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The Confession: Excerpt from John Grisham’s Winning Entry for Harper Lee Prize

Posted Oct 1, 2011 5:00 AM CDT
By John Grisham

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Illustration by Brad Holland

John Grisham’s novel The Confession, chronicling the gut-wrenching politics of a last-ditch death penalty appeal in Texas, is the winner of the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

The prize, created by the University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal, honors Lee—a native of Alabama who was a student at the law school—for the extraordinary and enduring influence her novel has had in the public perception of the legal profession. The prize will be awarded annually to the published book-length work of fiction that best exemplifies the role of lawyers in society.

Robbie Flak’s father purchased the old train station in downtown Slone in 1972, while Robbie was still in high school and just before the city was about to tear it down. Mr. Flak Sr. had made some money suing drilling companies and needed to spend a little of it. He and his partners renovated the station and re-established themselves there, and for the next 20 years prospered nicely. They certainly weren’t rich, not by Texas standards anyway, but they were successful lawyers and the small firm was well-regarded in town.

Then along came Robbie. He began working at the firm when he was a teenager, and it was soon evident to the other lawyers there that he was different. He showed little interest in profits but was consumed with social injustice. He urged his father to take on civil rights cases, age- and sex-discrimination cases, unfair housing cases, police brutality cases, the type of work that can get one ostracized in a small Southern town. Brilliant and brash, Robbie finished college up North, in three years, and sailed through law school at the University of Texas at Austin. He never interviewed for a job, never thought about working anywhere but the train station in downtown Slone. There were so many people there he wanted to sue, so many mistreated and downtrodden clients who needed him.

He and his father fought from day one. The other lawyers either retired or moved on. In 1990, at the age of 35, Robbie sued the city of Tyler, Texas, for housing discrimination. The trial, in Tyler, lasted for a month, and at one point Robbie was forced to hire bodyguards when the death threats became too credible. When the jury returned a verdict for $90 million, Robbie Flak became a legend, a wealthy man and an unrestrained radical lawyer, now with the money to raise more hell than he could ever imagine. To get out of his way, his father retired to a golf course. Robbie’s first wife took a small cut and hurried back to St. Paul. The Flak Law Firm became the destination for those who considered themselves even remotely slighted by society. The abused, the accused, the mistreated, the injured—they eventually sought out Mr. Flak. To screen the cases, Robbie hired young associates and paralegals by the boatload. He picked through the net each day, took the good catches and tossed the rest away. The firm grew, then it imploded. It grew again, then it broke up in another meltdown. Lawyers came and went. He sued them, they sued him. The money evaporated, then Robbie won big in another case. The lowest point of his colorful career happened when he caught his bookkeeper embezzling and beat him with a briefcase. He escaped serious punishment by negotiating a 30-day misdemeanor jail sentence. It was a front-page story, and Slone hung on every word. Robbie—who, not surprisingly, craved publicity—was bothered more by the bad press than by the incarceration. The state bar association issued a public reprimand and a 90-day suspension of his license. It was his third entanglement with the ethics panel. He vowed it would not be his last. Wife No. 2 eventually left, with a nice check.

His life, like his personality, was chaotic, outrageous and in constant conflict with itself and those around him, but it was never dull. Behind his back, he was often referred to as “Robbie Flake.” And as his drinking grew worse, “Robbie Flask” was born. But regardless of the turmoil, of the hangovers and crazy women and feuding partners and shaky finances and lost causes and scorn of those in power, Robbie Flak arrived at the train station early each morning with a fierce determination to spend the day fighting for the little people. And he did not always wait for them to find him. If Robbie got wind of an injustice, he often jumped in his car and went searching for it. This relentless zeal led him to the most notorious case of his career.

In 1998, Slone was stunned by the most sensational crime in its history. A 17-year-old senior at Slone High, Nicole Yarber, vanished and was never seen again, dead or alive. For two weeks, the town stood still as thousands of volunteers combed the alleys and fields and ditches and abandoned buildings. The search was futile.

Nicole was a popular girl, a B student, a member of the usual clubs, church on Sunday at First Baptist, where she sometimes sang in the youth choir. Her most important achievement, though, was that of being a cheerleader at Slone High. By her senior year, she had become the captain of the squad, perhaps the most envied position in school, at least for girls. She was on and off with a boyfriend, a football player with big dreams but limited talent. The night she disappeared, she had just spoken to her mother by cell and promised to be home before midnight. It was a Friday in early December. Football was over for the Slone Warriors, and life had returned to normal. Her mother would later state—and the phone records bore this out—that she and Nicole spoke by cellphone at least six times a day. They were in touch, and the idea that Nicole would simply run away without a word to her mom was inconceivable.

