During his long career as a technology lawyer, Palo Alto resident Mitchell Zimmerman also spent 22 years volunteering on a case in which he eventually got a San Quentin inmate off death row.
Zimmerman, 76, now has self published the historical thriller "Mississippi Reckoning," loosely based on his own life. In the book, however, the Silicon Valley lawyer ultimately fails to get his client off death row.
Though the outcomes of their death row cases diverge, Zimmerman and his fictional protagonist, Gideon Roth, have plenty in common: Both had worked as young white men in the civil rights movement in the south during the 1960s. Both went on to become corporate lawyers, building prosperous lives in Silicon Valley. Both took on a pro bono case to get a black inmate off death row, making repeated trips to San Quentin to visit their clients. And both were dismayed by their clients' deeply disadvantaged backgrounds, which, they came to believe, had been the root cause of their crimes.
"There are little pieces of the book that are autobiographical, but it's not an autobiography, and it's not the story of my case," Zimmerman said in a recent interview at his home.
"What I wanted to do ... was tell stories that help people understand how someone gets to be the kind of person who commits a terrible murder. My novel is fiction, but truthful. The horrors I write of are things that have happened to real people."
Zimmerman drew on his experience as a civil rights worker in the '60s to place his protagonist, as a young white volunteer, at the center of the struggle to help black citizens register to vote in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in 1964. Describing conditions of oppressive segregation and racism enforced by complicit local power structures, the author follows a black family over generations to explore the virulent legacy of America's racial past.
Zimmerman's fictional character, as a lawyer later in life, feels a profound failure as he watches his client die in the gas chamber. He goes off the rails at the unfairness of it all as his marriage crumbles and he loses his law partnership. He embarks on a quixotic road trip back to Mississippi, bent on settling scores with the racist deputy sheriff and Ku Klux Klansmen he felt had been insufficiently punished for murdering his civil rights colleagues in 1964.
Unlike his fictional character, the real-life Zimmerman succeeded in getting his client off death row and was honored by California Lawyer magazine as a 2009 "Attorney of the Year." He continued working as a partner in his Mountain View law firm, Fenwick & West, until retiring earlier this year, and remains married to Jane, his wife of more than 50 years.
"When you work on a case that long you have a lot of it inside of you that's ready to be turned into stories," he said, adding that he wanted "to tell stories about how people get to be on death row and about what American racism was and is really like.
"Many white people have a very limited understanding of what life was like under segregation," he said. "It was not 'merely' the back of the bus. It was a pervasive system of white supremacy and black degradation. I wanted to tell the stories of a black family and how their horrific experiences of racial abuse and violence ultimately create and damage a young man who committed a dreadful murder."
Zimmerman began working on "Mississippi Reckoning" around 2000, "partly as a tension-relieving device" while in the midst of representing his death row client, Henry Earl Duncan, who was convicted of the 1984 stabbing death of his restaurant supervisor in Los Angeles.
The prison term, handed down by Superior Court Judge Edmund W. Clarke Jr., marks the third time Henry Earl Duncan, now 53, has been sentenced for the Nov. 13, 1984, stabbing death of Josephine Eil. "I was always optimistic that we'd get our guy off death row, but a certain amount of that was denial. It was too horrible to think about him actually being executed," he said.
The case dragged on for 22 years, and Zimmerman logged 7,400 pro bono hours before finally getting Duncan's death sentence overturned by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 for reasons of ineffective trial counsel. Duncan now is at Pelican Bay State Prison, where Zimmerman said he's been a model inmate for years.
Zimmerman completed a manuscript for "Mississippi Reckoning" around 2010, revised it, set it aside and eventually finalized it last year.
"My client joked about the fact that when he first met me my hair was salt and pepper and by the time it was over it was all white," he said.
Beyond his four decades of legal writing, Zimmerman has written extensively in other formats. As an antiwar activist in 1968, he co-authored a book about Vietnam with the pediatrician Benjamin Spock, most famous for his perennial bestseller "Baby and Child Care." He also writes occasional opinion articles for the Other Words syndication service, which have appeared in newspapers.
"Mississippi Reckoning" is available locally at Books Inc. in Palo Alto and Mountain View. For more information, go mississippi-reckoning.com.