In the small city of Strattenburg, there are many lawyers, and though he’s only thirteen years old, Theo Boone thinks he’s one of them. Theo knows every judge, policeman, court clerk—and a lot about the law. He dreams of being a great trial lawyer, of a life in the courtroom.
But Theo finds himself in court much sooner than expected. Because he knows so much—maybe too much—he is suddenly dragged into the middle of a sensational murder trial. A cold-blooded killer is about to go free, and only Theo knows the truth.
The stakes are high, but Theo won’t stop until justice is served.
About the Author
Hometown:Oxford, Mississippi, and Albemarle County, Virginia
Date of Birth:February 8, 1955
Place of Birth:Jonesboro, Arkansas
Education:B.S., Mississippi State, 1977; J.D., University of Mississippi, 1981
Read an Excerpt
Theodore Boone was an only child and for that reason usually had breakfast alone. His father, a busy lawyer, was in the habit of leaving early and meeting friends for coffee and gossip at the same downtown diner every morning at seven. Theo’s mother, herself a busy lawyer, had been trying to lose ten pounds for at least the past ten years, and because of this she’d convinced herself that breakfast should be nothing more than coffee with the newspaper. So he ate by himself at the kitchen table, cold cereal and orange juice, with an eye on the clock. The Boone home had clocks everywhere, clear evidence of organized people.
Actually, he wasn’t completely alone. Beside his chair, his dog ate, too. Judge was a thoroughly mixed mutt whose age and breeding would always be a mystery. Theo had rescued him from near death with a last-second appearance in Animal Court two years earlier, and Judge would always be grateful. He preferred Cheerios, same as Theo, and they ate together in silence every morning.
At 8:00 a.m., Theo rinsed their bowls in the sink, placed the milk and juice back in the fridge, walked to the den, and kissed his mother on the cheek. “Off to school,” he said.
“Do you have lunch money?” she asked, the same question five mornings a week.
“And your homework is complete?”
“It’s perfect, Mom.”
“And I’ll see you when?”
“I’ll stop by the office after school.” Theo stopped by the office every day after school, without fail, but Mrs. Boone always asked.
“Be careful,” she said. “And remember to smile.” The braces on his teeth had now been in place for over two years and Theo wanted desperately to get rid of them. In the meantime, though, his mother continually reminded him to smile and make the world a happier place.
“I’m smiling, Mom.”
“Love you, Teddy.”
“Love you back.”
Theo, still smiling in spite of being called “Teddy,” flung his backpack across his shoulders, scratched Judge on the head and said good-bye, then left through the kitchen door. He hopped on his bike and was soon speeding down Mallard Lane, a narrow leafy street in the oldest section of town. He waved at Mr. Nunnery, who was already on his porch and settled in for another long day of watching what little traffic found its way into their neighborhood, and he whisked by Mrs. Goodloe at the curb without speaking because she’d lost her hearing and most of her mind as well. He did smile at her, though, but she did not return the smile. Her teeth were somewhere in the house.
It was early spring and the air was crisp and cool. Theo pedaled quickly, the wind stinging his face. Homeroom was at eight forty and he had important matters before school. He cut through a side street, darted down an alley, dodged some traffic, and ran a stop sign. This was Theo’s turf, the route he traveled every day. After four blocks the houses gave way to offices and shops and stores.
The county courthouse was the largest building in downtown Strattenburg (the post office was second, the library third). It sat majestically on the north side of Main Street, halfway between a bridge over the river and a park filled with gazebos and birdbaths and monuments to those killed in wars. Theo loved the courthouse, with its air of authority, and people hustling importantly about, and somber notices and schedules tacked to the bulletin boards. Most of all, Theo loved the courtrooms themselves. There were small ones where more private matters were handled without juries, then there was the main courtroom on the second floor where lawyers battled like gladiators and judges ruled like kings.
At the age of thirteen, Theo was still undecided about his future. One day he dreamed of being a famous trial lawyer, one who handled the biggest cases and never lost before juries. The next day he dreamed of being a great judge, noted for his wisdom and fairness. He went back and forth, changing his mind daily.
