He was framed for murder. Now he needs a miracle. 22 years ago Quincy Miller was sentenced to life without parole. He was accused of killing Keith Russo, a lawyer in a small Florida town. But there were no reliable witnesses and little motive. Just the fact that Russo had botched Quincy's divorce case, that Quincy was black in a largely all-white town and that a blood-splattered torch was found in the boot of Quincy's car. A torch he swore was planted. A torch that was conveniently destroyed in a fire just before his trial. The lack of evidence made no difference to judge or jury. In the eyes of the law Quincy was guilty and, no matter how often he protested his innocence, his punishment was life in prison. Finally, after 22 years, comes Quincy's one and only chance of freedom. An innocence lawyer and minister, Cullen Post, takes on his case. Post has exonerated eight men in the last ten years. He intends to make Quincy the next. But there were powerful and ruthless people behind Russo's murder. They prefer that an innocent man dies in jail rather than one of them. There's one way to guarantee that. They killed one lawyer 22 years ago, and they'll kill another without a second thought.
Download (epub, 374 KB)
Send-to-Kindle or Email
You may be interested in
EPUB, 994 KB
EPUB, 695 KB
EPUB, 874 KB
EPUB, 352 KB
Also By John Grisham
A Time to Kill
The Pelican Brief
The Runaway Jury
The Street Lawyer
A Painted House
The King of Torts
The Last Juror
Playing for Pizza
The Rooster Bar
Theodore Boone: The Abduction
Theodore Boone: The Accused
Theodore Boone: The Activist
Theodore Boone: The Fugitive
Theodore Boone: The Scandal
Theodore Boone: The Accomplice
The Innocent Man
First published in Great Britain in 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Belfry Holdings, Inc 2019
The right of John Grisham to be identified as the Author of the
Work has been asserted by him in accordance with
the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any
means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be
otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that
in which it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance
to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978 1 473 68445 4
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
To James McCloskey
Duke Russell is not guilty of the unspeakable crimes for which he was convicted; nonetheless, he is scheduled to be executed for them in one hour and forty-four minutes. As always during these dreadful nights, the clock seems to tick faster as the final hour approaches. I’ve suffered through two of these countdowns in other states. One went full cycle and my man uttered his final words. The other was waved off in a miracle finish.
Tick away—it’s not going to happen, not tonight anyway. The folks who run Alabama may one day succeed in serving Duke his last meal before sticking a needle in his arm, but not tonight. He’s been on death row for only nine years. The average in this state is fifteen. Twenty is not unusual. There is an appeal bouncing around somewhere in the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, and when it lands on the desk of the right law clerk within the hour this execution will be stayed. Duke will return to the horrors of solitary confinement and live to die another day.
He’s been my client for the past four years. His team includes a mammoth firm in Chicago, which has committed thousands of pro bono hours, and an anti–death penalty group out of Birmingham that is spread pretty thin. Four years ago, when I became convinced he was innocent, I signed on as the point man. Currently I have five cases, all wrongful convictions, at least in my opinion.
I’ve watched one of my clients die. I still believe he was innocent. I just couldn’t prove it in time. One is enough.
For the third time today, I enter Alabama’s death row and stop at the metal detector blocking the front door where two frowning guards are protecting their turf. One holds a clipboard and stares at me as if he’s forgotten my name since my last visit two hours ago.
“Post, Cullen Post,” I say to the dunce. “For Duke Russell.”
He scans his clipboard as if it holds vital information, finds what he wants, and nods to a plastic basket on a short conveyor belt. In it, I place my briefcase and cell phone, same as before.
“Watch and belt?” I ask like a real smart-ass.
“No,” he grunts with an effort. I step through the detector, get cleared, and once again an innocence lawyer manages to properly enter death row without weaponry. I grab my briefcase and cell phone and follow the other guard down a sterile hallway to a wall of bars. He nods, switches click and clang, the bars slide open, and we hike down another hallway, trudging deeper into this miserable building. Around a corner, some men are waiting outside a windowless steel door. Four are in uniform, two in suits. One of the latter is the warden.
He looks gravely at me and steps over. “Got a minute?”
“Not many,” I reply. We move away from the group for a private chat. He’s not a bad guy, just doing his job, which he’s new at and thus he’s never pulled off an execution. He’s also the enemy, and whatever he wants he will not get from me.
We huddle up like pals and he whispers, “What’s it look like?”
I glance around as if to evaluate the situation and say, “Gee, I don’t know. Looks like an execution to me.”
“Come on, Post. Our lawyers are saying it’s a go.”
“Your lawyers are idiots. We’ve already had this conversation.”
“Come on, Post. What are the odds right now?”
“Fifty-fifty,” I say, lying.
This puzzles him and he’s not sure how to respond. “I’d like to see my client,” I say.
“Sure,” he says louder as if frustrated. He can’t be viewed as cooperating with me, so he storms off. The guards step back as one of them opens the door.
Inside the Death Room, Duke is lying on a cot with his eyes closed. For the festivities, the rules allow him a small color television so he can watch whatever he wants. It’s on mute with cable news giddy over wildfires out west. His countdown is not a big story on the national front.
At execution time, every death state has its own silly rituals, all designed to create as much drama as possible. Here, they allow full-contact visits with close family members in a large visitation room. At 10:00 p.m., they move the condemned man to the Death Room, which is next door to the Death Chamber where he’ll be killed. A chaplain and a lawyer are permitted to sit with him, but no one else. His last meal is served around 10:30, and he can order whatever he wants, except for alcohol.
“How you doing?” I ask as he sits up and smiles.
“Never felt better. Any news?”
“Not yet, but I’m still optimistic. We should hear something soon.”
Duke is thirty-eight and white, and before getting arrested for rape and murder his criminal record consisted of two DUIs and a bunch of speeding tickets. No violence whatsoever. He was a party boy and hell-raiser in his younger days, but after nine years in solitary he has settled down considerably. My job is to set him free, which, at the moment, seems like a crazy dream.
I take the remote and change channels to one from Birmingham, but I leave it on mute.
“You seem awfully confident,” he says.
“I can afford to. I’m not getting the needle.”
“You’re a funny man, Post.”
“Relax?” He swings his feet to the floor and smiles again. He does indeed look rather relaxed, given the circumstances. He laughs and says, “Do you remember Lucky Skelton?”
“They finally got him, about five years ago, but not before serving him three last meals. Three times he walked the gangplank before getting the shove. Sausage pizza and a cherry Coke.”
“And what did you order?”
“Steak and fries, with a six-pack of beer.”
“I wouldn’t count on the beer.”
“Are you gonna get me outta here, Post?”
“Not tonight, but I’m working on it.”
“If I get out I’m going straight to a bar and drinking cold beer until I pass out.”
“I’ll go with you. Here’s the Governor.” He appears on-screen and I hit the volume.
He’s standing in front of a bank of microphones with camera lights glaring at him. Dark suit, paisley tie, white shirt, every tinted hair gelled with precision. A walking campaign ad. Sufficiently burdened, he says, “I have thoroughly reviewed Mr. Russell’s case and discussed it at length with my investigators. I’ve also met with the family of Emily Broone, the victim of Mr. Russell’s crimes, and the family is very much opposed to the idea of clemency. After considering all aspects of this case, I have decided to allow his conviction to stand. The court order will remain in place, and the execution will go forward. The people have spoken. Clemency for Mr. Russell is therefore denied.” He announces this with as much drama as he can muster, then bows and slowly backs away from the cameras, his grand performance complete. Elvis has left the building. Three days ago, he found the time to grant me an audience for fifteen minutes, after which he discussed our “private” meeting with his favorite reporters.
If his review had been so thorough, he would know that Duke Russell had nothing to do with the rape and murder of Emily Broone eleven years ago. I hit the mute again and say, “No surprise there.”
“Has he ever granted clemency?” Duke asks.
“Of course not.”
There is a loud knock on the door and it swings open. Two guards enter and one is pushing a cart with the last meal. They leave it and disappear. Duke stares at the steak and fries and a rather slim slice of chocolate cake, and says, “No beer.”
