This intricately layered legal thriller marks the debut of a sure-handed novelist who uses credibly flawed characters to dramatize the imperfections of the judicial process. Narrator Lucinda (Cinda) Hayes, the young director of a Boulder, Colo., rape crisis center, has just quit her job as a star sex-crimes prosecutor in the DA's office. When her former law school professor, now a justice of the State Supreme Court, appoints her to represent Jason Smiley, a death-row inmate appealing his conviction for the rape and murder of a heroin-addicted girl, Cinda is torn between her opposition to the death penalty and her abhorrence of society's trivializing attitude toward rape. But she accepts the case--and her life starts unraveling. Her best friend, a prosecutor in the DA's office, promptly abandons her without explanation; the justice who asked her to take the case inexplicably tries to bully Cinda away from investigating whether or not Smiley is eligible for a writ of habeas corpus (the novel's title is a rough translation of the Latin legal term); and, because of her commitment to Smiley's case, Cinda loses her job at the rape crisis center. Wesson is at pains to touch all the requisite social bases, giving us interracial lovers, the professional and personal trials of gays and lesbians and other good souls trying to buck a sinister white-bread establishment. Fortunately, her treatment of hot-button issues nearly always strikes one layer deeper than the expected. Strongly plotted and told with style, the novel engages readers' hearts and minds alike and marks yet another notable debut in a genre that has seen its share, and then some. BOMC alternate. (Jan.) FYI: A former federal prosecutor and trial lawyer, Wesson is currently a law professor at the University of Colorado. She is also representing a death-row inmate whose appeal is now before the California Supreme Court.