The title stems from what the author would have shouted had he been there the night his brother was killed. But he wasn’t there, so instead he crafts a detailed analysis of what happened and how the man accused of the murder was acquitted.
The author, a lawyer, blends his older brother’s life with his – children of a broken home, grandsons of Jewish immigrants battling ethnic stereotypes and slurs growing up in the Baptist-dominated deep South. David Berg idolized his carefree older brother Alan, a crackerjack salesman who liked to gamble and carouse.
His life ended in 1968 on a remote Texas road with a bullet to his head. The accused killer, Charles Harrelson, a reputed hit man allegedly hired to either collect a gambling debt or rectify a sour deal by the Bergs’ father, went to trial with famed Texas defense attorney Percy Foreman by his side.
And although David Berg spends much of “Run” agonizing over a loveless relationship with his father and extolling a worshiping relationship with his brother, it is the trial that takes center stage in his work. There, he uses his legal skills to assail both the prosecutor and Foreman, the former for shoddy work, the latter for fraud.
The shoddy work he charges mostly involved the prosecutor’s failure to object when the defense elicited normally impermissible hearsay testimony from a witness. The fraud, in Berg’s eyes, was Foreman providing a last-minute alibi for Harrelson from lying witnesses. In legal terms, that’s suborning perjury.
“Hell, if I had been on that jury, I would have acquitted Harrelson, too,” writes Berg. Then he expounds on how the prosecutor should have conducted the case, regaling the reader with what he would have said in his opening remarks (the prosecutor said nothing) and how he would have torn apart Foreman’s defense in his summation.
Berg’s faux prosecution is interesting, and so is his revelation that he was too busy getting his law practice off the ground to attend the trial he recounts in detail.
Perhaps, though, brother Alan Berg’s fate was forewarned by his reckless lifestyle and penchant for gambling. “That boy’s going to get himself killed,” his father said when Alan was dating a black woman in a racially charged Houston where the Ku Klux Klan was still prevalent in the 1950s.
“Run” also takes the reader through the tribulations of the Berg family, a father thrown out of medical school for cheating who seemingly takes out his frustrations on his sons. A vindictive divorcee of a mother whose bad-mouthing of her older son helps acquit his accused killer. Still, somehow, the author managed to graduate from law school and eventually develop a successful practice in Texas. His friendship with another famed Texas attorney, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, plays a major part in his maturity as a lawyer.
And it is his legal ups and downs that also have a role in “Run.” At times, “Run” reads more like a memoir of David Berg than a memoir about a death in his family. Still, Berg seemed to blend it all into an illuminating account of a family often in turmoil, about courtroom maneuverings and about the emotional scars left by the murder of a child and sibling.
Berg waits almost to the end of “Run” to reveal the acquitted Harrelson was the father of film star Woody Harrelson. Harrelson the father did not go unpunished for his crimes. After his acquittal he was convicted of two other murders, the second a Texas judge he was paid $250,000 to kill by a Mexican drug dealer facing trial before the judge. Harrelson the son hired a high-powered, high-priced legal team in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn his father’s conviction for the judge’s murder.
Writes Berg in comparing the feelings of two sons toward their fathers:
“And I am aware – haunted, really – that Woody Harrelson was more comfort to his murderous father as he aged than I was to Dad.”
Lee Coppola is a former prosecutor as well as a former print and TV journalist and dean of journalism at St. Bonaventure University.
Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of a Murder in My Family
By David Berg
354 pages, $26