By Linda Tashbook
Last summer, I indexed a great book for convicts. It is titled Failed Evidence and it is about the lack of scientific proof and the prevalence of innuendo in criminal prosecutions. Having read and selected from every single word on every page of this book as I made the index, I know that unjustly imprisoned readers can find in it explanations of how convictions go wrong and examples of how to prove flaws in crime investigation and prosecution.
With the power to decide whether “blood stains” and “blood splatter” should appear together under “blood” or separately as individual terms or not at all as long as “blood” alone is somewhere in the list, the indexer has a lot to do with whether readers find what they need in a book. Certainly convicted felons with limited library time, only one shared copy of the book, and a potential intolerance for details that don’t apply to their case are likely to flip to the index looking for terms and for hope. Maybe I just like the idea that people who were lead out through the back door of the courtroom will find their way back into the halls of justice through the back door of the book.
The author of Failed Evidence sets forth a set of strategies for improving criminal investigations and prosecutions; this is his unique contribution to the field of “innocence” literature. And because that concrete guidance is encased between page-turning horror stories, this particular book is a stirring call to action. Policy-makers and social activists will see it as guidance for the future. Inmates should see it as what went wrong in their past: where the authorities were negligent, how the controlling powers ignored civil rights, and why they, the incarcerated readers, have habeas corpus claims.
Undoubtedly, some prisoners won’t start with the index; they will begin at the Table of Contents and read straight through the text. They might even take notes on that first read-through. And then, late at night, memories from the book will mingle with visions of the governor’s handshake, images of freedom, and maybe even thoughts of restitution money… It will be big mingling– like a loud party that crowds out the usual ugly cell block nightmares.
These inmates will awake refreshed and ready to brief their cases. They’ll return to the library eager to check once more the good lines that inspired them. And how will they find exactly those parts of the book again? They will look in the index and this index will serve them justly. Oh, I hope the prison libraries buy Failed Evidence and I hope the inmates use the index.
Linda Tashbook, Esq. is a librarian at the Barco Law Library – University of Pittsburgh.