by C.J. Darlington
Randy Singer Interview
Share on Facebook
justice isn’t as black and white as we want to make it out to be
from either side."
-- Randy Singer
Randy Singer is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author and veteran trial attorney. He has penned more than 10 legal thrillers and was recently a finalist with John Grisham and Michael Connelly for the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction sponsored by the University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal. Randy runs his own law practice and has been named to Virginia Business magazine's select list of "Legal Elite" litigation attorneys. In addition to his law practice and writing, Randy serves as teaching pastor for Trinity Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He calls it his "Jekyll and Hyde thing"—part lawyer, part pastor. He also teaches classes in advocacy and civil litigation at Regent Law School and, through his church, is involved with ministry opportunities in India. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in Virginia Beach. They have two grown children. Visit his website at www.randysinger.net.
The inspiration for The Last Plea Bargain came somewhat from a real life case you worked on. Could you share with us how this book developed?
You’re right. The inspiration came from the Summerville case, and
it was such an impactful case for me because I’m representing three
daughters who lost their father at the hands of their stepmother who poisoned
their father. That case was a several year ordeal, and to walk with these
ladies through their efforts to get past revenge and justice and get to
forgiveness and get a just result but also move on with their lives . .
. there are so many of life’s most intense emotions wrapped up in
that. You know, how you feel about your own parents, what it means to lose
a loved one, the injustice we sometimes suffer in this world, where does
the righteous desire for justice cross over into an obsession with revenge.
All of those things it seemed to me were the raw emotions that would make
a good story.
I came back to this character Jamie Brock, who I left after False Witness. She’s now a prosecutor, and as you know from reading the book, she has lost her mother who was killed during a break in robbery. She’s kind of like Batman. She’s got a reason for being on the side of law and order, a very personal reason. She takes it out on every criminal. This book was my effort to peel back the layers of that onion a little bit and show that sometimes justice isn’t as black and white as we want to make it out to be from either side. In this book I tried to take a more nuanced look at our justice system, and take an idealist like Jamie--and I tend to be like Jamie. I’m idealistic. I like black and whites—and put her in the middle of a the justice system in a way where there are no easy answers and walk with her through that. That’s what I was trying to do with The Last Plea Bargain.
You get a big idea like the quest for justice, and when does justice become revenge, and what is the interplay between grace and mercy on the one hand and justice on the other. That was my big idea. But then you find these little interesting sub ideas that kind of assault you as you’re writing the book and you’re like, “Oh, I gotta put that in the book!” One of the things in that category came when I was telling a friend of mine, a law school professor, about the book. He said, “Have you ever given much thought to The Prisoner’s Dilemma?” That’s a concept that’s taught in law school, and the idea is that you’ve got these two co-conspirator’s to a crime, and they’re both brought in for questioning and put in separate rooms. They’re both told that if they confess maybe the prosecutors will go lenient on them and maybe they’ll get a year in jail. If they don’t confess, then the other guy’s going to confess, and they’re going to get tried to the full extent of the law and get ten years in jail. The statistics are that 99 times out of 100 one of them’s going to confess because neither of them trusts the other one. Even though they both know that if they both stay quiet, they both go scott free. It gets to the way our system actually operates with plea bargaining accounting for about ninety percent of the disposition of our cases. Criminals squealing on each other and getting lesser sentences. I think a lot of people who have read the book have been surprised at how much our criminal justice system resembles a sidewalk bizarre, kind of wheeling and dealing for justice. Is that really the way it should be? Even if we say no, and we want to make it more idealistic, are we willing to put the resources into society that would make it a more pure justice system?
What made you decide to use Jamie again?
For two reasons. One is I felt like I had unfinished business with her. She survived False Witness, but False Witness is one piece of action after another, and even though she survived she never really resolved these issues in her life that are assailing her. I felt like she was a really interesting character, a hard charging person, kind of a stereotypical prosecutor with very personal reasons for being that way. I felt like I hadn’t fully mined her character. The other thing that happens is that when I write books and people read them, I get feedback on them. I listen to readers, and they’ll say, “Are you ever gonna have Nikki Moreno in another book, this character or that character?” One of the characters they ask about is Jamie Brock. I’ve found that certain characters, for whatever reason, seem to connect with readers. It’s hard to explain. There’s no science behind it, but you just know this character strikes a chord. Jamie is one of those characters. I have this little mental list that maybe if I get a chance this character will come back, or that one will.
You probably put a lot into her, and that would come across to readers.
You know, this next book that I’m working on I’ve probably spent about a month now just developing the backstory of my characters. I was looking at it this morning thinking about all this time I’ve spent just to get them up to where the book starts. (Laughs.) It’s who they are, but most of the stuff readers will never be told about or find out about, but it does form part of the fiber and three-dimensional part of that character. Readers can sense that there’s more to this character than just being cardboard if you’ve done your research and created this whole back story in your mind.
I’m really intrigued with the legal twist you have in this book about plea bargains. It was eye-opening to me reading it. Have you ever seen anything similar to this happening or did it come straight from your imagination?
