Defending Jacob: What Would You Do If Your Child Were a Murderer?

What would you do if your child had committed a crime as serious as murder?  What if that child denied it and you believed him?  This is the premise of William Landay’s book Defending Jacob (2012).  Andrew Barber is a district attorney, handling a case of a boy in his son’s class found murdered in the woods on the way to school.  As the investigation progresses, Andy’s son Jacob is accused of the crime.  Andy loses his job and spends time and money and energy to prove that his son is innocent.  His wife Laurie wants to believe that Jacob is innocent as well, but the evidence seems to be stacking up and she has a hard time dealing with the stress.


It would certainly be a stressful situation.  The family is shunned, and they feel that lies about their son are being spread throughout the town.  In fact, when Laurie runs into the dead boy’s parents at the store, she tries to commiserate with them, hoping to find some comfort in her own worry for Jacob and in the loss of their son.  However, the mother of the dead boy spits in her face.  It wouldn’t be an easy thing to forgive the boy (or parents of the boy) whom you believed murdered your child in cold blood.

The novel is intriguing.  It is written in flashbacks, with the current investigation and ensuing trial juxtaposed with the transcript of a grand jury on which Andy is testifying to the district attorney who replaced him.  These exchanges are intense, and lead us to see how much the new district attorney and Andy despise each other.  It is hard to tell which side to be on when it comes to the trial of Jacob Barber.  Is he innocent or guilty?

Spoiler alert!  I have decided to warn you, since the ending has a twist that you may want to discover for yourself.  Of course, many of the discussion forums online said this ending was obvious.

In the end, the charges against Jacob are dropped because of a connection to the mob.  You see, Andy’s father, whom he has never known, is a convinced murderer, and there is some talk throughout the novel of a “murder gene” and the possibility that violence or psychopathic tendencies are inherited.  Andy’s family has a history of this.  But this mob connection frames a local pedophile for the murder by staging his suicide with a confession note.

Jacob is free!  The family can go back to normal.  We can believe that perhaps he didn’t do it after all and that the mob acted too quickly.  A not-guilty verdict would have certainly come had the trial played out to the end.

Or would it?

The Barbers go on vacation, where Jacob takes up with a girl his age.  She ends up missing.  (It reminded me of the Natalie Holloway case.)  Jacob is suspected of having something to do with her disappearance, but it is never proved nor is a body found.

When the Barbers return home, Laurie does what she thinks is necessary.  She kills her own son!  She does.  She takes him in the car, doesn’t remind him to buckle up, and goes barreling into a concrete barrier at over 100 mph.  She survives and Jacob doesn’t.  Did she do the “right” thing?  Is there a “right” in this situation?

How would you react?

Now, I must mention my blogging friend Cecilia at Only You.  She recommended this book to me when I posted about The Dinner.  The premises of both books are similar.  If you like my blog, you’ll probably like hers.  She posts about books and motherhood and life in general, and I find her blog compelling.  Check her out at