Unjustly Jailed?

I opened my emails this morning (11 November 2017) to find an offer from Wild Blue Press to review a copy of Targeted by M. William Phelps. The book is a non-fiction true-crime novel, a type that I really like but so many of the ones I have read put me off to the point that I avoid the genre. This one, however, was inciteful, thoughtful, balanced, and so detailed that the general reader might shy away from it. But just as the reader might be nodding off like some of the jurors Phelps describes, the author takes a break and follows a new tangent to draw the reader’s attention back to the wider, more comprehensive, less detailed but still interesting context.

Tracy Fortson is a murder. Juries have spoken, judges have decided sentencing, Tracy is in prison currently serving a mandated life plus ten-year sentence for killing Doug Benton and this condition is unlikely to change short of possible parole board clemency. There is no surprise ending, no “gotcha” moment in the book. So, why read the novel? I am a “Law and Order,” “Homicide Hunter,” and “CSI” fan as well as a former sheriff’s deputy. Tracy Fortson is a former sheriff’s deputy. So much for why I am interested. Feel free to read and review this and explain why you think it is interesting.

The author’s writing style is interesting because as much as he wants to remain impersonal, he isn’t. Several times Phelps mentions that he either believes Tracy or that she has at least made a good point with her objections of innocence. This is different from her making a good argument and Phelps criticizes her arguments frequently, calling them nothing more than unsubstantiated opinions. The reader accompanies a writer that is in many ways wrestling with himself. He would like to believe Tracy but there is one thing he is sure of. She is a convicted murderer. The jury(s) said so.

The amount of detail is staggering right down to points dependent on the absence of a comma. To illustrate: [“I was the medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) who performed the autopsy of the decedent, later identified at Douglas Benton,” Dr. Kris Sperry writes in the affidavit.] (loc 4107-4108). This statement made by witness Sperry is ambiguous. Maybe Dr. Sperry performed an autopsy. In fact, he did not. There should be a comma after (GBI) which changes the meaning to indicate that Dr. Sperry is the medical examiner who supervised a team of pathologists at the GBI and it is the institution (GBI) who performed the autopsy. Without arguing the correctness of the relative pronoun “who,” it is this lack of a comma that encouraged Tracy Fortson to launch one of her appeals claiming Dr. Sperry had lied.

This kind of attention to detail provides a “high” to those of us addicted to crime reality shows and books. I was almost sad to find a place where Phelps was ambiguous and not paying so much attention to detail. This partial quote illustrates the problem I had, one that appears throughout the book. “What I will say is that the more I spoke to Tracy, the more I believe her. I hope someone can, at the least, take the case farther than I could and look into the notion that good ol’ boy justice, of which we know exists in this country, served up the first and only female sheriff the county had seen up until then …” (loc 4291-4293). The problem is the term “sheriff.” Tracy was not a sheriff, she was a sheriff’s deputy. At other points in the book, she is referred to as a deputy. At other points in the book, other deputies are referred to as sheriffs. As a former deputy, for me, this is not a minor point.

For those not in law enforcement, it pretty much works like this. Cities, towns, and municipalities have cops. They don’t have jails; they might have holding facilities. When a criminal is held for a longer period, more than a few days, they go to jails which are managed at a county level by the Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff (one person) might be elected, appointed, or have little to no law enforcement training. Sheriff’s deputies, on the other hand, are law enforcement officers or peace officers who are POST certified after graduating from training at police academies. I leave it to the interested reader to google POST certification requirements. It is sort of a big deal.

So, while I was amazed at the careful attention to detail that Phelps provides in general, I was disappointed by the ambiguity and careless use of law enforcement titles. But that is because I am a biased former POST certified sheriff’s deputy from Monterey, California. Irrelevant but, as Phelps wrote when referring to his own occupation, “my feathers were ruffled” (paraphrased) (in an email sent to Tracy Fortson where Phelps was rejecting the idea that he had to explain himself to her) [loc 3686].

I liked this book and gave it five Amazon stars just for its meticulous attention to detail (for the most part). I will go on to read more of the more than 30 novels Phelps has written. His writing is superior, analytical and thoughtful. This was a one-half-day interesting read. Sure, I could have put it down, but I didn’t want to.

Phelps work in this novel ranks far above the crime writing hacks I have unfortunately encountered; the ones who have cut and pasted publicly available newspaper articles with scattered moral opinion insertions disguised as transitions between largely plagiarized content. The hacks are what turned me off this genre. M. William Phelps writing will bring me back.

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