LM Feature: Steve Epstein | Poyner Spruill
In April of 2017, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Epstein about his transition to family law after 24 years in litigation. When I asked Steve what advice he would offer attorneys who were considering switching practice areas, he answered, “There is probably a reason why you are considering the change. It may be economic. It may be a necessity. Or it may be, like me, you are looking for something different. Something new. Something that truly excites you. Whatever the reason, if you feel that pull, explore it. Like a new relationship, you will quickly know if it was meant to be. If it was, the economics should take care of themselves. If you are truly passionate about what you are doing, the work will come. And you will be more fulfilled.”
It appears Steve took his own advice, as he has taken another leap-this time as an author. Steve's first book, “Murder on Birchleaf Drive” . In his book, he takes an in-depth look at the Michelle Young Murder case. I had a chance to chat with Steve about his upcoming book release.
LM: Can you tell us a little bit about your area of practice and how long you’ve been practicing?
SE: For the first 24 years of my career, I was a civil litigator, litigating all kinds of civil cases in state and federal court, including appeals. My focus tended to be on the defense side, but I also handled plaintiff’s personal injury cases throughout my career. In 2014, following my own, personal interaction with the family law justice system, I felt a calling to transition my practice to helping husbands and wives, and mothers and fathers, with issues related to separation and divorce, child custody and support, alimony, and equitable distribution. My family law practice began in earnest during 2015 and is now the majority of my practice. I enjoy it immensely and find it very fulfilling.
LM: What was it about this case that inspired you to write a book?
SE: I wish I could accurately describe exactly how and why I decided to write this book. But I’m really not sure I have the answer. It was almost as if this story found me and, for some reason, chose me to write it. I have no background or experience in criminal law. I had no role in this case whatsoever. I had never written a book—about anything. Yes, I have always enjoyed reading true crime: Joe McGinnis’s books were probably the first ones that got me hooked, including Fatal Vision and Cruel Doubt. But before embarking on this project, I had never considered writing one. That said, I followed the incessant news coverage of this murder case pretty closely. It was fascinating to me. And it resonated with me because I had many things in common with Michelle Young. I too migrated from Long Island to attend college in the Triangle (me at UNC and her at NCSU). I too married a Southerner and experienced the same sort of culture clash that derailed her marriage. I also had an associate who lived in the same neighborhood as the Youngs. I remember how shaken he was the week following the murder. I found myself watching portions of the trial over WRAL’s live stream (when I should have been working).
The case was in the news again during the summer of 2017, when Judge Paul Ridgeway conducted a hearing on Jason Young’s motion for appropriate relief. In September 2017, I reached out to his former attorney, now Judge Bryan Collins, to determine if anyone had ever written this true crime story. I eventually learned that though WRAL News reporter Amanda Lamb had actually begun this very project, she transitioned to writing novels before she got very far with it. The field was wide open. I decided to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone. Very few people knew what I was doing. For good reason. I was fairly certain I would eventually chicken out and abandon this silly idea that I could write this book. I wanted to minimize my embarrassment when that inevitably occurred. Turns out, however, that I enjoyed writing this story. A lot. It eventually became my mission to complete it. Most of my friends, colleagues, and family members found out only recently what I had been up to all this time.
LM: What research went into compiling the information for the book?
SE: Fortunately, there is still a vast quantity of information about this case available on the internet. Including full video coverage of both trials on the WRAL News website. I watched the majority of both trials on my laptop, in bits and pieces over a long stretch of time. And then I was fortunate enough to obtain both trial transcripts, transcripts of several hearings, numerous exhibits from the trials, and so forth. It was all at my disposal. All I had to do was work my way through the large volume of information, separate the truly important from the not-so-important, and figure out how I wanted to tell this story. I did so essentially without any interviews of the primary players—the family members, friends, and lawyers. Though I made some attempts to interview them, the tragic facts were still too fresh for them to want to relive them. But as it turned out, I had all I needed.
LM: What did you find most challenging about writing this book?
SE: I guess I would say bringing the emotions of the family members, lawyers, and even the trial judge to life through the written word. This was an exceptionally emotional experience for everyone involved. The trial transcripts merely contained words. That was why it was so important for me to watch so much of the video coverage. To help convey to the reader the raw emotion that was involved. Hopefully, I succeeded in doing so.
LM: What new perspective do you hope to bring to the case?
SE: I’m not sure I bring any new perspective to the case. Instead, I tried very hard to remain objective from the first chapter to the very last. I didn’t want readers to believe there was bias behind what I was writing. And there really wasn’t. I had no dog in this fight. Literally. I was merely an innocent bystander watching the events play out and now, through the book, simply trying to tell the story in a way readers can make up their own minds about what really might have happened. And how they might have voted had they been sitting on the jury. If anything, as a lawyer, I felt it important to help explain to lay, readers, why certain things happen in a courtroom the way they do. Hopefully, those clues made this story a bit more understandable to the average reader.
LM: True crime is a very interesting genre. Are you an avid reader of true crime novels and is there a book that you looked to for inspiration while writing your own?
SE: Not really, no. I wrote this story the way I wanted to tell it, rather than trying to emulate how true crime writers like Joe McGinnis or Jerry Bledsoe had written their excellent books.
LM: What stood out the most to you in this case?
SE: What stood out to me the most was the tremendous power of a murder defendant taking the witness stand in his own defense. Though dozens of witnesses ultimately testified, Jason Young’s trial testimony was, in my view, more important than all of the other witnesses put together. In the first trial, it was convincing enough to nearly result in an acquittal. But with the seven months between the two trials prosecutors and law enforcement officers had to fact check every statement Jason had made, his testimony from that first trial (he did not testify in the second) ultimately proved more harmful to him than any other piece of evidence—and better than anything explains why he was convicted the second time around.
LM: Do you plan on publishing more books in the future?
SE: I had no plan to write this book—until I found myself writing it. I suppose if another story finds me the way this one did, and it draws me to my laptop and my fingers start banging away, the answer will be “yes.” But I truly have no idea if that will ever happen. This may well be a one-time phenomenon--my mid-life crisis solved by a book, rather than a fancy sports-car.
LM: Where can readers go to purchase a copy of the book?
SE: The book was released by Black Lyon Publishing on June 1st. It's available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook (voice actors are auditioning to read it as I answer these questions). All major online retailers will have it in stock, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Target. It can also be ordered directly from Black Lyon. We are hopeful that several bookstores will stock it as well as hosting book-signing events. That remains to be seen.