The main lobby was already busy on this Monday morning, as if the lawyers and their clients wanted an early start to the week. There was a crowd waiting by the elevator, so Theo raced up two flights of stairs and down the east wing where Family Court was held. His mother was a noted divorce lawyer, one who always represented the wife, and Theo knew this area of the building well. Since divorce trials were decided by judges, juries were not used, and since most judges preferred not to have large groups of spectators observing such sensitive matters, the courtroom was small. By its door, several lawyers huddled importantly, obviously not agreeing on much. Theo searched the hallway, then turned a corner and saw his friend.
She was sitting on one of the old wooden benches, alone, small and frail and nervous. When she saw him she smiled and put a hand over her mouth. Theo hustled over and sat next to her, very closely, knees touching. With any other girl he would have placed himself at least two feet away and prevented any chance of contact.
But April Finnemore was not just any girl. They had started prekindergarten together at the age of four at a nearby church school, and they had been close friends since they could remember. It wasn’t a romance; they were too young for that. Theo did not know of a single thirteen-year-old boy in his class who admitted to having a girlfriend. Just the opposite. They wanted nothing to do with them. And the girls felt the same way. Theo had been warned that things would change, and dramatically, but that seemed unlikely.
April was just a friend, and one in a great deal of need at the moment. Her parents were divorcing, and Theo was extremely grateful his mother was not involved with the case.
The divorce was no surprise to anyone who knew the Finnemores. April’s father was an eccentric antiques dealer and the drummer for an old rock band that still played in nightclubs and toured for weeks at a time. Her mother raised goats and made goat cheese, which she peddled around town in a converted funeral hearse, painted bright yellow. An ancient spider monkey with gray whiskers rode shotgun and munched on the cheese, which had never sold very well. Mr. Boone had once described the family as “nontraditional,” which Theo took to mean downright weird. Both her parents had been arrested on drug charges, though neither had served time.
“Are you okay?” Theo asked.
“No,” she said. “I hate being here.”
She had an older brother named August and an older sister named March, and both fled the family. August left the day after he graduated from high school. March dropped out at the age of sixteen and left town, leaving April as the only child for her parents to torment. Theo knew all of this because April told him everything. She had to. She needed someone outside of her family to confide in, and Theo was her listener.
“I don’t want to live with either one of them,” she said. It was a terrible thing to say about one’s parents, but Theo understood completely. He despised her parents for the way they treated her. He despised them for the chaos of their lives, for their neglect of April, for their cruelty to her. Theo had a long list of grudges against Mr. and Mrs. Finnemore. He would run away before being forced to live there. He did not know of a single kid in town who’d ever set foot inside the Finnemore home.
The divorce trial was in its third day, and April would soon be called to the witness stand to testify. The judge would ask her the fateful question, “April, which parent do you want to live with?”
And she did not know the answer. She had discussed it for hours with Theo, and she still did not know what to say.
The great question in Theo’s mind was, “Why did either parent want custody of April?” Each had neglected her in so many ways. He had heard many stories, but he had never repeated a single one.
“What are you going to say?” he asked.
“I’m telling the judge that I want to live with my aunt Peg in Denver.”
“I thought she said no.”
“Then you can’t say that.”
“What can I say, Theo?”
“My mother would say that you should choose your mother. I know she’s not your first choice, but you don’t have a first choice.”
“But the judge can do whatever he wants, right?”
“Right. If you were fourteen, you could make a binding decision. At thirteen, the judge will only consider your wishes. According to my mother, this judge almost never awards custody to the father. Play it safe. Go with your mother.”
April wore jeans, hiking boots, and a navy sweater. She rarely dressed like a girl, but her gender was never in doubt. She wiped a tear from her cheek, but managed to keep her composure. “Thanks, Theo,” she said.
“I wish I could stay.”
“And I wish I could go to school.”
They both managed a forced laugh. “I’ll be thinking about you. Be strong.”