“Enjoy your iced tea.”
He sits on the cot and begins to eat. The food smells delicious and it hits me that I have not eaten in at least twenty-four hours. “Want some fries?” he asks.
“I can’t eat all this. For some reason I don’t have much of an appetite.”
“How was your mom?”
He stuffs in a large chunk of steak and chews slowly. “Not too good, as you might expect. A lot of tears. It was pretty awful.”
The cell phone in my pocket vibrates and I grab it. I look at the caller ID and say, “Here it is.” I smile at Duke and say hello. It’s the law clerk at the Eleventh Circuit, a guy I know pretty well, and he informs me that his boss has just signed an order staying the execution on the grounds that more time is needed to determine whether Duke Russell received a fair trial. I ask him when the stay will be announced and he says immediately.
I look at my client and say, “You got a stay. No needle tonight. How long will it take to finish that steak?”
“Five minutes,” he says with a wide smile as he carves more beef.
“Can you give me ten minutes?” I ask the clerk. “My client would like to finish his last meal.” We go back and forth and finally agree on seven minutes. I thank him, end the call, and punch another number. “Eat fast,” I say. He has suddenly found his appetite and is as happy as a pig at the trough.
The architect of Duke’s wrongful conviction is a small-town prosecutor named Chad Falwright. Right now he’s waiting in the prison’s administration building half a mile away, poised for the proudest moment of his career. He thinks that at 11:30 he’ll be escorted to a prison van, along with the Broone family and the local sheriff, and driven here to death row where they’ll be led to a small room with a large glass window that’s covered with a curtain. Once situated there, Chad thinks, they’ll wait for the moment when Duke is strapped to the gurney with needles in his arms and the curtain will be pulled back in dramatic fashion.
For a prosecutor, there is no greater sense of accomplishment than to witness an execution for which he is responsible.
Chad, though, will be denied the thrill. I punch his number and he answers quickly. “It’s Post,” I say. “Over here on death row with some bad news. The Eleventh Circuit just issued a stay. Looks like you’ll crawl back to Verona with your tail between your legs.”
He stutters and manages to say, “What the hell?”
“You heard me, Chad. Your bogus conviction is unraveling and this is as close as you’ll ever get to Duke’s scalp, which, I must say, is pretty damned close. The Eleventh Circuit has doubts about the trivial notion of a fair trial, so they’re sending it back. It’s over, Chad. Sorry to ruin your big moment.”
“Is this a joke, Post?”
“Oh sure. Nothing but laughs over here on death row. You’ve had fun talking to the reporters all day, now have some fun with this.” To say I loathe this guy would be a tremendous understatement.
I end the call and look at Duke, who’s feasting away. With his mouth full he asks, “Can you call my mother?”
“No. Only lawyers can use cell phones in here, but she’ll know soon enough. Hurry up.” He washes it down with tea and attacks the chocolate cake. I take the remote and turn up the volume. As he scrapes his plate, a breathless reporter appears somewhere on the prison grounds and, stuttering, tells us that a stay has been granted. He looks bewildered and confused, and there is confusion all around him.
Within seconds there is a knock on the door and the warden enters. He sees the television and says, “So I guess you’ve heard?”
“Right, Warden, sorry to ruin the party. Tell your boys to stand down and please call the van for me.”
Duke wipes his mouth with a sleeve, starts laughing and says, “Don’t look so disappointed, Warden.”
“No, actually I’m relieved,” he says, but the truth is obvious. He, too, has spent the day talking to reporters and savoring the spotlight. Suddenly, though, his exciting broken-field run has ended with a fumble at the goal line.
“I’m out of here,” I say as I shake Duke’s hand.
“Thanks Post,” he says.
“I’ll be in touch.” I head for the door and say to the warden, “Please give my regards to the Governor.”
I’m escorted outside the building where the cool air hits hard and feels exhilarating. A guard leads me to an unmarked prison van a few feet away. I get in and he closes the door. “The front gate,” I say to the driver.
As I ride through the sprawl of Holman Correctional Facility, I am hit with fatigue and hunger. And relief. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and absorb the miracle that Duke will live to see another day. I’ve saved his life for now. Securing his freedom will take another miracle.
For reasons known only to the people who run this place, it has been on lockdown for the past five hours, as if angry inmates might organize into a Bastille-like mob and storm death row to rescue Duke. Now the lockdown is subsiding; the excitement is over. The extra manpower brought in to maintain order is withdrawing, and all I want is to get out of here. I’m parked in a small lot near the front gate, where the TV crews are unplugging and going home. I thank the driver, get in my little Ford SUV, and leave in a hurry. Two miles down the highway I stop at a closed country store to make a call.
His name is Mark Carter. White male, age thirty-three, lives in a small rental house in the town of Bayliss, ten miles from Verona. In my files I have photos of his house and truck and current live-in girlfriend. Eleven years ago, Carter raped and murdered Emily Broone, and now all I have to do is prove it.
Using a burner, I call the number of his cell phone, a number I’m not supposed to have. After five rings he says, “Hello.”
“Is this Mark Carter?”
“Who wants to know?”
“You don’t know me, Carter, but I’m calling from the prison. Duke Russell just got a stay, so I’m sorry to inform you that the case is still alive. Are you watching television?”
“Who is this?”
“I’m sure you’re watching the TV, Carter, sitting there on your fat ass with your fat girlfriend hoping and praying that the State finally kills Duke for your crime. You’re a scumbag Carter, willing to watch him die for something you did. What a coward.”
“Say it to my face.”
“Oh, I will Carter, one day in a courtroom. I’ll find the evidence and before long Duke will get out. You’ll take his place. I’m coming your way, Carter.”
I end the call before he can say anything else.
Since gas is slightly cheaper than cheap motels, I spend a lot of time driving lonely roads at dark hours. As always, I tell myself that I will sleep later, as if a long hibernation is waiting just around the corner. The truth is that I nap a lot but rarely sleep and this is unlikely to change. I have saddled myself with the burdens of innocent people rotting away in prison while rapists and murderers roam free.
Duke Russell was convicted in a backwater redneck town where half the jurors struggle to read and all were easily misled by two pompous and bogus experts put on the stand by Chad Falwright. The first was a retired small-town dentist from Wyoming, and how he found his way to Verona, Alabama, is another story. With grave authority, a nice suit, and an impressive vocabulary, he testified that three nicks on the arms of Emily Broone were inflicted by Duke’s teeth. This clown makes a living testifying across the country, always for the prosecution and always for nice fees, and in his twisted mind a rape is not violent enough unless the rapist somehow manages to bite the victim hard enough to leave imprints.
Such an unfounded and ridiculous theory should have been exposed on cross-examination, but Duke’s lawyer was either drunk or napping.
The second expert was from the state crime lab. His area of expertise was, and still is, hair analysis. Seven pubic hairs were found on Emily’s body, and this guy convinced the jury that they came from Duke. They did not. They probably came from Mark Carter but we don’t know that. Yet. The local yokels in charge of the investigation had only a passing interest in Carter as a suspect, though he was the last person seen with Emily the night she disappeared.
Bite mark and hair analysis have been discredited in most advanced jurisdictions. Both belong to that pathetic and ever-shifting field of knowledge derisively known among defense and innocence lawyers as “junk science.” God only knows how many innocent people are serving long sentences because of unqualified experts and their unfounded theories of guilt.
Any defense lawyer worth his salt would have had a fine time with those two experts on cross-examination, but Duke’s lawyer was not worth the $3,000 the State paid him. Indeed, he was worth nothing. He had little criminal experience, reeked of alcohol during the trial, was woefully unprepared, believed his client was guilty, got three DUIs the year after the trial, got disbarred, and eventually died of cirrhosis.
And I’m supposed to pick up the pieces and find justice.
But no one drafted me into this case. As always, I’m a volunteer.
I’m on the interstate headed toward Montgomery, two and a half hours away, and I have time to plot and scheme. If I stopped at a motel I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. I’m too pumped over the last-minute miracle that I just pulled out of thin air. I send a text to the law clerk in Atlanta and say thanks. I send a text to my boss who, hopefully, is asleep by now.
