A Condemned Man's Fate Fuels Legal Thriller 

Attorney Sheldon Siegel ponders life inside death row.

A fiery San Francisco lawyer whose past clients include Mafia bosses and housing-project heroin dealers has been convicted of murdering three people in Chinatown's Golden Dragon restaurant and now sits, old and ill, on San Quentin's death row. Defense attorneys/ex-spouses Mike Daley and Rosie Hernandez are racing the clock to free him in Sheldon Siegel's sixth novel, Judgment Day. An attorney himself — a Boalt Hall grad who lives in Marin — Siegel has for twenty years commuted almost daily by ferry past San Quentin: "I've never handled a death penalty appeal, but I've always had an interest in capital punishment cases. The legal and policy issues are compelling and the stakes can't get any higher."

After reading in the Marin Independent Journal that the oldest man on death row had died of natural causes, "I began to wonder if the state would still proceed with the execution of a terminally ill prisoner if his number came up shortly before he was about to die of natural causes." At a subsequent holiday party, a knowledgeable colleague "described the exhausting round-the-clock legal machinations, the daily preparation of appellate briefs, the futile calls to the governor's office, and the desperate searches for new evidence." This colleague "confirmed my suspicion that the state would probably proceed with the execution of a terminally ill man." Judgment Day, which Siegel will discuss at the Clayton Community Library (6125 Clayton Rd., Clayton) on Sunday, May 18, "is not intended to make any particular statement about the wisdom of imposing the death penalty. I simply tried as hard as I could to give my readers a feel for what it's like to be in [a lawyer's] shoes in the days leading up to an execution." A lot of Siegel's fictional colleagues flaunt a decidedly sleazy side that fulfills popular fears and stereotypes about big-city lawyers. But he hopes his two protagonists — smart, solid Rosie and ex-priest Mike — balance out the mix. "I have been asked from time to time whether I think it's good for the profession for those of us who write legal fiction to take swipes at the hand that feeds us," the novelist confirms. "I try to remind those people that Mike and Rosie are the most honest and trustworthy people I can imagine. It's said that everybody has a list of two or three people that they would call if they got into serious trouble. Mike and Rosie would be at the top of my list. I think they're heroes and I try to portray them as such."

Although Siegel had wanted to write novels since he was in high school, he started much later. "I decided I wanted to finish the first draft by my fortieth birthday in July of 1998. I beat my deadline by three days. Once I started, I couldn't seem to stop. You should never underestimate the motivational value of a good midlife crisis." 1 p.m. ClaytonLibrary.org

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