Nicole had no history of emotional problems, eating disorders, erratic behavior, psychiatric care or drug use. She simply vanished. No witnesses. No explanations. Nothing. Prayer vigils in churches and schools ran nonstop. A hotline was established and calls flooded in, but none proved credible. A website was created to monitor the search and filter the gossip. Experts, both real and fake, came to town to give advice. A psychic appeared, unsolicited, but left town when no one offered to pay. As the search dragged on, the gossip seethed nonstop as the town talked of little else. A police car was parked in front of her home 24 hours a day, ostensibly to make the family feel better. Slone’s only television station hired another rookie reporter to get to the bottom of things. Volunteers scoured the earth as the search spread throughout the countryside. Doors and windows were bolted. Fathers slept with their guns on their nightstands. Little children were watched closely by their parents and babysitters. Preachers reworked their sermons to beef up their slant against evil. The police gave daily briefings for the first week, but when they realized they had nothing to say, they began skipping days. They waited and waited, hoping for the lead, the unexpected phone call, the snitch looking for the reward money. They prayed for a break.

It finally came 16 days after Nicole disappeared. At 4:33 a.m., the home phone of Detective Drew Kerber rang twice before he grabbed it. Though exhausted, he had not been sleeping well. Instinctively, he flipped a switch to record what was about to be said. The recording, later played a thousand times, ran:

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Kerber: “Hello.”

Voice: “Is this Detective Kerber?”

Kerber: “It is. Who’s calling?”

Voice: “That’s not important. What’s important is that I know who killed her.”

Kerber: “I need your name.”

Voice: “Forget it, Kerber. You wanna talk about the girl?”

Kerber: “Go ahead.”

Voice: “She was seeing Donté Drumm. A big secret. She was trying to break it off, but he wouldn’t go away.”

Kerber: “Who’s Donté Drumm?”

Voice: “Come on, Detective. Everybody knows Drumm. He’s your killer. He grabbed her outside the mall, tossed her over the bridge on Route 244. She’s at the bottom of the Red River.”

The line went dead. The call was traced to a pay phone at an all-night convenience store in Slone, and there the trail ended.

Detective Kerber had heard the hushed rumors of Nicole seeing a black football player, but no one had been able to verify this. Her boyfriend adamantly denied it. He claimed that they had dated on and off for a year, and he was certain that Nicole was not yet sexually active. But like many rumors too salacious to leave alone, it persisted. It was so repulsive and so potentially explosive that Kerber had thus far been unwilling to discuss it with Nicole’s parents.

Kerber stared at the phone, then removed the tape. He drove to the Slone Police Department, made a pot of coffee, and listened to the tape again. He was elated and couldn’t wait to share the news with his investigative team. Everything fit now: the teenage love affair—black on white—still very much taboo in East Texas, the attempted breakup by Nicole, the bad reaction from her scorned lover. It made perfect sense.

They had their man.

Two days later, Donté Drumm was arrested and charged with the abduction, aggravated rape and murder of Nicole Yarber. He confessed to the crime and admitted that he’d tossed her body into the Red River.

Robbie Flak and Detective Kerber had a history that had almost been violent. They had clashed several times in criminal cases over the years. Kerber loathed the lawyer as much as he loathed the other lowlifes who represented criminals. Flak considered Kerber an abusive thug, a rogue cop, a dangerous man with a badge and gun who would do anything to get a conviction. In one memorable exchange, in front of a jury, Flak caught Kerber in an outright lie and, to underscore the obvious, yelled at the witness, “You’re just a lying son of a bitch, aren’t you, Kerber?”

Robbie was admonished, held in contempt, required to apologize to Kerber and the jurors, and fined $500. But his client was found not guilty, and nothing else mattered. In the history of the Chester County Bar Association, no lawyer had ever been held in contempt as often as Robbie Flak. It was a record he was quite proud of.

As soon as he heard the news about Donté Drumm’s arrest, Robbie made a few frantic phone calls, then took off to the black section of Slone, a neighborhood he knew well. He was accompanied by Aaron Rey, a former gang member who’d served time for drug distribution and was now gainfully employed by the Flak Law Firm as a bodyguard, runner, driver, investigator and anything else Robbie might need. Rey carried at least two guns on his person and two more in a satchel—all legal because Mr. Flak had gotten his rights restored, and now he could even vote. Around Slone, Robbie Flak had more than his share of enemies. However, all of these enemies knew about Mr. Aaron Rey.

Drumm’s mother worked at the hospital, and his father drove a truck for a lumber mill south of town. They lived with their four children in a small, white-framed house with Christmas lights around the windows and garland on the door. Their minister arrived not long after Robbie. They talked for hours. The parents were confused, devastated, furious and frightened beyond reason. They were also grateful that Mr. Flak would come and see them. They had no idea what to do.

