Body of Work: Novelist turns her attention to 'Anatomy of Innocence'

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Attorney-turned-author Laura Caldwell’s latest novel “The Dog Park” was initially supposed to be the next installment of lawyer Izzy McNeil, her series character.

“I sold seven Izzy McNeil books to my publisher, MIRA. But by the time I got to planning the last, I’d become one of those dog people. My Facebook page had gone from books  to a whole lot of dog stuff.  Since we had two completed Izzy trilogies, my agent and editor and I decided to do a single title – ‘The Dog Park,’” said Caldwell, who is the Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, her alma mater. 

In “The Dog Park” (MIRA $7.99), Jessica and her ex-husband Sebastian agree to joint custody of their dog Baxter. However, Baxter rescues a child, which is caught on video and goes viral. In the wake of this, Jessica and Sebastian found themselves thrust back together and their lives take some unexpected twists as they find themselves in the glare of the media spotlight.

“Dogs have become more and more an accepted member of the family. And I’d heard from fellow attorneys that they were getting asked to write dog custody agreements into divorce settlements, even though the law doesn’t usually officially recognize them. At the same time pet videos were exploding online. So I decided a couple who shared joint custody of their dog would get thrown together again when their dog is in a video that goes viral,” explained Caldwell.

Baxter was inspired by her own goldendoodle named Shafer. In fact, Shafer has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter.

“When ‘The Dog Park’ came out, my publisher recommended I get Twitter and Instagram pages for my dog  which I think is hilarious. I feel like I have a kid because (this dog) has a life outside of me,” said Caldwell. “I don’t put the content on her Twitter page – someone else does it – but there are times I am walking her and people are like, ‘Gasp! Is that the dog Shafer?’ and they rush her. I never get recognized. The thing about being a writer is I never get recognized, just praised. I just think it’s so funny.”

Practicing law is a family tradition for Caldwell. Her late grandfather William Caldwell, her father William Caldwell Jr., and her uncle Judge Michael Caldwell are/were part of the law firm Caldwell Berner & Caldwell in Woodstock, Ill., which celebrates its 100th anniversary on October 2. In fact, these men – like her – are also Loyola Law alumni.

“I graduated from law school and started practicing law,” said Caldwell, who was a civil trial attorney, doing medical malpractice for Clausen Miller in Chicago. “I was writing the whole time because I felt I needed something creative. I saw a class for novel writing, which had a creative bent to it. I was getting into that grind that every new professional does: You get up, work late, and go home. From that circle, I thought I needed to do something creative.”

Caldwell has published 14 novels and one non-fiction book. She’s written in the mystery-thriller genre and the romantic comedy genre. Her first book was “Burning the Map,” a rom-com about a law school grad who travels to Europe before starting her first job as an attorney. Her first mystery-thriller “Look Closely” was set in Michigan.

“I created a fictional town on the Michigan/Indiana border called Woodland Dunes, a combination of Long Beach, Ind.; Grand Beach, Mich.; and New Buffalo, Mich. I was being very (Scott) Turow at the time; I created my own Kindle County (the fictional county where the majority of Turow’s books occur). Woodland Dunes was the predominant setting,” she said.

Writing “The Rome Affair” was a game-changer for Caldwell not only as an author and attorney, but also as a human being.

“I have a scene where a Chicago couple’s at the police station. Their friend fell off their balcony and died. The cops are trying to get this couple to confess to killing her. As a reader, you don’t know the details – if it was intentional or accidental. You don’t know who killed her,” explained Caldwell. “As a writer, you have to have authority and you have to show your authority on each page. This wasn’t even a particularly long part of the book; it was sort of an aftermath. I just couldn’t do it justice is if I didn’t understand why the cops would get someone to confess to something they

didn’t do. I didn’t know if people would buy it.”

She continued: “So I called Catharine O’Daniel, who I highlighted in the book. She’s a superstar criminal defense lawyer in Chicago. She’s a name I decided to call for a research question. I was writing my book in a coffeehouse and needed to double-check my sources before I could push on with this. I asked her, ‘Do false confessions ever happen?’ She laughed and said, ‘Oh, honey, they happen all the time.’ Those are the words that changed my life.”

According to Caldwell, O’Daniel explained that in late 2004 when she was visiting a client at Supermax, Cook County’s maximum security jail in Chicago, unsupervised inmates coming in from exercise cornered her, making sexual overtures, whistling at her, asking her to defend them. Before things escalated, an inmate named Jovan Mosley who was sweeping the floors witnessed this and got the inmates to back off.

O’Daniel thanked Mosley for coming to her rescue and asked him about his case. He’d told her he’d been in jail for more than five years, awaiting trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery. His attorney from the public defender’s office gave no indication when his case would go to trial. O’Daniel took Mosley’s case.

“It was the first pro-bono case (O’Daniel) ever took on,” explained Caldwell. “She called the public defender and asked, ‘Why does this kid who doesn’t have a record and who doesn’t have a gang affiliation. - why has he been in the county lockup since he was 19? Why doesn’t he have a trial date?’ He was originally charged with murder- death-penalty murder. But he was just hanging out. (O’Daniel) said he was forced into a confession. I couldn’t understand it. She said, ‘I’d give you two hours with the Chicago Police Department, you’ll tell them your mother killed (John F.) Kennedy. You’d put her on the grassy knoll.’ If law enforcement decides it’s you (who they like for a crime), you’re screwed. Period.”

Caldwell tried Mosley’s case with O’Daniel in what was “definitely the most seminal case I tried.” According to Caldwell, the police arrested Mosley in early 2000 for the August 6, 1999 murder of Howard Thomas. There are different versions of what exactly happened to Thomas, whose death was ruled a homicide. Mosley was allegedly one of several young men who brutally beat Thomas. Mosley denied these allegations, but admitted he was present as a witness at the beginning of the crime. The police kept him nearly three days, Caldwell stated.

“They said they’d let him go if he confessed to punching the victim in the left eye, which he did. And off he went to county, charged with murder, until (O’Daniel) found him.
Eventually, Caldwell and O’Daniel won Mosley his freedom in 2005. This inspired Caldwell to write “Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost and the Two Women Who Found Him.” Further, Caldwell founded the Life After Innocence clinic at Loyola Law in 2009, working with wrongfully convicted individuals or other innocent persons impacted by the criminal justice system in order to help them re-enter society and reclaim their lives.

Today, Mosley is “doing fabulous,” according to Caldwell. He graduated from college, is married with two children, and works with Chicago’s at-risk youth.

Currently, Caldwell is editing with Leslie S. Klinger a collection of essays called “Anatomy of Innocence,” which pairs mystery writers with exonerees. One of the writers includes New York Times best-selling novelist Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series. The above-mentioned Turow, considered a godfather of the modern legal thriller, and Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project in New York City who was portrayed by Peter Gallagher in 2010’s “Conviction,” are writing the foreword. The proceeds of this book, debuting in 2016, will go to LAI.

“There’s an interesting career trajectory for lawyers-turned-writers. I always pick up legal thrillers because the authors have an exacting perspective on crime fiction when they’ve been lawyers before. You really see it more as a puzzle as opposed to what I write, which I think is more emotional,” said novelist Jenny Milchman, who appeared at Kerrytown BookFest in Ann Arbor on September 13.

Caldwell admitted while she has more freedom being a writer, she has no plans to give up being a lawyer, nor can she choose between the two disciplines.

“It’s like having two kids,” she said. “They’re both so great, I don’t know if I could get rid of one of them.”

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