Last week I posted about potential plot bunnies when dealing with the undead. This week I’m expanding on the topic a bit.
Under common law, homicide is defined as the unlawful taking of a human life. While seemingly simple, that definition has occasionally led to some interesting legal questions. For example, is an unborn baby “human”? At common law, the answer was no, but many have argued that at the very least, fetuses that would be viable outside the womb should be considered human.
If you are an author of speculative fiction, I think you could play with this issue in a number of interesting ways. Sure, there’s the undead, such as zombies and vampires. But what about sentient creatures from another planet? What about artificial intelligence—does it achieve humanity when it becomes sentient and self-aware? What if a human is genetically modified? What if so many parts of her are replaced with artificial bits that she’s barely organic? We’re talking an entire warren’s worth of plot bunnies here!
Relatedly, we have the issue of what constitutes “taking of a life.” In reality, this has come up in cases where the victim was brain-dead but still on life support, and when he died many years later from complications related to the initial attack. But again, spec fic offers us interesting questions. What if the victim is resurrected? What if his body is destroyed but his mind or soul—some essence of him—is preserved in some way? What if he’s reincarnated?
I think the world is sorely in need of more spec fic legal procedurals!
Last week I posted about the right of criminal defendants to be represented by counsel. Today I’m discussing a related matter—what if the defense lawyer sucks?
On the one hand, the case law is clear: defendants have the right to effective assistance. While this doesn’t mean the lawyer has to be a Clarence Darrow, it does mean she has to do her job competently. If she doesn’t, a conviction may be overturned.
Ah, but there’s a major caveat here. In order to make a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant has to prove more than the lawyer’s incompetence. He also has to prove that, if it weren’t for her bad job, the outcome of the trial would have been different. This is called the Strickland test, named after the case in which the Supreme Court articulated it. In many cases, the test essentially means the defendant has to prove he’s innocent, which can be difficult even with a good lawyer.
Courts have upheld convictions in which the defense attorney was drunk at trial, was mentally ill and delusional, fell asleep during the trial, asked the defendant’s family for money to do DNA testing but kept the money and didn’t do the test.
I think ineffective assistance of counsel is an excellent and underused plot device. Imagine that your hero is innocent but gets a cruddy lawyer. Maybe that lawyer is even paid off by somebody to do a bad job? And now your hero has to prove he didn’t do it. Lovely!
Last week I gave you a plot bunny (big city cop in a small town!), and here I am with another. This one will work pretty well if you want a sympathetic protagonist with a criminal record.
Here are the facts. About 95% of criminal cases never make it to trial. The primary reason for that is plea bargaining, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty—often to lesser charges—in exchange for a reduced sentence. (For more on plea bargains, check this previous post.)
Plea bargains offer a lot of potential benefits. The defense attorney has a lighter caseload. So does the prosecutor—who also gets another conviction credited to her. The courts have fewer cases, resulting in less expense and less backlog. And guilty defendants get a lighter punishment.
But. What if the defendant is innocent? What if he honestly didn’t commit the crime, but his defense attorney comes to him with a deal from the DA: plead guilty and spend, say, 5 years in prison, or go to trial and risk getting convicted and spending even longer locked up? What if the stakes in this gamble are really high—as in a potential life sentence? What’s our poor, innocent hero going to do? Well??
(Incidentally, that handsome plot bunny was drawn by the very talented Catherine Dair. You should check out her other work!)
I’m doing something a little different this week. Instead of giving you criminal justice facts, I’m giving you a plot bunny. If you write romantic suspense, listen up! Because this is a book I’d love to see written.
Here’s the background you need to know. Serious crimes like homicides don’t happen often in small towns, yet these crimes usually require experienced investigators if they’re going to be handled well. One way some towns get around this conundrum is by contracting with police departments in larger cities. If someone gets murdered in Tiny Town, the local cops can call on the homicide detectives from nearby Big City to investigate. The locals are still going to be involved, of course, but the Big City detectives will lead the show.
So… someone in your Tiny Town turns up dead. Make it someone juicy. The mayor? The high school principal? The mysterious reclusive millionaire with the estate at the edge of town? Local cops call in Detective Sexy from your Big City to see what’s what. And maybe sparks fly between Det. Sexy and Tiny Town’s police chief—but so do tempers, because maybe the chief isn’t best pleased at the detective’s big city ways.
Write this. Please?