His favorite judge was the Honorable Henry Gantry, and he entered the great man’s outer office at twenty minutes after 8:00 a.m.
“Well, good morning, Theo,” Mrs. Hardy said. She was stirring something into her coffee and preparing to begin her work.
“Morning, Mrs. Hardy,” Theo said with a smile.
“And to what do we owe this honor?” she asked. She was not quite as old as Theo’s mother, he guessed, and she was very pretty. She was Theo’s favorite of all the secretaries in the courthouse. His favorite clerk was Jenny over in Family Court.
“I need to see Judge Gantry,” he replied. “Is he in?”
“Well, yes, but he’s very busy.”
“Please. It’ll just take a minute.”
She sipped her coffee, then asked, “Does this have anything to do with the big trial tomorrow?”
“Yes, ma’am, it does. I’d like for my Government class to watch the first day of the trial, but I gotta make sure there will be enough seats.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Theo,” Mrs. Hardy said, frowning and shaking her head. “We’re expecting an overflow crowd. Seating will be tight.”
“Can I talk to the judge?”
“How many are in your class?”
“Sixteen. I thought maybe we could sit in the balcony.”
She was still frowning as she picked up the phone and pushed a button. She waited for a second, then said, “Yes, Judge, Theodore Boone is here and would like to see you. I told him you are very busy.” She listened some more, then put down the phone. “Hurry,” she said, pointing to the judge’s door.
Seconds later, Theo stood before the biggest desk in town, a desk covered with all sorts of papers and files and thick binders, a desk that symbolized the enormous power held by Judge Henry Gantry, who, at that moment, was not smiling. In fact, Theo was certain the judge had not cracked a smile since he’d interrupted his work. Theo, though, was pressing hard with a prolonged flash of metal from ear to ear.
“State your case,” Judge Gantry said. Theo had heard him issue this command on many occasions. He’d seen lawyers, good lawyers, rise and stutter and search for words while Judge Gantry scowled down from the bench. He wasn’t scowling now, nor was he wearing his black robe, but he was still intimidating. As Theo cleared his throat, he saw an unmistakable twinkle in his friend’s eye.
“Yes, sir, well, my Government teacher is Mr. Mount, and Mr. Mount thinks we might get approval from the principal for an all-day field trip to watch the opening of the trial tomorrow.” Theo paused, took a deep breath, told himself again to speak clearly, slowly, forcefully, like all great trial lawyers. “But, we need guaranteed seats. I was thinking we could sit in the balcony.”
“Oh, you were?”
“Sixteen, plus Mr. Mount.”
The judge picked up a file, opened it, and began reading as if he’d suddenly forgotten about Theo standing at attention across the desk. Theo waited for an awkward fifteen seconds. Then the judge abruptly said, “Seventeen seats, front balcony, left side. I’ll tell the bailiff to seat you at ten minutes before nine, tomorrow. I expect perfect behavior.”
“No problem, sir.”
“I’ll have Mrs. Hardy e-mail a note to your principal.”
“You can go now, Theo. Sorry to be so busy.”
“No problem, sir.”
Theo was scurrying toward the door when the judge said, “Say, Theo. Do you think Mr. Duffy is guilty?”
Theo stopped, turned around and without hesitating responded, “He’s presumed innocent.”
“Got that. But what’s your opinion as to his guilt?”
“I think he did it.”
The judge nodded slightly but gave no indication of whether he agreed.
“What about you?” Theo asked.
Finally, a smile. “I’m a fair and impartial referee, Theo. I have no preconceived notions of guilt or innocence.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say.”
“See you tomorrow.” Theo cracked the door and hustled out.
Mrs. Hardy was on her feet, hands on hips, staring down two flustered lawyers who were demanding to see the judge. All three clammed up when Theo walked out of Judge Gantry’s office. He smiled at Mrs. Hardy as he walked hurriedly by. “Thanks,” he said as he opened the door and disappeared.