That came straight from my imagination. I gotta say, I hope and pray it never does happen! I don’t want to get blamed for it (Laughs). I think one of the things we have going for us is the very nature of most of the people who are in prison today–they’re cynical by nature. They don’t trust each other, they’re twisting the book. I call it the unionization of prisoners. We’ve seen teachers unionize, and other folks unionize. If the prisoner’s ever got together and said, okay from now on none of us are accepting any plea bargains, it really would wreak havoc on the system. I trust it’ll never happen because in my book they enforce it ruthlessly, and that’s what causes it to be successful. In reality, probably there’s so much distrust between different gangs in prison, and that type of thing, the kind of cooperation they would need to pull this off would be beyond the realm of what they could do.
It is an interesting premise because in theory everybody’s entitled to a jury trial. In fact, there’s so much pressure in the real world for criminals to plead guilty and not pursue all their rights to a jury trial, and in fact they pretty much know that if you ask for a jury and you lose, you’re going to get a much tougher sentence than if you take this deal the prosecutors put on the table now. In the real world, because of the constraints on the system, and the cost and time and everything, there’s just a lot of pressure not to do what our entire criminal justice system was set up to do, which is to give somebody the right to be tried by a jury of their peers.
I also see some of the things you enjoy in these characters, like Jamie and her running. You’re a runner too? How much of you is in these characters?
Right, I’m a runner. I also used to race canoes, so I’ve got Jamie in a kayak (Laughs). I do have a couple reasons. I have to confess that one of them is sheer laziness. I could have Jamie be a surfer, but it would be a lot harder to figure out. I know how kayakers are. I know how they train, what they do on the water, but to learn a new hobby . . . (chuckles) is a lot harder than to take your own hobbies and to stick them on your own characters. So part of it is for that reason. That gives it a little more realism. And also, if you love doing something, and you have your character’s love it, it comes across authentic. The things people enjoy about running, for example, non runners just don’t get. Why would anybody do that? But for someone like me, when I go out running it clears my mind. I have my best creative moments when I’m out running, and I can write that into my books in a way that’s authentic for my characters.
I thought it was also pretty cool that you references several other books and characters in this novel, like The Justice Game and Quinn from By Reason of Insanity. I smiled when I read those.
It’s kind of a fun little scavenger hunt for people to read my books. Quinn Newberg is another one of those guys (he’s the protagonist in By Reason of Insanity) that people ask about. Is he gonna come back? Is he gonna be in another book. Well, right now he’s serving his time in prison, but maybe when he gets out he will (Laughs). Once I enter this world, because my books are set in Atlanta, Virginia Beach, and Las Vegas, you know in the real world these characters are going to run into each other, they know each other’s reputation. A lot of these are big cases, so they wouldn’t go unnoticed by the lawyers in the community. I weave it in, and it lets readers know this character’s okay . . . I think it’s fun to populate these books with minor characters that they’ve seen from other novels.
There are so many different themes and dilemmas Jamie has to face in this novel. In your own personal career, what has been the hardest moral decision you’ve had to make as a lawyer?
That’s a great question. You know, I don’t do a lot of criminal defense work, so I don’t run into that classic dilemma of how can you defend someone that you know is guilty. I’m a private attorney, so I pretty much choose my clients. But when I’m handling maybe fifty cases at a time, there will always be times when you think, “Wow. I’ve got the wrong side of this. My client is just as guilty as the other side says in the civil case, and I’d rather be on the other side of the case for a number of different reasons.” Those create some tough moral dilemmas because your duty as a lawyer is to zealously advocate for that client. You’re not supposed to be the judge. If it were a sports event, this is your team that you’re coaching. You can’t throw the game because you think the other team has a more just cause. That makes it hard because if you find that out before you take the case, you can refuse to take the case. But once you’re in the middle of the case, you go, I thought I was representing an angel, but I’m not. I’m on the wrong side. Then you’re in a really tough dilemma because if you withdraw it hurts the client. If you continue you feel you’re representing a cause you don’t want to represent. It makes for a tough situation.
Typically what I try to do with something like that is just have a heart to heart with the client and say, “I’ll continue, and here’s what I think. I think we ought to settle, and here’s why.” And see if I can get them to look at the case through my viewpoint. If not, maybe they’re better off getting another lawyer. There are cases when you get in the middle of it the case goes bad, but you’re still glad you’re on the side you’re on. But there are some cases where the case goes bad and you’re like, I thought I had the good client, but I have the psycho. At the end of the day, my duty is to be their zealous advocate. That’s my ethical duty under the law. If I feel like I’ve got to pull back on that, then I have to get out of the case.
Also Jamie has to deal with this whole death penalty concept. It was interesting how you approached it because you gave both sides equal billing.