Her name is Vicki Gourley and she works in our little foundation’s office in the old section of Savannah. She founded Guardian Ministries twelve years ago with her own money. Vicki is a devout Christian who considers her work to be derived straight from the Gospels. Jesus said to remember the prisoners. She doesn’t spend much time hanging around jails but she works fifteen hours a day trying to free the innocent. Years ago she was on a jury that convicted a young man of murder and sentenced him to die. Two years later the bad conviction was exposed. The prosecutor had concealed exculpatory evidence and solicited perjured testimony from a jailhouse snitch. The police had planted evidence and lied to the jury. When the real killer was identified by DNA, Vicki sold her flooring business to her nephews, took the money and started Guardian Ministries.
I was her first employee. Now we have one more.
We also have a freelancer named Francois Tatum. He’s a forty-five-year-old black guy who realized as a teenager that life in rural Georgia might be easier if he called himself Frankie and not Francois. Seems his mother had some Haitian blood and gave her kids French names, none of which were common in her remote corner of the English-speaking world.
Frankie was my first exoneree. He was serving life in Georgia for someone else’s murder when I met him. At the time, I was working as an Episcopal priest at a small church in Savannah. We ran a prison ministry and that’s how I met Frankie. He was obsessed with his innocence and talked of nothing else. He was bright and extremely well-read, and had taught himself the law inside and out. After two visits he had me convinced.
During the first phase of my legal career I defended people who could not afford a lawyer. I had hundreds of clients and before long I reached the point where I assumed they were all guilty. I had never stopped for a moment to consider the plight of the wrongfully convicted. Frankie changed all that. I plunged into an investigation of his case and soon realized I might be able to prove his innocence. Then I met Vicki and she offered me a job that paid even less than my pastoral work. Still does.
So Francois Tatum became the first client signed up by Guardian Ministries. After fourteen years in prison he had been completely abandoned by his family. All his friends were gone. The aforementioned mother had dumped him and his siblings at the doorstep of an aunt and was never seen again. He’s never known his father. When I met him in prison I was his first visitor in twelve years. All of this neglect sounds terrible, but there was a silver lining. Once freed and fully exonerated, Frankie got a lot of money from the State of Georgia and the locals who had put him away. And with no family or friends to hound him for cash, he managed to ease into freedom like a ghost with no trail. He keeps a small apartment in Atlanta, a post office box in Chattanooga, and spends most of his time on the road savoring the open spaces. His money is buried in various banks throughout the South so no one can find it. He avoids relationships because he has been scarred by all of them. That, and he’s always fearful that someone will try to get in his pockets.
Frankie trusts me and no one else. When his lawsuits were settled, he offered me a generous fee. I said no. He’d earned every dime of that money surviving prison. When I signed on with Guardian I took a vow of poverty. If my clients can survive on two bucks a day for food, the least I can do is cut every corner.
East of Montgomery, I pull into a truck stop near Tuskegee. It’s still dark, not yet 6:00 a.m., and the sprawling gravel lot is packed with big rigs purring away while their drivers either nap or get breakfast. The café is busy and the thick aroma of bacon and sausage hits me hard as I enter. Someone waves from the rear. Frankie has secured a booth.
Since we are in rural Alabama, we greet each other with a proper handshake, as opposed to a man hug we might otherwise consider. Two men, one black and the other white, hugging in a crowded truck stop might attract a look or two, not that we really care. Frankie has more money than all these guys combined, and he’s still lean and quick from his prison days. He doesn’t start fights. He simply has the air and confidence to discourage them.
“Congrats,” he says. “That was pretty close.”
“Duke had just started his last meal when the call came. Had to eat in a hurry.”
“But you seemed confident.”
“I was faking, the old tough lawyer routine. Inside, my guts were boiling.”
“Speaking of which. I’m sure you’re starving.”
“Yes, I am. I called Carter as I left the prison. Couldn’t help myself.”
He frowns slightly and says, “Okay. I’m sure there was a reason.”
“Not a good one. I was just too pissed not to. The guy was sitting there counting the minutes until Duke got the needle. Can you imagine what that’s like, being the real killer and silently cheering from the sideline as somebody else is executed? We gotta nail him, Frankie.”
A waitress appears and I order eggs and coffee. Frankie wants pancakes and sausage.
He knows as much about my cases as I do. He reads every file, memo, report, and trial transcript. Fun for Frankie is easing into a place like Verona, Alabama, where no one has ever seen him, and digging for information. He’s fearless but he never takes chances because he is not going to get caught. His new life is too good, his freedom especially valuable because he suffered so long without it.
“We have to get Carter’s DNA,” I say. “One way or the other.”
“I know, I know. I’m working on it. You need some rest, boss.”
“Don’t I always? And, as we well know, being the lawyer I can’t obtain his DNA by illegal means.”
“But I can, right?” He smiles and sips his coffee. The waitress delivers mine and fills the cup.
“Maybe. Let’s discuss it later. For the next few weeks, he’ll be spooked because of my call. Good for him. He’ll make a mistake at some point and we’ll be there.”
“Where are you headed now?”
“Savannah. I’ll be there for a couple of days, then head to Florida.”
“Yes, Seabrook. I’ve decided to take the case.”
Frankie’s face never reveals much. His eyes seldom blink, his voice is steady and flat as if he’s measuring every word. Survival in prison required a poker face. Long stretches of solitude were common. “Are you sure?” he asks. It’s obvious he has doubts about Seabrook.
“The guy is innocent, Frankie. And he has no lawyer.”
The platters arrive and we busy ourselves with butter, syrup, and hot sauce. The Seabrook case has been in our office for almost three years as we, the staff, have debated whether or not to get involved. That’s not unusual in our business. Not surprisingly, Guardian is inundated with mail from inmates in fifty states, all claiming to be innocent. The vast majority are not, so we screen and screen and pick and choose with care, and take only those with the strongest claims of innocence. And we still make mistakes.
Frankie says, “That could be a pretty dangerous situation down there.”
“I know. We’ve kicked this around for a long time. Meanwhile he’s counting his days, serving someone else’s time.”
He chews on pancakes and nods slightly, still unconvinced.
I ask, “When have we ever run from a good fight, Frankie?”
“Maybe this is the time to take a pass. You decline cases every day, right? Maybe this is more dangerous than all the others. God knows you have enough potential clients out there.”
“Are you getting soft?”
“No. I just don’t want to see you hurt. No one ever sees me, Cullen. I live and work in the shadows. But your name is on the pleadings. You start digging around in an awful place like Seabrook and you could upset some nasty characters.”
I smile and say, “All the more reason to do it.”
The sun is up when we leave the café. In the parking lot we do a proper man hug and say farewell. I have no idea which direction he is headed, and that’s the beautiful thing about Frankie. He wakes up free every morning, thanks God for his good fortune, gets in his late-model pickup truck with a club cab, and follows the sun.
His freedom invigorates me and keeps me going. If not for Guardian Ministries, he would still be rotting away.
There is no direct route between Opelika, Alabama, and Savannah. I leave the interstate and begin meandering through central Georgia on two-lane roads that get busier with the morning. I’ve been here before. In the past ten years I’ve roamed virtually every highway throughout the Death Belt, from North Carolina to Texas. Once I almost took a case in California, but Vicki nixed it. I don’t like airports and Guardian couldn’t afford to fly me back and forth. So I drive for long stretches of time, with lots of black coffee and books on tape. And I alternate between periods of deep, quiet thought and frantic bouts with the phone.
In a small town, I pass the county courthouse and watch three young lawyers in their best suits hustle into the building, no doubt headed for an important matter. That could have been me, not too long ago.
I was thirty years old when I quit the law for the first time, and for a good reason.
That morning began with the sickening news that two sixteen-year-old white kids had been found dead with their throats cut. Both had been sexually mutilated. Evidently they were parked in a remote section of the county when they were jumped by a group of black teenagers who took their car. Hours later the car was found. Someone inside the gang was talking. Arrests were being made. Details were being reported.
