Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Last Lawyer

What lawyer would ever consider representing a man condemned to die? That's the question author John Temple asks in his new book, "The Last Lawyer." Temple has been a professor at West Virginia University for nearly a decade after spending the early part of his career in the newspaper industry, including a tour at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

In his new book released this week, Temple shadows a team of investigators and lawyers working to overturn a man's death sentence. Temple spent the past six years conducting interviews and following the story of Bo Jones, who was convicted of a 1987 murder in North Carolina. Temple writes about the problems Jones' lead attorney, Ken Rose, faces as he battles to prevent his client from entering the death chamber.

"I just wanted to know why someone would spend their career doing this," Temple said in an interview with The BLB. "It's not a job with a lot of obvious rewards. There's lots of conflict, the pay isn't particularly high, the cases go on for years, lots of people disagree with your work and your client sometimes dies in the end. This intrigued me and I figured there would be some fascinating characters doing this work, and I was right."

This is reporting at its finest. Unlike modern-day blogs that spew instant opinions and offer shady information, Temple immerses readers into a situation that is usually reserved to people behind concrete walls and barbed wire.

"Some are drawn to do this work because of their Christian faith and their belief in redemption. Others are drawn to it because they are ideologically and politically opposed to the death penalty," Temple said. "Still, others come to it because of their life experiences -- they were exposed to how the death penalty works and the system's flaws, and they become committed anti-death penalty activists."

This is the second book written by Temple. In 2005, he released "Deadhouse," which told the story of medical examiners in Allegheny County. While the concept might seem morbid, it offered a rare glimpse into the investigations and science behind suspicious deaths. Temple used amazing details to explain the story, and the book left me longing for more information about a profession that goes mostly unnoticed by the public.

Temple was one of my journalism professors at WVU, and he taught me how to capture moving narratives for feature newspaper reports, which I used numerous times to grab readers. I'll never forget the lesson he shared one day about how subtle details can make a narrative. During that lesson, he told our class about how he had an audio recorder hanging around his neck while taking notes at a scene for Deadhouse. When he reviewed the tape, he could hear the lapping of water against a river bank as the medical examiner assistants pulled a body from the river. It was the splashing wake from a coal barge on the Monongahela River that added another element to that portion of the story.

Details set great stories apart from the rest.

Temple's newest book went on sale this week and can be purchased online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The Last Lawyer offers a gripping look at capital punishment in America, with a narrative that should fascinate any reader, regardless of their personal opinion on the death penalty.

John Temple is a professor and associate dean at West Virginia University's P.I. Reed School of Journalism. The 39-year-old professor and author resides in Morgantown, W.Va., and can be reached by e-mail at, or visit his Web site at


  1. Thanks for giving us more insight into this book, Mike. Good writers really do know how to take notice of the subtle details that can turn stories into works of art. John has clearly been passionate about this project for a long time, and I can't wait to read the final product!

  2. Jimmity, nicely crafted narrative. And a worthy subject for sure.

  3. He taught us a lot, Lauren, and it's fun to read those lessons in his books. It's better to see that in print rather than on a blackboard.

    And Amanda, I think you'd really like his books. Temple reminds me of your favorite professor from Point Park.