The ride from the courthouse to the middle school would take fifteen minutes if properly done, if one obeyed the traffic laws and refrained from trespassing. And normally this is the way Theo would do things, except when he was running a bit late. He flew down Market Street the wrong way, jumped the curb just ahead of a car, and bolted through a parking lot, used every sidewalk available, then—his most serious offense—he ducked between two houses on Elm Street. Theo heard someone yelling from the porch behind him until he was safely into an alley that ran into the teachers’ parking lot behind his school. He checked his watch—nine minutes. Not bad.
He parked at the rack by the flagpole, secured his bike with a chain, then entered with a flood of kids who’d just stepped off a bus. The eight forty bell was ringing when he walked into his homeroom and said good morning to Mr. Mount, who not only taught him Government but was his adviser as well.
“Talked to Judge Gantry,” Theo said at the teacher’s desk, one considerably smaller than the one he’d just left in the courthouse. The room was buzzing with the usual early morning chaos. All sixteen boys were present and all appeared to be involved in some sort of gag, scuffle, joke, or shoving match.
“Got the seats, first thing in the morning.”
“Excellent. Great job, Theo.”
Mr. Mount eventually restored order, called the roll, made his announcements, and ten minutes later sent the boys down the hall to their first period Spanish class with Madame Monique. There was some awkward flirting between the rooms as the boys mixed with the girls. During classes, they were “gender-separated,” according to a new policy adopted by the smart people in charge of educating all the children in town. The genders were free to mingle at all other times.
Madame Monique was a tall, dark lady from Cameroon, in West Africa. She had moved to Strattenburg three years earlier when her husband, also from Cameroon, took a job at the local college where he taught languages. She was not the typical teacher at the middle school, far from it. As a child in Africa, she had grown up speaking Beti, her tribal dialect, as well as French and English, the official languages of Cameroon. Her father was a doctor, and thus could afford to send her to school in Switzerland, where she picked up German and Italian. Her Spanish had been perfected when she went to college in Madrid. She was currently working on Russian with plans to move on to Mandarin Chinese. Her classroom was filled with large, colorful maps of the world, and her students believed she’d been everywhere, seen everything, and could speak any language. It’s a big world, she told them many times, and most people in other countries speak more than one language. While the students concentrated on Spanish, they were also encouraged to explore others.
Theo’s mother had been studying Spanish for twenty years, and as a preschooler he had learned from her many of the basic words and phrases. Some of her clients were from Central America, and when Theo saw them at the office he was ready to practice. They always thought it was cute.
Madame Monique had told him that he had an ear for languages, and this had inspired him to study harder. She was often asked by her curious students to “say something in German.” Or, “Speak some Italian.” She would, but first the student making the request had to stand and say a few words in that language. Bonus points were given, and this created enthusiasm. Most of the boys in Theo’s class knew a few dozen words in several languages. Aaron, who had a Spanish mother and a German father, was by far the most talented linguist. But Theo was determined to catch him. After Government, Spanish was his favorite class, and Madame Monique ran a close second to Mr. Mount as his favorite teacher.
Today, though, he had trouble concentrating. They were studying Spanish verbs, a tedious chore on a good day, and Theo’s mind was elsewhere. He worried about April and her awful day on the witness stand. He couldn’t imagine the horror of being forced to choose one parent over another. And when he managed to set April aside, he was consumed with the murder trial and couldn’t wait until tomorrow, to watch the opening statements by the lawyers.
Most of his classmates dreamed of getting tickets to the big game or concert. Theo Boone lived for the big trials.
Second period was Geometry with Miss Garman. It was followed by a short break outdoors, then the class returned to homeroom, to Mr. Mount and the best hour of the day, at least in Theo’s opinion. Mr. Mount was in his midthirties, and had once worked as a lawyer at a gigantic firm in a skyscraper in Chicago. His brother was a lawyer. His father and grandfather had been lawyers and judges. Mr. Mount, though, had grown weary of the long hours and high pressure, and, well, he’d quit. He’d walked away from the big money and found something he found far more rewarding. He loved teaching, and though he still thought of himself as a lawyer, he considered the classroom far more important than the courtroom.