Such was the standard fare for early morning news in Memphis. Last night’s violence was reported to a jaded audience who lived with the great question: “How much more can we take?” However, even for Memphis this news was shocking.
Brooke and I watched it in bed with our first cups of coffee, as usual. After the first report, I mumbled, “This could be awful.”
“It is awful,” she corrected me.
“You know what I mean.”
“Will you get one of them?”
“Start praying now,” I said. By the time I stepped into the shower I was feeling ill and scheming of ways to avoid the office. I had no appetite and skipped breakfast. On the way out, the phone rang. My supervisor told me to hurry. I kissed Brooke goodbye and said, “Wish me luck. This will be a long day.”
The office of the public defender is downtown in the Criminal Justice Complex. When I walked in at eight o’clock the place was like a morgue. Everyone seemed to be cowering in their offices and trying to avoid eye contact. Minutes later, our supervisor called us into a conference room. There were six of us in Major Crimes, and since we worked in Memphis we had plenty of clients. At thirty, I was the youngest, and as I looked around the room I knew my number was about to be called.
Our boss said, “There appear to be five of them, all now locked up. Ages fifteen to seventeen. Two agreed to talk. Seems they found the kids in the back seat of the boy’s car, having a go at it. Four of the five defendants are aspiring gang members, Ravens, and to be properly inducted one has to rape a white girl. One with blond hair. Crissy Spangler was a blonde. The leader, one Lamar Robinson, gave the orders. The boy, Will Foster, was tied to a tree and made to watch as they took turns with Crissy. When he wouldn’t shut up, they mutilated him and cut his throat. Photos are on the way over from Memphis Police.”
The six of us stood in muted horror as reality set in. I glanced at a window with a latch. Jumping headfirst onto the parking lot seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
He continued, “They took Will’s car, ran a red light on South Third, smart boys. The police stopped three of them, noticed blood, and brought them in. Two started talking and gave the details. They claimed the others did it but their confessions implicate all five. Autopsies are underway this morning. Needless to say, we are involved up to our ears. Initial appearances are set for two this afternoon and it is going to be a circus. Reporters are everywhere and details are leaking out like crazy.”
I inched closer to the window. I heard him say, “Post, you’ve got a fifteen-year-old named Terrence Lattimore. As far as we know, he hasn’t said anything.”
When the other assignments were made, the supervisor said, “Get to the jail right now and meet your new clients. Inform the police that they are not to be interrogated outside your presence. These are gang members and they will probably not cooperate, not this early anyway.”
When he finished, he looked at each of us, the unlucky ones, and said, “I’m sorry.”
An hour later I was walking through the entrance to the city jail when someone, probably a reporter, yelled, “Do you represent one of these murderers?”
I pretended to ignore her and kept walking.
When I entered the small holding room, Terrence Lattimore was cuffed at the wrists and ankles and chained to a metal chair. When we were alone I explained that I had been assigned his case and needed to ask some questions, just basic stuff for starters. I got nothing but a smirk and a glare. He may have been only fifteen years old, but he was a tough kid who had seen it all. Battle-hardened in the ways of gangs, drugs, and violence. He hated me and everyone else with white skin. He said he didn’t have an address and told me to stay away from his family. His rap sheet included two school expulsions and four charges in juvenile court, all involving violence.
By noon I was ready to resign and go look for another job. When I joined the PD’s office three years earlier I did so only when I couldn’t find work with a firm. And after three years of toiling in the gutter of our criminal justice system, I was asking myself serious questions about why I had chosen law school. I really couldn’t remember. My career brought me into daily contact with people I wouldn’t get near outside of court.
Lunch was out of the question because no one could possibly choke down food. The five of us who had been chosen met with the supervisor and looked at the crime scene photos and autopsy reports. Any food in my stomach would have gone to the floor.
What the hell was I doing with my life? As a criminal defense lawyer, I was already sick of the question “How can you represent a person you know to be guilty?” I had always offered the standard law school response of, “Well, everyone has the right to a proper defense. The Constitution says so.”
But I no longer believed that. The truth is that there are some crimes that are so heinous and cruel that the killer should either be (1) put to death, if one believes in the death penalty, or (2) put away for life, if one does not believe in the death penalty. As I left that awful meeting, I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore.
I went to my cubbyhole of an office, which at least had a door that could be locked. From my window I looked at the pavement below and envisioned myself jumping and floating safely away to some exotic beach where life was splendid and all I worried about was the next cold drink. Oddly, Brooke wasn’t with me in the dream. My desk phone snapped me out of it.
I had been hallucinating, not dreaming. Everything was suddenly in slow motion and I had trouble saying, “Hello.” The voice identified itself as a reporter and she just had a few questions about the murders. As if I’m going to discuss the case with her. I hung up. An hour passed and I don’t remember doing anything. I was numb and sick and just wanted to run from the building. I remembered to call Brooke and pass along the terrible news that I had one of the five.
The first appearance at 2:00 p.m. was moved from a small courtroom to a larger one, and it still wasn’t big enough. Because of its crime rate, Memphis had a lot of cops, and most of them were in the building that afternoon. They blocked the doors and searched every reporter and spectator. In the courtroom, they stood two abreast down the center aisle and lined the three walls.
Will Foster’s cousin was a Memphis city fireman. He arrived with a group of colleagues and they seemed ready to attack at any moment. A few blacks drifted to a rear corner of the other side, as far away from the victims’ families as possible. Reporters were everywhere, but without cameras. Lawyers who had no business being there milled about, curious.
I entered the jury room through a service entrance and eased through a door for a look at the throng. The place was packed. The tension was thick, palpable.
The judge took the bench and called for order. The five defendants were brought in, all in matching orange jumpsuits, all chained together. The spectators gawked at this first sighting. The artists scribbled away. More cops formed a line behind the five as a shield. The defendants stood before the bench, all studying their feet. A loud, strong voice from the rear yelled, “Turn ’em loose, dammit! Turn ’em loose!” Cops scrambled to silence him.
A woman shrieked, in tears.
I moved to a position behind Terrence Lattimore, along with my four colleagues. As I did so, I glanced at the people sitting together on the two front rows. They were obviously close to the victims, and they looked at me with sheer hatred.
Hated by my client. Hated by his victims. What the hell was I doing in that courtroom?
The judge rapped his gavel and said, “I am going to maintain order in this courtroom. This is a first appearance, the purpose of which is to determine the identity of the defendants and make sure they are represented by counsel. Nothing more. Now, who is Mr. Lamar Robinson?”
Robinson looked up and mumbled something.
“How old are you, Mr. Robinson?”
“Ms. Julie Showalter from the office of the public defender has been appointed to represent you. Have you met with her?”
My colleague Julie took a step closer and stood between Robinson and the next one. Since the defendants were chained together, the lawyers could only get so close. The cuffs and chains were always removed in court, and the fact that they were not in this case said a lot about the mood of the judge.
Robinson glanced at Julie at his right shoulder and shrugged.
“Do you want her to represent you, Mr. Robinson?”
“Can I have a black lawyer?” he asked.
“You can hire anybody you want. Do you have money for a private lawyer?”
“Okay, we’ll discuss it later. Next is Mr. Terrence Lattimore.” Terrence looked at the judge as if he would like to slit his throat too.
“How old are you, Mr. Lattimore?”
“Do you have money for a private lawyer?”
He shook his head, no.
“Do you want Mr. Cullen Post of the PD’s office to represent you?”
He shrugged as if he didn’t care.
The judge looked at me and asked, “Mr. Post, have you met with your client?”
Mr. Post couldn’t answer. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I took a step back and kept staring up at the bench where His Honor looked at me blankly. “Mr. Post?”
The courtroom was still and silent, but my ears were ringing with a shrill piercing sound that made no sense. My knees were rubbery, my breathing labored. I took another step back, then turned around and wedged myself through the wall of cops. I made it to the bar, opened the swinging gate at my knees, and headed down the center aisle. I brushed by cop after cop and none of them tried to stop me. His Honor said something like, “Mr. Post, where are you going?” Mr. Post had no idea.
