by Walter Dean Myers
In this award-winning novel, Walter Dean Myers brings us the story of 16-year-old Steve Harmon, on trial for the murder of a drugstore owner in Harlem. The story is told through Steve’s perspective, primarily as a screenplay he has written about the experience.
At the outset, Steve’s trial is just beginning. His attorney, Kathy O’Brien, believes that Steve is innocent, but also believes that he must portray himself as such and not give the jury any reason to believe he would be involved in the crime; because Steve is African-American, there is a fear that race may be a factor in how the jury responds to the case. Meanwhile, the prosecutor, Sandra Petrocelli, begins her call of witnesses, one by one, in an attempt to show that both Steve and James King, also on trial, are guilty of murder.
The facts of the case come out quickly. On December 23rd, Alguinaldo Nesbitt, owner of a drugstore in Harlem, was found dead of a gunshot wound in his store. Jose Delgado, a worker at the store, found Nesbitt and contacted the police. According to Petrocelli, Ellis and Richard “Bobo” Evans, robbed the store. As Nesbitt attempted to defend his property, a struggle ensued between him and Evans. The gun went off, and Nesbitt was killed. The state contends that Steve was in on the robbery, that he was the “look out man,” and that he came out of the store just prior to the robbery. It was Steve’s job, Petrocelli contends, to signal Ellis and Evans if the store was empty or busy or if police were there. As a result, Steve finds himself here, in this trial, one that has garnered attention from the press. Even Mayor Rudy Giuliani discusses the case in a news conference.
As the trial progesses, Steve’s screenplay is interlaced with journal entries, illustrating his state of mind as he is going through the trial. Not out on bail, he is kept in a detention center. What the journal entries reveal is a young man fearful that he will face the electric chair; he shows no signs of being the “monster” the prosecutor is attempting to portray him to be. Furthermore, flashbacks show Steve’s interest in film studies; he is a member of a film club, and he contends that on the day of the robbery, he was checking locations for a new movie he was going to film.
The prosecutor’s key witnesses are Wendell Bolden, an inmate, who testifies that he purchased cigarettes stolen in the drugstore heist. The other key witness is Osvaldo Cruz, who testifies to being a part of the heist because he was afraid of Bobo. Both witnesses are suspect; nevertheless, the case is not looking good for Steve.
Finally, Steve takes the witness stand in his own defense. he testifies that he was not in the drugstore that day. Kathy O’Brien makes a point that Steve never received a cut of the money or goods stolen and never met up with Ellis or Evans earlier. Steve even testifies that he hadn’t spoken with Ellis, Evans, or Cruz for months.
When the jury comes back to deliver its verdicts, Steve’s screenplay cuts to silence. We only see the faces in the courtroom, as the jury finds Ellis guilty and Steve innocent. Steve’s mother throws her arms to the sky in relief, as she knew all along her son was wrongly accused. And Steve’s story is ready for the big screen.