Because he knew the law so well, his Government class spent most of its time discussing cases, old ones and current ones and even fictitious ones on television.
“All right, men,” he began when they were seated and still. He always addressed them as “men” and for thirteen-year-olds there was no greater compliment. “Tomorrow I want you here at eight fifteen. We’ll take a bus to the courthouse and we’ll be in our seats in plenty of time. It’s a field trip, approved by the principal, so you will be excused from all other classes. Bring lunch money and we’ll eat at Pappy’s Deli. Any questions?”
The men were hanging on every word, excitement all over their faces.
“What about backpacks?” someone asked.
“No,” Mr. Mount answered. “You can’t take anything into the courtroom. Security will be tight. It is, after all, the first murder trial here in a long time. Any more questions?”
“What should we wear?”
Slowly, all eyes turned to Theo, including those of Mr. Mount. It was well known that Theo spent more time in the courthouse than most lawyers.
“Coat and tie, Theo?” Mr. Mount asked.
“No, not at all. What we’re wearing now is fine.”
“Great. Any more questions? Good. Now, I’ve asked Theo if he would sort of set the stage for tomorrow. Lay out the courtroom, give us the players, tell us what we’re in for. Theo.”
Theo’s laptop was already wired to the overhead projector. He walked to the front of the class, pressed a key, and a large diagram appeared on the digital wide-screen whiteboard. “This is the main courtroom,” Theo said, in his best lawyer’s voice. He held a laser pointer with a red light and sort of waved it around the diagram. “At the top, in the center here, is the bench. That’s where the judge sits and controls the trial. Not sure why it’s called a bench. It’s more like a throne. But, anyway, we’ll stick with bench. The judge is Henry Gantry.” He punched a key, and a large formal photo of Judge Gantry appeared. Black robe, somber face. Theo shrank it, then dragged it up to the bench. With the judge in place, he continued, “Judge Gantry has been a judge for about twenty years and handles only criminal cases. He runs a tight courtroom and is well liked by most of the lawyers.” The laser pointer moved to the middle of the courtroom. “This is the defense table, where Mr. Duffy, the man accused of murder, will be seated.” Theo punched a key and a black-and-white photo, one taken from a newspaper, appeared. “This is Mr. Duffy. Age forty-nine, used to be married to Mrs. Duffy, who is now deceased, and as we all know, Mr. Duffy is accused of murdering her.” He shrank the photo and moved it to the defense table. “His lawyer is Clifford Nance, probably the top criminal defense lawyer in this part of the state.” Nance appeared in color, wearing a dark suit and a shifty smile. He had long, curly gray hair. His photo was reduced and placed next to his client’s. “Next to the defense table is the prosecution’s table. The lead prosecutor is Jack Hogan, who’s also known as the district attorney, or DA.” Hogan’s photo appeared for a few seconds before it was reduced and placed at the table next to the defense.
“Where’d you find these photos?” someone asked.
“Each year the bar association publishes a directory of all the lawyers and judges,” Theo answered.
“Are you included?” This brought a few light laughs.
“No. Now, there will be other lawyers and paralegals at both tables, prosecution and defense. This area is usually crowded. Over here, next to the defense, is the jury box. It has fourteen chairs—twelve for the jurors and two for the alternates. Most states still use twelve-man juries, though different sizes are not unusual. Regardless of the number, the verdict has to be unanimous, at least in criminal cases. They pick alternates in case one of the twelve gets sick or excused or something. The jury was selected last week, so we won’t have to watch that. It’s pretty boring.” The laser pointer moved to a spot in front of the bench. Theo continued, “The court reporter sits here. She’ll have a machine that is called a stenograph. Sorta looks like a typewriter, but much different. Her job is to record every word that’s said during the trial. That might sound impossible, but she makes it look easy. Later, she’ll prepare what’s known as a transcript so that the lawyers and the judge will have a record of everything. Some transcripts have thousands of pages.” The laser pointer moved again. “Here, close to the court reporter and just down from the judge, is the witness chair. Each witness walks up here, is sworn to tell the truth, then takes a seat.”