I made it through the main door, left the courtroom behind, and went straight to the men’s room where I locked myself in a stall and vomited. I retched and gagged until there was nothing left, then I walked to a sink and splashed water in my face. I was vaguely aware that I was on an escalator, but I had no sense of time, space, sound, or movement. I do not remember leaving the building.
I was in my car, driving east on Poplar Avenue, away from downtown. Without intending to, I ran a red light and narrowly avoided what would have been a nasty collision. I heard angry horns behind me. At some point I realized that I had left my briefcase in the courtroom, and this made me smile. I would never see it again.
My mother’s parents lived on a small farm ten miles west of Dyersburg, Tennessee, my hometown. I arrived there at some point that afternoon. I had lost complete track of time and do not remember making the decision to go home. My grandparents were surprised to see me, they later said, but soon realized I needed help. They quizzed me, but all questions were met with a blank, hollow stare. They put me to bed and called Brooke.
Late that night, the medics loaded me into an ambulance. With Brooke at my side, we rode three hours to a psychiatric hospital near Nashville. There were no available beds in Memphis, and I didn’t want to go back there anyway. In the following days I started therapy and drugs and long sessions with shrinks and slowly began to come to grips with my crack-up. After a month, we were notified that the insurance company was pulling the plug. It was time to leave and I was ready to get out of the place.
I refused to return to our apartment in Memphis, so I lived with my grandparents. It was during this time that Brooke and I decided to call it quits. About halfway through our three-year marriage, both of us realized that we could not spend the rest of our lives together, and that trying to do so would only lead to a lot of misery. This was not discussed at the time, and we rarely fought and quarreled. Somehow, during those dark days on the farm, we found the courage to talk honestly. We still loved each other, but we were already growing apart. At first we agreed on a one-year trial separation, but even that was abandoned. I have never blamed her for leaving me because of my nervous breakdown. I wanted out, as did she. We parted with broken hearts, but vowed to remain friends, or at least try to. That didn’t work either.
As Brooke was leaving my life, God was knocking on the door. He came in the person of Father Bennie Drake, the Episcopal priest of my home church in Dyersburg. Bennie was about forty, cool and hip with a salty tongue. He wore faded jeans most of the time, always with his collar and black jacket, and he quickly became the bright spot in my recovery. His weekly visits soon became almost daily, and I lived for our long conversations on the front porch. I trusted him immediately and confessed that I had no desire to return to the law. I was only thirty and I wanted a new career helping others. I did not want to spend the rest of my life suing people or defending the guilty or working in a pressure-packed law firm. The closer I got to Bennie, the more I wanted to be like him. He saw something in me and suggested I at least think about the ministry. We shared long prayers and even longer conversations, and I gradually began to feel God’s call.
Eight months after my last court appearance, I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and entered the seminary where I spent the next three years studying diligently. To support myself, I worked twenty hours a week as a research assistant in a mammoth D.C. law firm. I hated the work but managed to mask my contempt for it. I was reminded weekly of why I had left the profession.
I was ordained at the age of thirty-five and landed a position of associate priest at the Peace Episcopal Church on Drayton Street in Savannah’s historic district. The vicar was a wonderful man named Luther Hodges, and for years he had a prison ministry. His uncle had died behind bars and he was determined to help those who were forgotten. Three months after moving to Savannah I met Mr. Francois Tatum, a truly forgotten soul.
Walking Frankie out of prison two years later was the greatest thrill of my life. I found my calling. Through divine intervention I had met Vicki Gourley, a woman with a mission of her own.
Guardian Ministries is housed in a small corner of an old warehouse on Broad Street in Savannah. The rest of the huge building is used by the flooring company Vicki sold years ago. She still owns the warehouse and leases it to her nephews, who run the business. Most of her rental income is absorbed by Guardian.
It’s almost noon when I park and walk into our offices. I’m not expecting a hero’s welcome and I certainly don’t get one. There is no receptionist and no reception area, no pleasant place to greet our clients. They’re all in prison. We don’t use secretaries because we can’t afford them. We do our own typing, filing, scheduling, phone answering, coffee making, and trash removing.
For lunch most days Vicki has a quick meal with her mother at a nursing home down the street. Her pristine office is empty. I glance at her desk, not a single sheet of paper is out of order. Behind it, on a credenza, is a color photo of Vicki and Boyd, her deceased husband. He built the business, and when he died young she took over and ran it like a tyrant until the judicial system pissed her off and she founded Guardian.
Across the hall is the office of Mazy Ruffin, our director of litigation and the outfit’s brain trust. She too is away from her desk, probably hauling kids here and there. She has four of them and they can usually be found underfoot somewhere at Guardian in the afternoons. Once the day care starts, Vicki quietly closes her door. So do I, if I’m at the office, which is rare. When we hired Mazy four years ago, she had two nonnegotiable conditions. The first was permission to keep her kids in her office when necessary. She couldn’t afford much babysitting. The second was her salary. She needed $65,000 a year to survive, not a penny less. Combined, Vicki and I were not at that level, but then we’re not raising children, nor do we worry about our salaries. We agreed to both requests, and Mazy is still the highest-paid member of the team.
And she’s a bargain. She grew up in the tough projects of south Atlanta. At times she was homeless, though she doesn’t say much about those days. Because of her brains, a high school teacher took notice and showed some love. She blitzed through Morehouse College and Emory Law School with full rides and near perfect grades. She turned down the big firms and chose instead to work for her people at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. That career flamed out when her marriage unraveled. A friend of mine mentioned her when we were looking for another lawyer.
The downstairs is the domain of these two alpha females. When I’m here I spend my time on the second floor, where I hole up in a cluttered room I call my office. Across the hall is the conference room, though there aren’t many conferences at Guardian. Occasionally we’ll use it for depositions or meetings with an exoneree and his family.
I step inside the conference room and turn on the lights. In the center is a long, oval-shaped dining table I bought at a flea market for $100. Around it is a collection of ten mismatched chairs that we’ve added over the years. What the room lacks in style and taste it more than makes up for in character. On one wall, our Wall of Fame, is a row of eight enlarged and framed color portraits of our exonerees, beginning with Frankie. Their smiling faces are the heart and soul of our operation. They inspire us to keep plugging along, fighting the system, fighting for freedom and justice.
Only eight. With thousands more waiting. Our work will never end, and while this reality might seem discouraging it is also highly motivational.
On another wall there are five smaller photos of our current clients, all in prison garb. Duke Russell in Alabama. Shasta Briley in North Carolina. Billy Rayburn in Tennessee. Curtis Wallace in Mississippi. Little Jimmy Flagler in Georgia. Three blacks, two whites, one female. Skin color and gender mean nothing in our work. Around the room there is a hodgepodge collection of framed newspaper photos capturing those glorious moments when we walked our innocent clients out of prison. I’m in most of them, along with other lawyers who helped. Mazy and Vicki are in a few. The smiles are utterly contagious.
I climb the stairs again to my penthouse. I live rent-free in a three-room apartment on the top floor. I won’t describe the furnishings. It’s fair to say that the two women in my life, Vicki and Mazy, won’t go near the place. I average ten nights a month here and the neglect is evident. The truth is that my apartment would be even messier if I were a full-time resident.
I shower in my cramped bathroom, then fall across my bed.
After two hours in a coma, I am awakened by noises downstairs. I get dressed and stumble forth. Mazy greets me with an enormous smile and a bear hug. “Congratulations,” she says over and over.
“It was close, girl, damned close. Duke was eating his steak when we got the call.”
“Did he finish it?”
Daniel, her four-year-old, runs over for a hug. He has no idea where I was last night or what I was doing, but he’s always ready for a hug. Vicki hears voices and charges over. More hugs, more congratulations.
When we lost Albert Hoover in North Carolina we sat in Vicki’s office and had a good cry. This is far better.
“I’ll make some coffee,” Vicki says.
