Stories of scoundrels

Friday, March 30, 2007
Morley Swingle laughed as he talked about his upcoming book "Scoundrels to the Hoosegow" and some of the comical things that has happened to him as a prosecutor working in Cape Girardeau County. (Diane L. Wilson)

Morley Swingle's newest book is about the life of a prosecuting attorney, but it isn't a dry legal read intended for law students.

The Cape Girardeau County prosecutor wrote "Scoundrels to the Hoosegow: Perry Mason Moments and Entertaining Cases from the Files of a Prosecuting Attorney" so the public could learn in a fun and entertaining way what it's like to be a prosecuting attorney.

The book will be available at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Cape Girardeau today.

Swingle's latest ambition is modeled after his favorite writer, Mark Twain, who informed readers in his day about frontier journalism, gold prospecting and riverboat piloting in books written with wit. Swingle calls "Hoosegow" a combination of true crime, legal analysis and humor.

The book gives readers a glimpse into courtroom cases involving Cape Girardeau locations -- such as the Humane Society, where a drunken burglar once tried to free the dogs, and the Super 8 Motel, where a drug-crazed man engaged in a shootout with police that ended his life.

Chapter titles such as "The Case of the Titillating Tape" and "The Case of the Green-Speckled Coffee" hint that an entertaining read is ahead.

Whenever possible in any of the book's 33 chapters, Swingle highlights what he calls a "Perry Mason moment," in which a trial dramatically shifts direction.

A good example is "The Case of the Candid Culprit," in which a defendant staunchly maintaining his innocence against a charge of selling crack cocaine raised his hand in court when Swingle asked a witness to point him out in the courtroom.

Perhaps not a Perry Mason moment because it happened outside the courtroom, but entertaining nonetheless, is the story of "The Case of the Unlucky Forger." Here, a suspect chased by police fell to the ground in agony believing he had been shot by police during a foot pursuit. In reality, the pursuing officer had formed a pistol shape with his hand and shouted "bang."

Swingle said not all the chapters are funny accounts of courtroom events and criminal behavior. A story of a fraternity hazing at Southeast Missouri State University in 1994 gives readers a glimpse of legal proceedings and a good example of how a prosecutor must know case law to get the best chance of a conviction.

Swingle said he spent about two years writing the first draft of "Hoosegow," mostly in hotel rooms in Columbia or Jefferson City when there serving on a Missouri Supreme Court committee writing jury instructions one or two days each month.

He brought along a file of funny or interesting things he'd witnessed in courtrooms over the past 20 years or so of his career.

He said he began referring to the file for interesting anecdotes when he was called upon to speak at various functions.

"About three years ago I realized I had 30 audience-tested, laugh-out-loud stories about what it's like to be a prosecutor in America," Swingle said.

That's when it hit him he could put them together in a book and work in important points about plea bargaining and the death penalty, he said.

Getting his book published was easier than getting his first book, "The Gold of Cape Girardeau," published in 2002, he said.

That book, a historical novel going back to the steamboat days along the Mississippi River, was a 20-year effort of researching, writing and finding a publisher, he said.

The University of Missouri at Columbia said it would publish Swingle's new book after he sent in the first draft, he said, which in itself was a dream come true.

Swingle got his undergraduate degree from the university and had attended law school there.

Swingle was inspired not only by Mark Twain, but by more contemporary figures like U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, Vincent Bugliosi, author of "Helter Skelter," and Robert Jackson, former attorney general for Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Jackson once said that the prosecutor has more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America. That quote struck home for Swingle, who said he always remembers the weight of responsibility a prosecutor carries.

"The responsibility can be awesome," he said.

Swingle is already busy working on four new books, all in various stages of completion.

"This is really what I do for fun," he said. "Some people play golf. I write."

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