I’m a fiction girl. Ninety percent of what I read is fiction, and I like it that way. So, that when I read something especially upsetting, I have the comfort of knowing, “It’s just a story.” And it is for the reason above that it has taken me six months to review Laura Caldwell’s extraordinarily compelling non-fiction book, Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost in the System and the Two Women Who Found Him. This book affected me so powerfully that I needed time to simply process my feelings.
“The Sixth Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to a fair and speedy trial.” That is what I kept repeating to myself as I read the absolutely staggering true story of Jovan Mosely. Jovan’s story begins in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. Despite every bad influence in the book, this teenager had managed to keep out of trouble and away from the gangs. He was smart. He did well in school and was thinking about college. All of that changed on August 6, 1999 when he was 19 years old. He was out walking with some friends and acquaintances when they came across a group beating a man in the street. Jovan took no part in it, and when he saw the direction that things were heading, he walked away. But witnesses placed him at the scene. When the victim died, Jovan was picked up for questioning. He was not out of custody again for the next six years of his life.
The phrase that comes to mind to describe Jovan’s ordeal is “miscarriage of justice.” I’m aware of what a cliché it is, but how else can you describe an innocent man’s life stolen? Jovan’s story reads like a John Grisham plot at its over-the-top best, but it’s a lot less entertaining when there’s a real life on the line.
Enter author Laura Caldwell. In addition to being a writer of light mysteries, she is a former civil attorney and a professor of law at Chicago’s Loyola University. She has researched this story backwards and forwards and has laid it out in a straightforward and engaging manner. Additionally, she addresses what went wrong by looking at the issues from all sides, rather than simply casting blame. Caldwell is more than qualified to be the chronicler of this tale, but perhaps what is most amazing is her personal involvement in the story. After years of unjust imprisonment, Jovan finally acquires competent counsel in the form of defense attorney Catharine O’Daniel. At last he will get his day in court. But his attorney needs help trying this pro bono murder case. One thing leads to another, and she convinces a writer with no background in criminal law to second chair.
It’s such an amazing story! Surely someone is developing the film? But it is when she becomes a major player in the drama that author Caldwell shows the most restraint. There’s no self-aggrandizing here. In fact, she downplays her role as much as possible. I’ll say it again, John Grisham couldn’t have invented a more compelling tale. Truthfully, by the time I finished reading the book, I felt angry and helpless, as there is little the average citizen can do to change the system. But my eyes are open now, and to the degree that I can effect change, I will.