Her office is slightly larger, and not cluttered with toys and folding tables stacked with games and coloring books, so we retire there for the debriefing. Since I was on the phone with both of them throughout last night’s countdown, they know most of the details. I replay my meeting with Frankie, and we discuss the next step in Duke’s case. Suddenly we have no deadlines there, no execution date, no dreaded countdown on the horizon, and the pressure is off. Death cases drag on for years at a glacial pace until there is an appointment with the needle. Then things get frantic, we work around the clock, and when a stay is issued we know that months and years will pass before the next scare. We never relax, though, because our clients are innocent and struggling to survive the nightmare of prison.
We discuss the other four cases, none of which are facing a serious deadline.
I broach our most unpleasant issue when I ask Vicki, “What about the budget?”
She smiles as always and says, “Oh, we’re broke.”
Mazy says, “I need to make a phone call.” She stands, pecks me on the forehead and says, “Nice work, Post.”
The budget is something she prefers to avoid, and Vicki and I don’t burden her with it. She steps out and returns to her office.
Vicki says, “We got the check from the Cayhill Foundation, fifty grand, so we can pay the bills for a few months.” It takes about a half a million dollars a year to fund our operations and we get this by soliciting and begging small nonprofits and a few individuals. If I had the stomach for fund-raising I would spend half my days on the phone, and writing letters, and making speeches. There is a direct correlation between the amount of money we can spend and the number of innocent people we can exonerate, but I simply don’t have the time or desire to beg. Vicki and I decided long ago that we could not handle the headaches of a large staff and constant pressure to raise money. We prefer a small, lean operation, and lean we are.
A successful exoneration can take many years and consume at least $200,000 in cash. When we need the extra money, we always find it.
“We’re okay,” she says, as always. “I’m working on grants and hounding a few donors. We’ll survive. We always do.”
“I’ll make some calls tomorrow,” I say. As distasteful as it is, I force myself to spend a few hours each week cold-calling sympathetic lawyers and asking for money. I also have a small network of churches I hit up for checks. We’re not really a ministry as such, but calling ourselves one does not hurt our efforts.
Vicki says, “I assume you’re going to Seabrook.”
“I am. I’ve made my decision. We’ve kicked it around for three years and I’m sort of tired of the discussion. We’re convinced he’s innocent. He’s been in prison for twenty-two years and has no lawyer. No one is working his case and I say we go in.”
“Mazy and I are on board.”
“Thanks.” The truth is that I make the final decision about whether to take a case or pass. We evaluate a case for a long time and know the facts as intimately as possible, and if one of the three becomes adamantly opposed to our representation, then we back off. Seabrook has tormented us for a long time, primarily because we’re certain our next client was framed.
Vicki says, “I’m roasting Cornish hens tonight.”
“Bless you. I was waiting on an invitation.” She lives alone and loves to cook, and when I’m in town we usually gather at her cozy little bungalow four blocks away and partake of a long meal. She worries about my health and eating habits. Mazy worries about my love life, which is nonexistent and therefore doesn’t bother me at all.
The town of Seabrook is in the rural backwaters of north Florida, far away from the sprawling developments and retirement villages. Tampa is two hours to the south, Gainesville an hour to the east. Though the Gulf is only forty-five minutes away, on a two-lane road, the coastline there has never attracted the attention of the state’s manic developers. With 11,000 people, Seabrook is the seat of Ruiz County and the center for most of the commercial activity in a neglected area. The population drain has been stymied somewhat by a few retirees attracted to cheap living in mobile home parks. Main Street hangs on, with few empty buildings, and there are even some large discount houses on the edge of town. The handsome, Spanish-style courthouse is well preserved and busy, and two dozen or so lawyers tend to the mundane legal business of the county.
Twenty-two years ago, one of them was found murdered in his office, and for a few months Seabrook made the only headlines in its history. His name was Keith Russo, age thirty-seven at the time of his death. His body was found on the floor behind his desk with blood everywhere. He had been shot twice in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun, and there wasn’t much left of his face. The crime scene photos were grisly, even sickening, at least for some of the jurors. He was alone in his office working late that fateful December evening. Shortly before he died, the electricity to his office was cut off.
Keith had practiced law in Seabrook for eleven years with his partner and wife, Diana Russo. They had no children. In the early years of their firm, they had worked hard as general practitioners, but both wanted to step up their game and escape the dreariness of writing wills and deeds and filing no-fault divorces. They aspired to be trial lawyers and tap into the state’s lucrative tort system. At that level, though, competition proved fierce and they struggled to land the big cases.
Diana was at the hair salon when her husband was murdered. She found his body three hours later when he didn’t come home and wouldn’t answer the phone. After his funeral, she became reclusive and mourned for months. She closed the office, sold the building, and eventually sold their home and returned to Sarasota, where she was from. She collected $2 million in life insurance and inherited Keith’s interest in their joint assets. The life insurance policy was discussed by investigators but not pursued. Since the early days of their marriage the couple had believed strongly in life insurance protection. There was an identical policy on her life.
Initially there were no suspects, until Diana suggested the name of one Quincy Miller, a former client of the firm, and a very disgruntled one at that. Four years before the murder, Keith had handled a divorce for Quincy, and the client was less than satisfied with the result. The judge hit him for more alimony and child support than he could possibly afford, and it wrecked his life. When he was unable to pay more attorney’s fees for an appeal, Keith dropped the matter, terminated his representation, and the deadline for the appeal expired. Quincy earned a good salary as a truck driver for a regional company but lost his job when his ex-wife garnished his paychecks for delinquent obligations. Unable to pay, he filed for bankruptcy and eventually fled the area. He was caught, returned to Seabrook, thrown in jail for nonpayment and served three months before the judge turned him loose. He fled again and was arrested for selling drugs in Tampa. He served a year before being paroled.
Not surprisingly, he blamed all of his problems on Keith Russo. Most of the town’s lawyers quietly agreed that Keith could have been more assertive in his representation. Keith hated divorce work and considered it demeaning for an aspiring big-time trial lawyer. According to Diana, Quincy stopped by the office on at least two occasions, threatened the staff, and demanded to see his ex-lawyer. There was no record of anyone calling the police. She also claimed that Quincy called their home phone with threats, but they were never concerned enough to change numbers.
A murder weapon was never found. Quincy swore he had never owned a shotgun, but his ex-wife told the police that she believed he had one. The break in the case came two weeks after the murder when the police confiscated his car with a search warrant. In the trunk they found a flashlight with tiny specks of a substance splattered across the lens. They assumed it was blood. Quincy maintained that he had never seen the flashlight, but his ex-wife said she believed it belonged to him.
A theory was quickly adopted and the murder was solved. The police believed that Quincy carefully planned the attack and waited until Keith was working late and alone. He cut off the electricity at a meter box behind the office, entered through the unlocked rear door, and, since he had been in the office several times, knew exactly where to find Keith. Using a flashlight in the darkness, he burst into Keith’s office, fired two shotgun blasts, and fled the scene. Given the amount of blood at the scene, it seemed reasonable that many items in the office got splattered.
Two blocks away on a side street, a drug addict named Carrie Holland saw a black man running away from the area. He appeared to be carrying a stick or something, she wasn’t sure. Quincy is black. Seabrook is 80 percent white, 10 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic. Carrie could not identify Quincy but swore he was of the same height and build as the man she saw.
Quincy’s court-appointed lawyer succeeded in getting a change of venue, and the trial took place in the county next door. It was 83 percent white. There was one black person on the jury.
The case revolved around the flashlight found in Quincy’s trunk. A bloodstain-analysis expert from Denver testified that given the location of the body, and the probable line of fire from the shotgun, and the height of both the deceased and the assailant, and the sheer volume of blood found on the walls, floor, bookshelves, and credenza, he was certain that the flashlight was present at the shooting. The mysterious specks on its lens were described as “back spatter.” They were too small to be tested, so there was no match with Keith’s blood. Undaunted by this, the expert told the jury that the specks were definitely blood. Remarkably, the expert admitted that he had never actually seen the flashlight but had examined it “thoroughly” by studying a series of color photos taken by the investigators. The flashlight disappeared months before the trial.
Diana testified with certainty that her husband knew his ex-client well and was terrified of him. Many times he confided to her that he was afraid of Quincy, and even carried a handgun at times.
