Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from The Last Trial, the explosive new legal thriller by Scott Turow
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Get comfortable this evening with some popcorn and an excerpt from The Last Trial, by the master of legal thrillers Scott Turow.
The Last Trial unfolds in page-turning suspense, full of the deep insights into the spaces where the fragility of human nature and the justice system collide.
About the book
From the bestselling author of Presumed Innocent, The Last Trial recounts the final case of Kindle County’s most revered courtroom advocate, Sandy Stern.
On the brink of retirement, legendary defence attorney Sandy Stern is persuaded to take on one last case to defend an old friend.
Dr Kiril Pafko, a former Nobel Prize winner and distinguished cancer researcher, is now, shockingly, facing charges of fraud, insider trading and even murder.
As the trial progresses, Stern will question everything he thought he knew about his friend. Despite Pafko’s many failings, is he innocent of the terrible charges laid against him? Stern’s duty to defend his client and his belief in the power of the judicial system will face a final, terrible test in the courtroom, where the evidence and reality are sometimes worlds apart …
Read the excerpt:
November 5, 2019
‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury,’ says Mr Alejandro Stern. For nearly sixty years, he has offered this greeting to start his defence of the accused, and with the words today, a vapour of melancholy scuttles across his heart. But he is here. We live in the everlasting present. And he knows this much with iron certainty: He has had his turn.
‘This is the end,’ he says. ‘For me.’ Without lowering his eyes from the jury, he blindly probes his midsection to fasten the centre button on his suit coat, as he always has done after his first few words. ‘No doubt, you have been thinking, ‘The defence lawyer is so very old.’ And you are correct, of course. Standing up to the government when the freedom of a good person, like Dr Kiril Pafko, hangs in the balance is not a task for someone of my age. This will be my final time.’
Behind him on the bench, Chief Judge Sonya Klonsky utters an unformed sound, as if clearing her throat. Yet having known Sonny well for thirty years, he understands as clearly as if she had spoken. Were he to say more about his personal situation, the judge will politely cut him off.
‘Yet I could not refuse this case,’ he adds.
‘Mr Stern,’ Judge Klonsky says, ‘perhaps you should turn to the proof.’
Looking up to her on the carved walnut bench, Stern lets his head droop in a small bow. It is a gesture retained from his boyhood in Argentina, which also left the whisper of an accent that embarrasses him, even now, whenever he hears recordings of his voice.
‘Just so, Your Honor,’ he answers, then turns again to the jury. ‘Marta and I are proud to stand beside Dr Pafko at this crucial moment in what has been a long and honoured life. Marta, if you would.’
Marta Stern rises slowly at the defence table, greeting the jurors with a pleasant smile. As her father sees her, Marta is that unusual person who looks far better in her middle years than she did as a young woman – fit, well coiffed, and at ease. Stern, by contrast, has been withered by age and disease. But even now, he does not need to say she is his daughter. Both are short and thickly built, both show the same awkward combination of wide features. Nodding, Marta resumes her seat at the defence table beside their paralegal, Pinky, Stern’s granddaughter.
Stern lifts his hand next to his client.
‘Kiril, please.’ Dr Pafko, too, comes to his feet, stiffened by age but still tall and attentive to his appearance. A white silk pocket square bubbles above one line of the golden buttons on his double-breasted blazer. His silver hair, streaked by yellow and almost entirely thinned away on top, is swept back debonairly, while his teeth are uneven and small as he attempts a charming smile. ‘How old a man are you, Kiril?’
‘Seventy-eight,’ Pafko answers at once. Stern’s question to his client at a time when only the lawyers are supposed to speak is clearly improper, but Stern knows from long experience that the government’s lead counsel, the United States Attorney, Moses Appleton, will bypass minor objections rather than have the jury think he is eager to hide things. Stern wants Kiril’s voice to be among the jurors’ first impressions, so they will be less disappointed if, as Stern hopes, Kiril never takes the stand in his own defence.
‘Seventy-eight,’ Stern repeats, and tosses his head in mock amazement. ‘A young man,’ he adds, and the fourteen jurors, including the two alternates, all smile. ‘Let me tell you a bit about what the evidence will show concerning Kiril Pafko. He came to the US from Argentina to complete his medical education roughly half a century ago, accompanied by his wife, Donatella, who is there behind him in the first row.’ Donatella Pafko, a year or two older than Stern, eighty-six or eighty-seven now, sits with a regal air, utterly composed, her white hair gathered into a smooth bun, her face heavily made up and lifted bravely. ‘He has two children. His daughter, Dara, is seated beside her mother. You will meet his son, Dr Leopoldo Pafko, called Lep, later as a witness in the case. Lep and Dara have given Donatella and Kiril five grandchildren. Surprisingly, Kiril’s grandchildren, too, will figure in the evidence you are going to hear.
‘Of course, most of the proof will concern Kiril’s professional life. You will learn that Kiril Pafko is both a medical doctor, an MD, and a PhD in biochemistry. For four decades plus, he has been an esteemed professor at Easton University’s medical college, here in Kindle County, where he has directed one the world’s foremost cancer research labs. Along the way, he also founded a company, Pafko Therapeutics, which puts his research into practice, producing lifesaving cancer medications.
‘I apologise now, because in this case you will hear a good deal about cancer. As we learned during voir dire,’ Stern says, using the term for the judge’s questioning of prospective jurors, ‘many of us have our own sad experience with cancer, through the suffering of a loved one, or even’ – Stern meaningfully touches the lapel on his suit jacket – ‘ourselves. If the fight against cancer may be likened to a worldwide war, then Kiril Pafko has been one of the human race’s leading generals and, as the evidence will show you, one of that war’s most decorated heroes.’