When I hit a big ethical issue like that on which Christians differ, I always try to give it a balanced approach because I trust my readers and think they’re smart enough to make up their own mind on something like this. But I want to give them perspectives and facts they might not normally consider. So we look at it from the victim’s perspective, from the criminal defendant’s perspective who has changed spiritually while he was incarcerated, from his defense lawyer’s perspective. I tried to look at this realistically, not in a preachy way, but in a story driven way from every side of the equation so the reader can decide. I think that if this book is successful in that it will be successful because it doesn’t set it up like as a caricature or as an issue for an intellectual debate. It just makes you walk with these characters in the story that are experiencing what they’re feeling. It forces you to draw some conclusions from that.
That’s sort of how you approach a lot of your books, where you give all these perspectives on issues and leave it up to your readers. Is that intentional and how you want your books to be?
It is, but let me use this analogy: When I turn on a football game, and it’s not one of my teams playing, I want to see a close game, a good game. I think it’s uninteresting when you present a controversial issue on which we know people have passion and opinions on both sides, and you make it so one sided, which a lot of authors do, the book feels like it’s just a pulpit, a platform, a soapbox. It feels to me like it becomes uninteresting. I like court cases that are close, games that are close. I like to have the feeling that well, this person’s right, but then you hear another argument, and you think wait a minute. That person might be right too. It makes it a lot more interesting to me. That’s one of the reasons I try to present things that way. I think it’s boring, you know how it’s going to come out, when only one side is presented.
I was glad that Justice didn’t get killed off. I was a little worried because you weren’t very nice to the Lab in the other book.
(Hearty laugh.) Well, I learned my lesson. I’ve got my black lab sitting with me at home today. Dogs are pretty much safe in books from now on.
I think I heard Colleen Coble say to aspiring writers, “Never kill off a dog in your books. You will regret it because readers will hate it.”
I’d heard that, but I thought, no it can’t be true. But one of the reason’s I did it was I wanted people to experience Jamie’s pain, but I want people to know in my books that nobody’s safe. Not even the animals are safe. This Singer’s crazy enough. He’ll kill anybody! Be careful when you read his books. (Laughs.)
What do you most hope readers take away from this story?
Two things. I do hope that they’ll think through some of these issues that are part and parcel to our criminal justice system. The issue of plea bargaining. The issue of the death penalty. The issue of creating false memories in people. That’s a big theme in this book too. It’s entertainment but with a fun eye-opening twist about how our system really works. But then secondly, and more importantly, I want people to think through these big themes of grace versus justice. Forgiveness versus accountability because we all struggle with them. If we can’t let go of things it really destroys us as much as it does the person that caused the injustice in the first place. That’s a bigger hope, that maybe it will shine a little ray of sunlight on some of those bigger themes.
What do you most love about writing fiction?
I love a lot of it. Honestly, I kind of love this world that you get to create and control (Laughs.) I’m a lawyer, so I don’t get to control the courtroom because the other side has something to say about that, so does the judge, and I’m a pastor. A father and husband. There are so many things in life that are out of our control, so it’s fun to create your own story and world. I like that part of it. I like the process of creating. That’s what I believe God’s created us to do. I think we’re a lot like Him when we’re creating. There’s that part, and then there’s just the feedback from readers who like stories. I love to tell stories and get feedback from people who like them or this story made me think about this and that. There’s so much power in stories. To be a storyteller, to me, is one of the greatest callings anyone can have. When Christ came he taught in stories. It feels like it’s a worthy calling, but it’s also a fun calling. You ought to do what you’re passionate about, and that means when you have spare time with no pressure, what do you think about? I think about stories like this. In some ways it’s just being who you’re created to be.
What’s in the future for your writing?
I’m actually working on two novels. One that I believe will be released soon, and one that I’ve kinda been working on long term. It’s a legacy project that will hopefully be released in two years. The one that’s the longer term project I can’t share much about it, but it will take readers into a front row view of the two greatest trials in the history of the world, which are the trial of Christ, and the trial of the Apostle Paul in front of Nero Caesar.
Next year’s book is about a guy who betrayed his teammates. He was a college quarterback, he got caught up in a point shaving scandal, went to prison, went out and became a lawyer. He’s turned his life around and he’s determined to show that he can be loyal and a team player. He ends up at a firm where lawyers start dying at this firm. At first everyone thinks it’s coincidence, so the title of the book is The Curse. Then people start realizing somebody’s killing all the lawyers in this firm, and this poor guy is the youngest lawyer and is left with all these cases that are way over his head because nobody’s going to join this firm because the lawyers are dying and leaving the firm. Even the ones who try to leave are killed, so he knows he’s got a target on his back. He’s trying to handle these cases that are way out of his league and at the same time figure out why somebody wants all the lawyers in the firm dead. What secret is so monumental do we have that somebody’s trying to kill us all off. This has been a fun book to write.
Hopefully not a lot of that one is based on your real life.
(Laughs heartily). I hope the conspiracy in The Last Plea Bargain doesn’t come to pass, but I think I would rather have that happen then have the second book be based on real life.
Otherwise you’ll be on your own at your firm!
If I’m still alive at all. They’d
probably start with me.
Portions of this interview first appeared as an article in the Apr/May 2012 issue of FamilyFiction Digital Magazine.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.