July – The Invisible Dead – Sam Wiebe
Monday, 23 July/Tuesday, 24 July – The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah