Law student tries to flip the Innocence Project in ‘The Murder Rule’ – Sun Sentinel

‘The Murder Rule’ by Dervla McTiernan. Morrow, 304 pages, $27.99

Australian author Dervla McTiernan offers a keen observation of the US legal system, the bond between mother and daughter, and how both the law and relationships can be manipulated in the exciting “The Murder Rule.”

In her fourth novel, McTiernan ladles on the suspense as she pits a naïve young woman so convinced that she is right against members of an activist group who equally believe their convictions.

University of Maine law student Hannah Rokeby transfers to the University of Virginia mainly so she can join the law school’s Innocence Project, which investigates evidence that may exonerate those convicted of a crime. A slot on the Innocence Project is highly coveted among the brightest, most ambitious law students.

But through deceit and underhanded actions, Hannah is accepted. Her goal is to join the team working to free Michael Dandridge, who’s been on death row for 11 years for rape and murder. Hannah has no intention of trying to help, but she wants to prove Dandridge guilty to keep him on death row.

Her alcoholic mother Laura has long maintained Dandridge killed wealthy Tom Spencer, her fiancé — and Hannah’s father — but was never arrested, or even considered a suspect in this murder. As proof, Hannah has her mother’s diary of her that recounts her relationship with Tom and why Dandridge was his killer of him.

McTiernan smoothly touches on issues of legal responsibility and the felony murder rule, which maintains that if a death occurs during the commission of a felony a person can be charged with murder, even if they didn’t personally kill anyone. Yet McTiernan never allows these issues to bog down “The Murder Rule” as she keeps the tension high throughout the plot.

Hannah’s idealism veers from empathetic to grating as she refuses to believe she may be wrong. This makes her reckless, but is understandable given her youth of her. Although a couple of late twists stretch credibility, McTiernan still manages to make “The Murder Rule” intriguing.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at

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