A Story Too Captivating To Go Untold

By Russell Rawlings
By the time you read this, Steve Epstein may be famous. His first book, “Murder on Birchleaf Drive: The True Story of the Michelle Young Murder Case,” is that good.

The true crime story chronicles the trials, appeals and conviction of the victim’s husband, Jason Young.

Here’s what fellow NCBA member David Rudolf, famous in his own right for his defense of novelist Michael Peterson and resulting Netflix series “The Staircase,” had to say about it: “A compelling and accurate description of a fascinating murder case, from the initial investigation through the twists and turns of two trials, and all of the strategic decisions in between. One of the best true crime books I have read. Very entertaining.”

The murder, which also claimed the couple’s unborn son, occurred in the couple’s Raleigh home on Nov. 3, 2006. On Nov. 30, 2018, following multiple trials and appeals, the N.C. Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Paul Ridgeway’s ruling that Jason Young was not entitled to a third trial.

Thus, as Epstein writes in the book’s final paragraph, “… barring a turn of events of a magnitude far greater than the hung jury or the first Court of Appeals’ decision, Jason Lynn Young will spend the rest of his life in prison.”

From roughly the time spanning Judge Ridgeway’s order on Aug. 29, 2017, to the unanimous decision from the Court of Appeals, Epstein wrote the book. The litigation and family law partner with Poyner Spruill wasn’t involved in the case, hadn’t followed it all that closely, nor can he recall the events leading up to his decision to write the book. He doesn’t recall having any particular yearning to write a book — of any kind.

But he clearly remembers the moment in September 2017 when he decided to do it. It was then that he asked Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins — Jason Young’s public defender at both trials — if he knew whether anyone had written a book about the case. When he learned that no one had, Epstein decided the story was too captivating not to be written. And that if no one else would write it, why not him?

Steve Epstein

Upon answering that question in the affirmative, Epstein set about on a crash course in writing, researching, editing and publishing a book, all of which proved successful.

He enlisted expert advice from Amanda Lamb, an acclaimed reporter with WRAL-TV in Raleigh who covered the trials and is herself an author of several true crime books. Lamb, he added, “didn’t know me from Adam.”

“Amanda Lamb was my role model and my mentor through this,” Epstein continued. “The way this process works is an author needs an agent to knock on the doors of publishers. Amanda had an agent, and she was kind enough to introduce me to her.

“I wrote what is called a query letter to her agent, which within 24 hours was rejected. And part of the rejection was that, ‘you need to learn how to write query letters.’

“Epstein took to the Internet, learning all he could about query letters and agents who were looking for unsolicited true crime manuscripts. He sent query letter after query letter, virtually always by email, sometimes with the first chapter attached and sometimes with two or three chapters attached.

“I did a ton of that,” Epstein said. “I think I submitted to over 50 agents. Probably a third of them never responded, and the rest either responded with a form rejection or in a couple of cases a personal rejection with a couple of helpful hints and always with a ‘don’t give up, just because I’ve rejected it doesn’t mean someone else will.’

“But bottom line, 100 percent of them rejected it. There were a handful of small publishers who were accepting unagented, unsolicited manuscripts. Some of those, I learned the hard way, are vanity publishers, which is really glorified self-publishing, so instead of you making money, they wind up taking your money to see your book in print.”

Epstein ultimately struck gold when he stumbled upon Black Lyon Publishing of Baker City, Oregon. The company had only recently decided to branch out into the area of true crime.

“Somehow I found on the Internet that their guidelines for submission included true crime, and it seemed to be a legitimate publisher,” Epstein said. “I submitted a query letter along with what they wanted from my manuscript — the first three paragraphs.

“And I heard nothing whatsoever from them for about two months.”

Meanwhile, Epstein had enlisted the assistance of Anne Blythe.

“She was the courtroom reporter for The News & Observer for many years,” Epstein said. “I had reached out to her before the first response from Black Lyon to see if she would read my manuscript. She read it quickly and sent me suggestions on the first couple of chapters. I fell in love with her suggestions and decided that I needed that kind of feedback for the entire book.”

Not long after Epstein asked Blythe to critique the entire manuscript over the next two months, he received an email from the publisher. Black Lyon wanted to see the first three chapters of the book.

“That was the only positive feedback I had gotten from this entire process,” Epstein said. “I quickly sent them in, and shortly thereafter they asked to see the complete manuscript. I am not sure that I had even finished it, but even if I had, I was certain it wasn’t quite ready to be seen yet.”

It would be soon. Epstein called Blythe to inform her that their 60-day window had been drastically reduced, and the veteran reporter came through.

“She read and commented on the entire book in 10 days,” Epstein said. “I worked furiously to incorporate her suggestions and then used her suggestions as a way to help massage some of the other writing she didn’t make suggestions on to make it a lot better than it was before.

“I kept Black Lyon at bay while I did all of that and finally submitted a much cleaner, more polished work product to them in January. I think it was four or five days later that I received an email which attached a publishing contract for me to consider. It was only at that point that I knew I would actually be publishing the book.”

With a deal in place, Epstein worked through several rounds of edits and set about securing reviewers such as Rudolf, renowned defense attorney Joe Cheshire, former Justices Barbara Jackson and Robert Edmunds, former Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby and former U.S. Attorney Ripley Rand.

Following release of the book on June 1, Epstein has been heavily engaged in the marketing process, from interviews such as this and book signings of both the formal and impromptu variety.

This, too, has been an education process.

“I am getting constant feedback,” Epstein said, “such as ‘I’ve just finished reading it, I couldn’t put it down.’ It is kind of intoxicating. It’s almost like a drug. It’s hard to hear those things and immediately refocus and get back to my day job.“

My typical feedback as a lawyer is that the court is going to rule for me or against me. Here people are saying ‘this is what I really liked about it,’ or ‘I couldn’t put this part down,’ and that is fun.”

Epstein believes serendipity was involved.

“Black Lyon jumped into true crime exactly when I was trying to get someone to read my manuscript and take a chance on someone who had never published anything before.

“You have to be willing to fail, and I expected to fail. Only 10 to 15 people in the whole word knew I was doing this before I was offered a publishing contract. I didn’t tell people because I was so afraid I was going to fail. I told just enough people to hold me ac-countable if I did stop.

“I was just trying to scratch an itch. I truly never thought this would happen.”