TRAVERSE CITY — It took three decades, but a former Kalkaska prosecutor and a Leelanau County co-author have finally published a novel inspired by one of northern Michigan’s most sensational murder trials of the last half century – that of English-born battered wife Jeanette Smith.
“Possessed,” co-written by Philip Crowley and Kenneth Wylie, hit local bookstores Aug. 27.
Well-written and fast-paced, the 279-page novel provides insight into the Smith case for anyone who remembers it or wants an inside look at the ugly social forces that keep battered women in violent relationships with men who physically, sexually and psychologically abuse them.
The groundbreaking 1979 trial helped toughen state domestic violence laws and enforcement.
Surprisingly, though, the only specific mention of Jeanette Smith’s four-week murder trial and acquittal occurs on the back cover.
That's because “Possessed,” chronicles a fictional domestic murder set in Ionia and a Kalkaska courtroom. The front cover calls the story "a novel inspired by true events."
In other words, many horrific events in the Smith case occurred to Iris Harris, the fictional battered wife in “Possessed.”
Fictional husband Rodney - handsome, hard-drinking, womanizing Ionia real estate salesman, could be charming, fun-loving and well-liked. But he also was a monster Jekyll-Hyde with an cruel need to possess and control his wife with increasing violence, harsh criticism and terrifying imprisonment in her own home — very much like Jeanette Smith’s husband.
Crowley, now a Florida attorney, said he chose the fiction route because it gave him more freedom to write and create strong characters similar to Jeannette Smith’s real-life attorneys Janet Prater and Traverse City’s Dean Robb, who were merged into Iris’ defense attorney, Robin Blaine, a smart, experienced and successful attorney with years of courtroom experience.
Blaine, like Robb and Prater, argued that Iris killed her husband out of self-defense because she believed that he would kill her.
In the 1970s, many domestic violence survivors entered insanity pleas, which kept the focus on the battered spouse instead of the abusive mate. The self- defense plea enabled defense attorneys in the real and fictional case to look closely at the husbands, who had long histories of violent behavior. It also provided disturbing reasons why battered women often dropped charges or returned to their husbands.
The young Kalkaska prosecutor in the case, John Stone, took his prosecutorial duties seriously and realized that two people were on trial – Rodney and Iris.
“I always thought H.I. Smith was one of the best witnesses in the Jeanette Smith trial, even though he was dead,” said Crowley, who served as Kalkaska County prosecutor from 1976 until he resigned in 1986 to enter private practice.
Crowley began writing the novel just months after the trial and finished the original manuscript in the early 1980s, when he began shopping for a publisher and a co-author who could help edit, condense and refine the some 300-page typewritten manuscript.
His goal then was that the book engage readers and also educate them on the devastating cycle of domestic violence and its long-term effects on families, police, courts and communities.
“During the trial and after, a lot of people thought this was a made-for-movie case,” he said in an interview last week. “Back in the 1970s, the issue of domestic violence and how it affected relationships and how it was used in criminal defense trials was pretty new.”
Wylie, meanwhile, originally had been hired Robb to write a book about Smith and the, but it fell through.
“Then one day maybe in 1985, out of the blue, Phil called me,” Wylie said. "The first thing I thought was that it was a raveling good story and that everyone would want to know why a woman like Iris would stay with Rodney Harris.
Both authors said they never expected it would take so long to publish the book.
What possessed them to continue?
The answer is in the 279 pages.