Carrie Holland testified and did everything but point a finger at Quincy. She denied she was being coerced into testifying for the prosecution, and denied she had been offered leniency on a pending drug charge.
While Quincy was awaiting trial, he was moved to a regional jail in Gainesville. No explanation was given for the transfer. He spent a week there and was returned to Seabrook. However, while away, he was put in a cell with a jailhouse snitch named Zeke Huffey who testified that Quincy had boasted of the killing and was quite proud of himself. Huffey knew the details of the murder, including the number of shots fired and the gauge of the shotgun. To spice up his testimony, he told the jury that Quincy laughed about driving to the coast the following day and tossing the shotgun into the Gulf. On cross-examination, Huffey denied cutting a deal with the prosecutor for leniency.
The investigator from the state police testified that none of Quincy’s fingerprints were found at the scene, or on the meter box behind the office, and was allowed to speculate that “the assailant was probably wearing gloves.”
A pathologist testified and presented large color photographs of the crime scene. The defense lawyer objected strenuously, claiming the photos were highly prejudicial, even inflammatory, but the judge allowed them anyway. Several of the jurors appeared to be shocked by the vivid images of Keith covered in blood with most of his face missing. The cause of death was obvious.
Because of his criminal record and other legal problems, Quincy did not take the stand. His lawyer was a rookie named Tyler Townsend, court-appointed and not yet thirty years old. The fact that he had never defended a capital murder client would have normally raised issues on appeal, but not in Quincy’s case. His defense was tenacious. Townsend attacked every witness for the State and every piece of evidence. He challenged the experts and their conclusions, pointed out the flaws in their theories, and mocked the sheriff’s department for losing the flashlight, the most important piece of evidence. He waved its color photos in front of the jury and questioned whether the specks on the lens were actually blood. He sneered at Carrie Holland and Zeke Huffey and called them liars. He suggested to Diana that she was not the innocent widow and made her cry on cross-examination, which didn’t require much effort. He was repeatedly cautioned by the judge but remained unfazed. So zealous was his defense that the jurors often could not mask their contempt for him. The trial became a brawl as young Tyler rebuked the prosecutors, disrespected the judge, and harangued the State’s witnesses.
The defense offered an alibi. According to a woman named Valerie Cooper, Quincy was with her at the time of the killing. She was a single mother who lived in Hernando, an hour south of Seabrook. She had met Quincy in a bar and their romance had been on and off. She claimed to be certain that Quincy had been with her, but on the stand she was intimidated and not credible. When the prosecutor brought up a drug conviction, she broke down.
In his passionate closing argument, Tyler Townsend used two props—a 12-gauge shotgun and a flashlight—and argued that it would have been almost impossible to fire two shots at the target while holding both. The jurors, mostly from rural areas, seemed to understand this, but it made little difference. Tyler was in tears as he begged for a not-guilty verdict.
He didn’t get one. The jury wasted little time convicting Quincy of the murder. His punishment proved more complicated, as the jury got hung. Finally, after two days of intense and heated debate, the lone black held out for life with no parole. The eleven whites were disappointed that they could not return a death verdict.
Quincy’s appeals ran their course and his conviction was unanimously affirmed at every level. For twenty-two years he has maintained his innocence, but no one is listening.
Young Tyler Townsend was devastated by the loss and never recovered. The town of Seabrook turned against him and his fledgling law practice dried up. Not long after the appeals were extinguished he finally gave up and moved to Jacksonville, where he worked as a part-time public defender before pursuing another career.
Frankie found him in Fort Lauderdale, where he seems to be living a pleasant life with a family and a good business developing shopping centers with his father-in-law. Approaching him will require care and forethought, something we do well.
Diana Russo never returned to Seabrook, and, as far as we know, never remarried. But we are not certain. Working with a private security group that we hire occasionally, Vicki found her a year ago living on the island of Martinique. For another chunk of money, our spies can dig deeper and give us more. For the moment, though, we can’t justify the money. Trying to have a chat with her would be a waste of time.
Exonerating Quincy Miller is our goal. Finding the real killer is not a priority. To succeed at the former, we must unravel the State’s case. Solving the crime is someone else’s business, and after twenty-two years you can bet no one is working on it. This is not a cold case. The State of Florida got a conviction. The truth is irrelevant.
Quincy has spent the last eight years at a prison called Garvin Correctional Institute near the rural town of Peckham, about an hour north of the sprawl of Orlando. My first visit here was four months ago when I came as a priest doing prison ministry work. I wore my old black shirt and collar then. It’s amazing how much more respect I get as a priest than as a lawyer, at least around prisons.
I’m wearing the collar again today, just to screw with them. Vicki has done the paperwork and I’m officially on record as Quincy’s lawyer. The guard at the front desk studies the paperwork, studies my collar, has questions but is too confused to ask them. I surrender my cell phone, get cleared through the scanners, and then wait an hour in a dingy holding room where I flip through tabloid magazines and wonder once again what the world is coming to. They finally fetch me and I follow a guard out of the first building and along a sidewalk lined with fencing and razor wire. I’ve seen the inside of so many prisons I’m no longer shocked by their harshness. In so many awful ways they’re all the same: squat concrete buildings with no windows, rec yards filled with men in matching uniforms killing time, scowling guards reeking of contempt because I’m a trespasser there to help the lowlifes. We enter another building and walk into a long room with a row of cubicles. The guard opens a door to one and I step inside.
Quincy is already there, on the other side of a thick plastic window. The door closes and we are alone. To make the visits as difficult as possible, there are no openings in the partition and we are forced to talk with bulky phones that date back at least three decades. If I want to pass a document to my client, I have to call a guard who first examines it and then walks it around to the other side.
Quincy smiles and taps his fist on the window. I return the salute and we have officially shaken hands. He’s fifty-one now, and except for the graying hair he could pass for forty. He lifts weights every day, does karate, tries to avoid the slop they serve him, stays lean and meditates. He takes his phone and says, “First, Mr. Post, I want to thank you for taking my case.” His eyes water immediately and he’s overcome.
For at least the last fifteen years Quincy has not had a lawyer or any type of legal representative, not a soul out there in the free world working to prove his innocence. I know from my vast experience that this is a burden that is almost unbearable. A corrupt system locked him away, and there’s no one fighting the system. His burdens are heavy enough as an innocent man, but with no voice he feels truly helpless.
I say, “You are indeed welcome. I’m honored to be here. Most of my clients just call me Post, so let’s drop the ‘mister’ stuff.”
Another smile. “Deal. And I’m just Quincy.”
“The paperwork has been filed so I’m officially on board. Any questions about that?”
“Yeah, you look more like a preacher or something. Why are you wearing that collar?”
“Because I’m an Episcopal priest, and this collar has a way of getting more respect, at times.”
“We had a preacher once who wore one of those. Never could understand why.”
He was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and their ministers and bishops do indeed wear collars. He dropped out as a teenager. At eighteen he married his girlfriend because she was pregnant, and the marriage was never stable. Two other children followed. I know their names and addresses and places of employment, and I know that they haven’t spoken to him since his trial. His ex-wife testified against him. His only brother is Marvis, a saint who visits him every month and sends him a small check occasionally.
Quincy is lucky to be alive. One black juror saved his life. Otherwise, he would have gone to death row at a time when Florida was enthusiastically killing folks.
As always, Guardian’s file on him is thick and we know as much about him as possible.
“So what do we do now, Post?” he asks with a smile.
“Oh, we have a lot of work to do. We start with the scene of the crime and investigate everything.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“True, but Keith Russo is still dead, and the people who testified against you are still alive. We’ll find them, try to gain their trust, and see what they’re saying now.”
“What about that snitch?”
“Well, surprisingly, the drugs haven’t killed him. Huffey’s back in prison, this time in Arkansas. He’s spent nineteen of his forty years behind bars, all due to drugs. I’ll go see him.”
“You don’t expect him to say he lied, do you?”
“Maybe. You never know with snitches. Professional liars have a way of laughing about their lies. Over his miserable career he’s snitched in at least five other cases, all for sweetheart deals with the cops. He has nothing to gain by sticking to the lies he told your jury.”
