James Scott, the Quincy, Ill., townie serving a life term in a Missouri prison for destroying a levee during the disastrous 1993 Mississippi River flood, is far from a sympathetic character. Author Adam Pitluk dutifully profiles a dim career criminal whose rap sheet includes plenty of petty mischief, theft, bad checks and, along with his younger brothers, an infamous arson that destroyed the 100,000-square-foot Webster Elementary School. Scott was just 12 at the time, but even then he had dreams of grandeur.

The night of the fire, Pitluk writes, Jimmy "lay awake for most of the night, reflecting on the chaos they had caused. Surely the newspapers would cover this story, and probably the television news as well. He was about to be a celebrity in a town that loved to gossip. His only regret at the moment was that he couldn't tell anyone what he had done."

Scott's tendency toward grandiosity probably did him in as an adult. When the July '93 flood hit the area, he had served time in six prisons and was aimlessly lollygagging down the path of least resistance. When he wasn't drinking a case of beer every night at his half-brother Dan's house, Scott was toiling at the local Burger King. Miraculously, he was married.

As volunteers descended on Quincy to sand-bag the stressed levee, Scott decided to help. But it wasn't out of charity. He felt it was a chance to resurrect his tarnished reputation and maybe impress his buddies.

"They'll see me down there and then say to themselves, 'Jimmy's not that bad. Jimmy's a good kid. Jimmy can do good.' "

Scott's idea never worked out. When the levee (along with dozens of others) broke a few days later, flooding 14,000 acres of Missouri farmland, he couldn't wait to talk to a television journalist. He got the usual "What happened? How are you coping?" line of questions, but that one brief interview was incriminating. Quincy detective Neal Baker just happened to be watching. He knew all about Scott's past. Something didn't add up. Scott's clothes were too clean for a day of intense labor in the Midwest humidity. He wasn't wearing the required life jacket and he was alone. More revealing, Scott was decidedly squirrelly.

Pitluk writes, "Neal Baker smelled a rat. He knew Jimmy's mannerisms, like whenever he looked around skittishly, he was lying."

Baker soon launched an investigation that turned up some damning if sketchy evidence that made his conviction -- the first and only under Missouri's Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe law -- a slam dunk that would stick. At a party, Scott was overheard saying that if the levee broke, the fishing in west Quincy would be world-class. His wife would then be stranded in Missouri and he could fool around.

Is this evidence enough to send someone to prison for life? That is the nagging question at the heart of Pitluk's compelling narrative. It's easy to point out that it probably doesn't matter in the long run if inmate No. 1001364 spends the rest of his days behind bars. Chances are he was not going to cure cancer anytime soon. But the question of justice is disturbing and makes "Damned to Eternity" a valuable cautionary tale. When you have a rap sheet as long as Scott's, and you lack the money to hire a dream team to defend you, the legal playing field is far from level.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of "Landscape of the Heart" and "A View From the Inland Northwest." He lives in Monticello, Ill.