“I can get myself appointed to handle the case,” Robbie said, and they agreed.

Nine years later, he was still handling it.

Robbie arrived at the station early on Monday morning, Nov. 5. He had worked on Saturday and Sunday and did not feel at all rested from the weekend. His mood was gloomy, even foul. The next four days would be a chaotic mess, a frenzy of events, some anticipated and others wholly unexpected, and when the dust settled at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Robbie knew that in all likelihood, he would be standing in a cramped witness room at the Huntsville prison, holding hands with Roberta Drumm as the state of Texas injected her son with enough chemicals to kill a horse.

He’d been there once before.

He turned off the engine of his BMW but could not unfasten his seat belt. His hands clutched the steering wheel as he looked through the windshield and saw nothing.

For nine years, he had fought for Donté Drumm. He had waged war as he had never done before. He had fought like a madman at the ridiculous trial in which Donté was convicted of the murder. He had abused the appellate courts during his appeals. He had danced around ethics and skirted the law. He had written grating articles declaring his client’s innocence. He had paid experts to concoct novel theories that no one bought. He had pestered the governor to the point that his calls were no longer returned, not even by lowly staffers. He had lobbied politicians, innocence groups, religious groups, bar associations, civil rights advocates, the ACLU, Amnesty International, death penalty abolitionists, anybody and everybody who might possibly be able to do something to save his client. Yet the clock had not stopped. It was still ticking, louder and louder.

In the process, Robbie Flak had spent all his money, burned every bridge, alienated almost every friend, and driven himself to the point of exhaustion and instability. He had blown the trumpet for so long that no one heard it anymore. To most observers, he was just another loudmouthed lawyer screaming about his innocent client, not exactly an unusual sight.

The case had pushed him over the edge; and when it was over, when the state of Texas finally succeeded in executing Donté, Robbie seriously doubted if he could go on. He planned to move, to sell his real estate, retire, tell Slone and Texas to kiss his ass, and go live in the mountains somewhere—probably in Vermont, where the summers are cool and the state does not kill people.

The lights came on in the conference room. Someone else was already there, opening up the place, preparing for the week from hell. Robbie finally left his car and went inside. He spoke to Carlos, one of his longtime paralegals, and they spent a few minutes over coffee. The talk soon turned to football.

“You watch the Cowboys?” Carlos asked.

“No, I couldn’t. I heard Preston had a big day.”

“Over 200 yards. Three touchdowns.”

“I’m not a Cowboys fan anymore.”

“Me neither.”

A month earlier, Rahmad Preston had been right there, in the conference room, signing autographs and posing for photos. Rahmad had a distant cousin who’d been executed in Georgia 10 years earlier, and he had taken up the cause of Donté Drumm with big plans to enlist other Cowboys and NFL heavyweights to help wave the flag. He would meet with the governor, the parole board, big business boys, politicians, a couple of rappers he claimed to know well, maybe even some Hollywood types. He would lead a parade so noisy that the state would be forced to back down. Rahmad, though, proved to be all talk. He suddenly went silent, went into “seclusion,” according to his agent, who also explained that the cause was too distracting for the great running back. Robbie, always on the conspiracy trail, suspected that the Cowboys organization and its network of corporate sponsors somehow pressured Rahmad.

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Author and Harper Lee Prize winner for
Legal Fiction, John Grisham

By 8:30, the entire firm had assembled in the conference room, and Robbie called the meeting to order. At the moment he had no partners—the last had left in a feud that was still tied up in litigation—but there were two associates, two paralegals, three secretaries and Aaron Rey, who was always close by. After 15 years with Robbie, Aaron knew more law than most seasoned para legals. Also present was a lawyer from Amnesty Now, a London-based human rights group that had donated thousands of skilled hours to the Drumm appeals. Participating by teleconference was a lawyer in Austin, an appellate advocate furnished by the Texas Capital Defender Group.

Robbie ran through the plans for the week. Duties were defined, tasks distributed, responsibilities clarified. He tried to appear upbeat, hopeful, confident that a miracle was on the way.

The miracle was slowly coming together, some 400 miles due north, in Topeka, Kansas.

Excerpted from The Confession by John Grisham. Copyright © 2010 by John Grisham. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Grisham’s 22nd novel was selected from a slate of three finalists by a panel that included novelists David Baldacci and Linda Fairstein, past ABA President Robert J. Grey Jr., Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees, and CNN senior analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

The other finalists were Fatal Convictions by Randy Singer and The Reversal by Michael Connelly. Their selection considered results from an online vote by readers of the ABA Journal and ABAJournal.com.

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