“Where do we sit?”
The laser pointer moved to the middle of the diagram. “This is called the bar. Again, don’t ask why. The bar is a wooden railing that separates the spectators from the trial area. There are ten rows of seats with an aisle down the middle. This is usually more than enough for the crowd, but this trial will be different.” The laser pointer moved to the rear of the courtroom. “Up here, above the last few rows, is the balcony where there are three long benches. We’re in the balcony, but don’t worry. We’ll be able to see and hear everything.”
“Any questions?” Mr. Mount asked.
The boys gawked at the diagram. “Who goes first?” someone asked.
Theo began pacing. “Well, the State has the burden of proving guilt, so it must present its case first. First thing tomorrow morning, the prosecutor will walk to the jury box and address the jurors. This is called the opening statement. He’ll lay out his case. Then the defense lawyer will do the same. After that, the State will start calling witnesses. As you know, Mr. Duffy is presumed to be innocent, so the State must prove him guilty, and it must do so beyond a reasonable doubt. He claims he’s innocent, which actually in real life doesn’t happen very often. About eighty percent of those indicted for murder eventually plead guilty, because they are in fact guilty. The other twenty percent go to trial, and ninety percent of those are found guilty. So, it’s rare for a murder defendant to be found not guilty.”
“My dad thinks he’s guilty,” Brian said.
“A lot of people do,” Theo said.
“How many trials have you watched, Theo?”
“I don’t know. Dozens.”
Since none of the other fifteen had ever seen the inside of a courtroom, this was almost beyond belief. Theo continued: “For those of you who watch a lot of television, don’t expect fireworks. A real trial is very different, and not nearly as exciting. There are no surprise witnesses, no dramatic confessions, no fistfights between the lawyers. And, in this trial, there are no eyewitnesses to the murder. This means that all of the evidence from the State will be circumstantial. You’ll hear this word a lot, especially from Mr. Clifford Nance, the defense lawyer. He’ll make a big deal out of the fact that the State has no direct proof, that everything is circumstantial.”
“I’m not sure what that means,” someone said.
“It means that the evidence is indirect, not direct. For example, did you ride your bike to school?”
“And did you chain it to the rack by the flagpole?”
“So, when you leave school this afternoon, and you go to the rack, and your bike is gone, and the chain has been cut, then you have indirect evidence that someone stole your bike. No one saw the thief, so there’s no direct evidence. And let’s say that tomorrow the police find your bike in a pawnshop on Raleigh Street, a place known to deal in stolen bikes. The owner gives the police a name, they investigate and find some dude with a history of stealing bikes. You can then make a strong case, through indirect evidence, that this guy is your thief. No direct evidence, but circumstantial.”
Even Mr. Mount was nodding along. He was the faculty adviser for the Eighth-Grade Debate Team, and, not surprisingly, Theodore Boone was his star. He’d never had a student as quick on his feet.
“Thank you, Theo,” Mr. Mount said. “And thank you for getting us the seats in the morning.”
“Nothing to it,” Theo said, and proudly took his seat.
It was a bright class in a strong public school. Justin was by far the best athlete, though he couldn’t swim as fast as Brian. Ricardo beat them all at golf and tennis. Edward played the cello, Woody the electric guitar, Darren the drums, Jarvis the trumpet. Joey had the highest IQ and made perfect grades. Chase was the mad scientist who was always a threat to blow up the lab. Aaron spoke Spanish, from his mother’s side, German from his father’s, and English, of course. Brandon had an early morning paper route, traded stocks online, and planned to be the first millionaire in the group.
Naturally, there were two hopeless nerds and at least one potential felon.
The class even had its own lawyer, a first for Mr. Mount.
What People are Saying About This
"Not since Nancy Drew has a nosy, crime-obsessed kid been so hard to resist." -The New York Times
"Classic Grisham." -The Los Angeles Times