In this groundbreaking novel, The California Killing Field, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter races against time to prevent a diabolical plan by California's centrist governor and his sadistic operative to conduct a mass execution and boost the governor's chances of becoming President.
While interviewing serial killer Leon Rector, Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Covington learns that Jesus Gonzales, condemned to die for killing two drug dealers, is most likely innocent. From Rector, Covington also learns of the mysterious Project Q, involving placement of a large number of steel “restraining chairs” in the prison yard. Funding for the chairs appears to be as secret as the project itself. Covington's anti-death penalty zeal stems from witnessing the horrors of an execution 13 years earlier.
Somerset, San Quentin’s attractive young press officer, tells Covington that the restraining chairs are intended to help subdue racial conflict inside San Quentin.
Little does Covington know that Somerset, with whom he soon begins a torrid love affair, is actually an agent for the warden and the governor’s office. She feeds Covington misinformation as he seeks to uncover the truth about Jesus Gonzales' innocence and the mysterious Project Q.
Covington enlists the help of Sarah Morgenstern, an ACLU attorney. An abolitionist of Jewish heritage, Morgenstern represents Rector and Gonzales in their last-ditch appeals. She informs Covington of a missing letter that may exonerate Gonzales, a man of limited mental capacity who was convicted while still a teen.
Keeping a close eye on Covington is Aram Hagopian, a power-driven political strategist. Hagopian's dark side was triggered by childhood abuse. His campaign trickery puts moderate LA radio talk-show host Roger Irongate into the governor’s office, "selling" Irongate as a “different kind of Democrat.” On the same ballot with Irongate, voters approved Proposition 113, which severely limits appeals of death row inmates.
Hagopian—a whiz-kid political operative and consummate media manipulator—hires Erica Valois. She's a naïve, recent PR university graduate, who will work as his assistant. Together, they use sophisticated focus groups, surveys, and Big Data simulations to plumb the depths of public opinion about capital punishment. Results indicate a large percentage of people favor the death penalty in the abstract. Hagopian thus devises a scheme to use the weapon of fake news and "information subsidies" to sell Californians — and all Americans — on a sanitized mass execution.
Meanwhile, Covington and Morgenstern seek proof of Gonzales’ innocence. The reporter flies to Mexico where he discovers evidence of the mysterious letter proving the condemned man was not a killer. Further probing, Covington discovers the existence of Hagopian’s Office of Special Projects; he connects that office with the restraining chairs at San Quentin.
Hagopian and Valois become entwined in a twisted love affair as Hagopian readies a manipulative media plan to take advantage of a mass execution—if the state's high court gives the green light. The plan involves projecting positive support of Irongate’s actions through coached testimonials from victims' families, friendly psychologists, and carefully selected eyewitness reporters. All will cheer mass executions as being necessary and humane. They all will provide the proper “spin” for the messages which Hagopian intends to flood the media.
With evidence of Gonzales' innocence, Covington rushes to San Quentin to share the good news with the condemned man. A guard deposits the frantic reporter in a secure room with no phone. Gazing down through a small window, he watches guards place hooded death-row inmates in the restraining chairs. He's certain that a mass execution is about to take place. Using a smuggled cell phone, he texts Morgenstern. Heeding Covington’s frantic text for help, Morgenstern telephones judges on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in hopes that the court will block the executions.
Can Morgenstern block a mass execution at San Quentin? If not, how would Americans react to a mass execution? Where would all this leave you?