Using his ivory-knobbed walking stick, Stern steps closer to the jurors.
‘Despite a light remark or two from me,’ Stern says, ‘I am sure you understand that for Dr Pafko, this case is not a laughing matter. You have heard an excellent opening statement from my friend, Moses Appleton.’ Stern gestures to the crowded prosecution table beside him, where Moses, a square man in a store-bought suit, screws up his lips and his narrow, faint moustache in suspicion. He clearly regards Stern’s compliment as tactical, as it is – but also sincere. After trying half a dozen cases against Moses over the years, Stern knows that the US Attorney’s stolid, plainspoken way strikes all but the most blatantly racist jurors as reliable.
‘Mr Appleton has summarised the evidence, as the government would have you see it. For nearly a decade, he says, Pafko Therapeutics, sometimes called PT, worked on a cancer wonder drug called g-Livia. That much is true. What is untrue is Mr Appleton’s claim that the medication received rapid approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, only because Dr Pafko falsified the clinical trial data for g-Livia to conceal a series of unexpected deaths. You will learn that Kiril Pafko did nothing like that. But Mr Appleton maintains that this imagined ‘fraud’ caused Dr Pafko’s stock in PT to gain several hundred million dollars in value, even while seven cancer patients named in the indictment had their lives cut short.
‘In consequence, the prosecutors have charged this seventy-eight-year-old scientist, revered around the globe, as if he were a Mafia don. In Count 1 of the indictment, the government has alleged a strange crime called ‘racketeering’ that combines a grab bag of state and federal offences. Kiril Pafko is now accused of fraud, by several different names, of insider stock trading, and if all that were not enough, of murder. Murder,’ Stern repeats and goes completely still for a second. ‘Not a laughing matter at all.’
Pausing for effect, Stern glances to Marta to gauge how he is doing. If the Sterns had followed their long custom, Marta would be addressing the jury in opening. But she has gallantly given way to her father, saying he is entitled to maximum time at centre stage for his final bow. The truth, Stern suspects, is that she does not care much for their client, and regards the case as her father’s last folly, a misjudgement of age or vanity or both, and, besides all that, a test Stern may no longer be up to.
Marta would say this case has nearly killed Stern once already. Eight months ago, in March, he was sideswiped at high speed on the interstate, as he was driving back from witness interviews at PT. Stern’s Cadillac was slammed into a ditch, while Stern himself was unconscious when the ambulance arrived at the hospital, where a subdural hematoma – blood on the brain – required immediate neurosurgery. He was confused for days, but by now the neurologist says his scans are normal – ‘for a person of eighty-five.’ The qualification troubles Marta, but Kiril, who after all has a medical education, continues to insist his old friend represent him. In the courtroom, Stern has always been his best self. Yet he also knows that here, the truth emerges through a fierce struggle between the sides that will push him to his very limits.
But for fifty-nine years, Stern has approached every case almost as if he, as much as his client, were on trial. Each day consumes his entire spirit; he will sleep fitfully, as the witnesses take over his dreams. The worst moment, as always, came this morning, the first day of the actual trial, always like a play’s opening night. Anxiety was a rodent gnawing on his heart, and the office was in bedlam. Pinky, his granddaughter, was ranting about misfires with the computer slides for Stern’s opening. Marta was dashing to and from the conference room issuing last-minute directions for legal research to four young lawyers on loan to Stern & Stern. Vondra, Stern’s assistant, kept invading his office to check his trial bag, while in the hallways it looked as if the entire support staff was building the pyramids, loading a long handcart with the huge transfer cases of documents and office equipment that would be needed in the courtroom. In his few instants alone, Stern focused on his opening, trying to etch it into memory, an effort cut short when Kiril and Donatella arrived for a final briefing, during which Stern was required to project an air of utter calm.
And yet this is the life he has been reluctant to forsake. It is not ego or money, the tabloid version of his motives, that have kept him working. The reasons are more personal and complex, for whatever the frequent frustrations of practising law, the plain truth is that Mr Alejandro Stern has adored it: The rushing about, the telephone calls, the small breaks of light in the tangle of egos and rules. His clients, his clients! For him, no siren song could be more enticing than an anguished call from someone in dire straits – in his early years, a hooligan in the precinct lockup, or as happens more typically these days, a businessperson with a federal agent at the door. He has always answered with the majestic calm of a superhero: ‘Speak to no one. I shall be there momentarily.’ What was it? What was this mad devotion to people who were often scoundrels, hoping to avoid a punishment that even Stern knew they deserved, who baulked at paying fees, who lied to him routinely, and who scorned him the moment a case was lost? They needed him. Needed him! These weak, injured, even buffoonish characters required the assistance of Mr Alejandro Stern to make their way. Their lives teetered on the cliff edge of destruction. They wept in his office and swore to murder their turncoat comrades. When sanity returned, they dried their eyes and waited, pathetically, for Stern to tell them what to do. ‘Now,’ he would say quietly. The work of six decades reduced to a few words.
If some of the central figures in his life – his first wife, Clara, the mother of his children, who died a suicide in 1989; or Peter, his eldest child; or, in rare moods, Helen, who left Stern a widower again two years ago – if they were present to hear Stern sing lyrics about his clients, his family would ask pointedly, ‘And what about us?’ To their implicit accusation, Stern, ironically, has no defence. The brute fact is that his energies and attention have often been entirely consumed by the courtroom, leaving less than he would have liked for the people he claims to love. All he can offer in response is candour: This is the life I needed to live. At eighty-five, he is certain that without it, he never would have known himself.