Sandy Stern

Created by Scott Turow

“A defense lawyer is like a person feeling along a wall, looking for a light switch in the dark.”
— Sandy Stern, quoted in The Laws of Our Fathers

ALEJANDRO “SANDY” STERN is no private eye. And he’s sure no Perry Mason. But like Erle Stanley Gardner‘s famous creation, Sandy is a criminal defense lawyer who has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and isn’t above rolling up his sleeves and doing a little hands-on investigating of his own.

And while Sandy’s creator is no Gardner,  both he and Gardner were working attorneys/writers. Gardner was a writing machine, effortlessly cranking out books and stories by the hundreds; frothy, pulpy stories and novels jammed full of legal trickery and pyrotechnics, oddball characters and fun, fun, fun. Not so Turow, whose occasional novels are very serious, often issue-oriented stuff, indeed; big, important, somber books, true legal thrillers, offering often scathing and penetrating looks at our legal system, and the people caught up in it. Which is to say, Turow’s books offer different–but no less significant–pleasures.

Most of Turow’s books are set in the fictional Kindle County, Illinois, and although it might be a stretch to call them a proper series, it’s true that some characters and events in one novel are often referenced in other titles, loosely linking them together. A sort of sub-rosa series, if you will, that some have tagged the Kindle County series.

But if you wanted to really make that case, may I suggest presenting SANDY STERN , the “dignified dean of the criminal defense bar in Kindle County,” as your first piece of evidence?

Sandy is the only character, as far as I can tell, to have appeared in every one of Turow’s novels, although his daughter Marta, also a lawyer, also pops up frequently. It may be a passing reference, or he may play a substantial role, but Sandy often seems like the cement holding the books together, a thread running from his first appearance in Turow’s breakout bestseller Presumed Innocent (1987).

And yet Turow has only let Sandy take the lead role in The Burden of Proof (1990), where the principled Sandy, still reeling from his wife’s death, defends a commodities broker, unaware  of the professional and ethical shit storm he’s heading into. After that, he’s mentioned in passing (usually with admiration) or appears briefly in Pleading Guilty (1993), The Laws of Our Fathers (1996), Personal Injuries(1999), Reversible Errors (2002), Limitations (2006), Innocent (2010), Identical (2013) and The Last Trial (2020), whose title suggests it might be Sandy’s last go-round

Through this impressive string of crowd-pleasing legal thrillers, we’ve been subjected to more than our fair share of miscreant members of the bar–they’re corrupt, venal, incompetent and just plain evil, and yet Stern stands in stark contrast. He’s always referred to in the most glowing of terms, as a sort of gold standard to which others aspire, the “ultimate lawyer of choice in this town,” with more than one lawyer naming him a personal hero. No wonder Turow likes him, and keeps him around.

He’s described as “round and bald” and possessing “an enigmatically elegant manner, Stern demonstrated there was an advantage to looking middle-aged when you were younger.”

He’s even shown up in various big and small screen adaptations of Turow’s novels, played by actors as diverse as Raul Julia, Héctor Elizondo and Alfred Molina. But perhaps he’s not long for this world–in The Last Trial, the now eighty-five-year-old Sandy is no longer some spring chicken–his health is failing, and retirement looms, not just for Sandy but for his daughter and partner, Marta. But then an old friend is charged with insider trading, fraud, and murder, and Stern picks up his briefcase and heads off into battle one more time.

For the last time? Fortunately, Turow has hinted there’s another Stern waiting in the wings: Sandy’s granddaughter “Pinky,” a tattooed, nose-pierced slacker who–it turns out–is every bit as principled and fiery as her grandfather.


Bestselling author Scott Turow studied and taught writing at Stanford, and graduated with honors from Amherst and Harvard Law School. He’s served as president of the prestigious Author’s Guild and still practices law part-time, working mostly pro bono. His works of non-fiction include his first book, One L (1977), about his adventures as a law student, and Ultimate Punishment (2003), which received received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights 2004 Book Award. It’s a heartfelt and powerful series of personal musings on the death penalty, based on his experiences as a prosecutor, his work on behalf of death-row inmates, and his participation on Illinois’s Commission on Capital Punishment. He also regularly contributes essays and op-ed pieces to publications such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Playboy and The Atlantic.


  • “(Turow is) by far the best courtroom novelist of our time.”
    — Kevin J. Hamilton (The Seattle Times)



  • PRESUMED INNOCENT Watch it now!
    (1990, Warner Bros.)
    127 minutes
    Based on the novel by Scott Turow
    Screenplay by Frank Pierson and  Alan J. Pakula
    Directed by Sydney Pollack
    Starring Harrison Ford as “RUSTY” SABICH
    and Raul Julia as ALEJANDRO “SANDY” STERN
    Also starring Greta Scacchi, Bonnie Bedelia, Brian Dennehy, Joe Grifasi, Paul Winfield, Tom MardirosianAnna Maria HorsfordSab ShimonoBradley Whitford


  • THE BURDEN OF PROOF Buy the video
    (1991, ABC)
    Two-part mini-series
    184 minutes
    Premiere February 9,  1992
    Based on the novel by Scott Turow
    Adapted by John Gay
    Directed by Mike Robe
    Premiere: February 9, 1992
    Adapted by John Gay
    Directed by Mike Robe
    Starring Héctor Elizondo as SANDY STERN
    Also starring Brian Dennehy, Mel Harris, Adrienne Barbeau, Jeffrey Tambor, Neal McDonough, Stefanie Powers, Victoria Principal
  • INNOCENT Watch it now!
    (2010, TNT)
    Based on the novel by Scott Turow
    Teleplay by Mike Robe
    Directed by Mike Robe
    Starring Bill Pullman as “RUSTY SABICH
    and Alfred Molina as ALEJANDRO “SANDY” STERN
    Also starring Marcia Gay Harden, Tahmoh Penikett, Mariana Klaveno, Richard Schiff, Benita Ha, Catherine Lough Haggquist, Nicole Oliver, Jarod Joseph, Callard Harris, Andrea Stefancikova
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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