Like one of the three key characters in his new crime novel, “The Innocence Game,” Michael Harvey earned a law degree from a highly regarded institution but turned to journalism for career satisfaction.
Harvey, who will sign his novel at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., at 5 p.m. Monday, got his law degree from Duke University, then moved to Chicago and worked at the now shuttered law firm founded by Abraham Lincoln’s son.
“I was making a good amount of money, more than my dad or anyone in my family ever made,” Harvey said by phone from Chicago.
But after a couple of years, he decided to get a master’s degree at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
“I wanted a career I could be passionate about,” Harvey said. “I’m one of seven kids, and my mom said, ‘Michael what are you doing? Do you know how much journalists make?’ But I grew up being poor. It’s not that bad being poor.”
After graduating from Medill, Harvey got a job as an investigative reporter with CBS in Chicago, then became a documentary producer and was co-creator of A&E’s “Cold Case Files.” He writes a popular series of thrillers about a Chicago private investigator named Michael Kelly, which began with “The Chicago Way” and had its fourth installment in 2011 with “We All Fall Down.”
He takes a break from the Kelly saga with “The Innocence Game” (Knopf, $24.95), a fictional take on the Medill School’s real-life Innocence Project begun in 1999, through which journalism students investigate the cases of death-row inmates who may have been convicted of murders they didn’t commit. The students’ work uncovering testable evidence, such as DNA, and contradictions and shortcomings in cases has been credited with exonerating a dozen men.
Harvey says he has first-hand experience with “all of the machinery of the death process” among his subjects was the Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, whom he interviewed in 1992 and again the night before Gacy was executed.
Covering crime scenes, cops and killers brought the tragedy of wrongful convictions into focus for him. “I have feeling for the victims, but we should want to make sure that the people we’re killing are guilty of killing someone,” he said.
“People who do 15 to 20 years for crimes they didn’t commit, they’re broken people,” Harvey said. And he was strongly affected by his visits to death row: “It’s strange to see someone in a cage who’s going to be exterminated,” he says.
He also objects to the economics of the system.
“The legal machinery of the death penalty process is very expensive,” Harvey said. “It costs a lot more money to execute people. They’re alive for 15 to 17 years anyway during the appeals process; we’re paying for their room and board. Add in the cost of the appeals. Typically the state is paying for both sides of the litigation.”
While writing a fifth Michael Kelly book “The Governor’s Wife,” to be published in 2014 Harvey got distracted by “The Innocence Game,” about students who are “smart but naive,” studying old capital murder cases for flaws. They come upon a case in which police may have framed a suspect.
“It never occurs to them that when you start investigating these police, they can start investigating you,” Harvey says. “If they’re threatened and they’re actually doing this stuff, they can do it to you.”
For “The Innocence Game,” Harvey borrowed from a story he covered about a Texas man who was executed in 2000. Odell Barnes Jr. was convicted of murdering a neighbor who was found in her home with her throat slashed. Barnes had no criminal record, but blood found on his jeans when he was picked up by police matched that of the victim. Barnes insisted on his innocence and ultimately paid for DNA testing that he said would prove him right. But the test confirmed the blood was the victim’s.
Harvey says the blood contained citric acid, which is used in crime laboratories as a preservative.
“The obvious conclusion was that someone dropped it onto the jeans, and when you looked at the blood stains, they looked like dimes. The crime scene was violent blood, and it would have splattered or streaked. The citric acid, how did that get there?”
That mystery wasn’t solved in real life, but contributes to Harvey’s fictional tale.
“Fiction or nonfiction, I love telling stories,” Harvey said. “I’m not just a journalist, a documentary maker, or a novelist. I’m a story teller.”