“I’ll never forget when they brought that boy in, all cleaned up with a white shirt and tie. At first I didn’t recognize him. It had been months since we were in the same cell. And when he started talking about my confession I wanted to scream at him. It was obvious the cops had fed him details of the crime—cutting off the electricity, using the flashlight—all that stuff. I knew right then that my ass was cooked. I looked at the jurors and you could tell they were eating it up. All of it. Every last lie he told. And you know what, Post? I sat there listening to Huffey and I thought to myself, ‘Man, that guy swore to tell the truth. And the judge is supposed to make sure all witnesses tell the truth. And the prosecutor, he knows his witness is lying. He knows the guy cut a deal with the cops to save his ass. Everybody knew, everybody but those morons on the jury.’ ”
“I’m ashamed to say it happens all the time, Quincy. Jailhouse snitches testify every day in this country. Other civilized countries prohibit them, but not here.”
Quincy closes his eyes and shakes his head. He says, “Well, when you see that sack-a-shit tell him I’m still thinking about him.”
“Thinking about revenge is not helpful here, Quincy. It’s wasted energy.”
“Maybe so, but I have plenty of time to think about everything. You gonna talk to June?”
“If she’ll talk.”
“I bet she won’t.”
His ex-wife remarried three years after his trial, then divorced, then remarried again. Frankie found her in Tallahassee living as June Walker. Evidently, she eventually found some stability and is the second wife of Otis Walker, an electrician on the campus at Florida State. They live in a middle-class neighborhood that is predominantly black and have one child together. She has five grandchildren from her first marriage, grandchildren that Quincy has never seen even in a photo. Nor has he seen their three children since his trial. For him, they exist only as toddlers, frozen in time.
“Why shouldn’t she talk to me?” I ask.
“Because she lied too. Come on, Post, they all lied, right? Even the experts.”
“I’m not sure the experts thought they were lying. They just didn’t understand the science and they gave bad opinions.”
“Whatever. You figure that out. I know damned well June lied. She lied about the shotgun and the flashlight, and she lied when she told the jury I was somewhere around town the night of the murder.”
“And why did she lie, Quincy?”
He shakes his head as if my question is foolish. He puts the phone down, rubs his eyes, then picks it up again. “We were at war, Post. Should’ve never got married and damned sure needed a divorce. Russo screwed me big-time in the divorce and suddenly I couldn’t pay all that child support and alimony. She was out of work and in a bad way. When I got behind, she sued me again and again. The divorce was bad but not nearly as bad as what came after. We grew to thoroughly hate each other. When they arrested me for murder I owed something like forty thousand bucks in payments. Guess I still do. Hell, sue me again.”
“So it was revenge?”
“More like hatred. I ain’t never owned a shotgun, Post. Check the records.”
“We have. Nothing.”
“But records mean little, especially in this state. There are a hundred ways to get a gun.”
“Who you believe, Post, me or that lying woman?”
“If I didn’t believe you, Quincy, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I know, I know. I can almost understand the shotgun, but why would she lie about that flashlight? I never saw it before. Hell, they couldn’t even produce it at trial.”
“Well, if we are assuming that your arrest, prosecution, and conviction were carefully planned to frame an innocent man, then we must assume the police leaned on June to say the flashlight belonged to you. And hatred was her motive.”
“But how was I supposed to pay all that money from death row?”
“Great question, and you’re asking me to get inside her mind.”
“Oh, please don’t go there. She’s crazy as hell.”
We both have a good laugh. He stands and stretches and asks, “How long you staying today, Post?”
“Hallelujah. You know something, Post? My cell is six feet by ten, just about the same size as this little shithole we’re in now. My cellie is a white boy from downstate. Drugs. Not a bad kid, not a bad cellie, but can you imagine spending ten hours a day living with another human in a cage?”
“ ’Course, we ain’t said a word to each other in over a year.”
“Can’t stand each other. Nothing against white folks, Post, but there are a lot of differences, you know? I listen to Motown, he likes that country crap. My bunk is neat as a pin. He’s a slob. I don’t touch drugs. He’s stoned half the time. Enough of this, Post. Sorry to bring it up. I hate whiners. I’m so glad you’re here, Post. You have no idea.”
“I’m honored to be your lawyer, Quincy.”
“But why? You don’t make much money, do you? I mean, you can’t make much representing people like me.”
“We haven’t really discussed fees, have we?”
“Send me a bill. Then you can sue me.”
We laugh and he sits down, the phone cradled in his neck. “Seriously, who pays you?”
“I work for a nonprofit and, no, I don’t make much. But I’m not in it for the money.”
“God bless you, Post.”
“Diana Russo testified that on at least two occasions you went to their office and threatened Keith. True?”
“No. I was in his office several times during my divorce but stopped going when the case was over. When he wouldn’t talk to me on the phone, I went to the office one time, and, hell yes, I was thinking about taking a baseball bat and beating his brains out. But the little receptionist out front said he wasn’t in, said he was in court. It was a lie because his car, a fancy black Jaguar, was parked behind the office. I knew she was lying and I started to make a scene, but didn’t. I bit my tongue and left, never went back. I swear that’s the truth, Post. I swear. Diana lied, like everybody else.”
“She testified that you called their home several times and threatened him.”
“More lies. Phone calls leave a trail, Post. I ain’t that stupid. My lawyer, Tyler Townsend, tried to get the records from the phone company, but Diana blocked him. He tried to get a subpoena but we ran out of time during the trial. After I was convicted, the judge wouldn’t approve a subpoena. We never got those records. By the way, have you talked to Tyler?”
“No, but he’s on the list. We know where he is.”
“Good dude, Post, a real good dude. That young man believed me and fought like hell, a real bulldog. I know you lawyers get a bad rap, but he was a good one.”
“Any contact with him?”
“Not anymore, it’s been too long. We wrote letters for years, even after he quit the law. He told me once in a letter that my case broke his spirit. He knew I was innocent, and when he lost my case he lost faith in the system. Said he couldn’t be a part of it. He stopped by about ten years ago and it was a blessing to see him, but it also brought back bad memories. He actually cried when he saw me, Post.”
“Did he have a theory about the real killer?”
He lowers the phone and looks at the ceiling, as if the question is too involved. He raises it again and asks, “You trust these phones, Post?”
It’s against the law for the prison to eavesdrop on confidential talks between a lawyer and his client, but it happens. I shake my head. No.
“Neither do I,” he says. “But my letters to you are safe, right?”
“Right.” A prison cannot open mail related to legal matters, and it has been my experience that they don’t try. It’s too easy to notice if mail has been tampered with.
Quincy uses sign language to indicate he will put it in writing. I nod.
The fact that he has spent twenty-two years inside a prison where he is presumably safe from the outside, and is still worried, is revealing. Keith Russo was murdered for a reason. Someone other than Quincy Miller planned the killing, pulled it off with precision, then got away. What followed was a thorough framing that involved several conspirators. Smart guys, whoever they were, and are. Finding them may be impossible, but if I didn’t think we could prove Quincy’s innocence I wouldn’t be sitting here.
They’re still out there, and Quincy is still thinking about them.
The three hours pass quickly as we cover many topics: books—he reads two or three a week; my exonerees—he’s fascinated by the ones we’ve freed; politics—he stays abreast with newspapers and magazines; music—he loves the 1960s stuff from Detroit; corrections—he rails against a system that does so little to rehabilitate; sports—he has a small color television and lives for the games, even hockey. When the guard taps on my door I say goodbye and promise to be back. We touch fists at the window and he thanks me again.
The Chevrolet Impala owned by Otis Walker is parked in an employees’ lot behind a physical plant at the edge of campus. Frankie is parked nearby, waiting. It’s a 2006 model, purchased used by Otis and financed through a credit union. Vicki has the records. His second wife, June, drives a Toyota sedan with no liens. Their sixteen-year-old son doesn’t have his license yet.
At five minutes after 5:00 p.m., Otis emerges from the building with two coworkers and heads for the parking lot. Frankie gets out and checks a tire. The coworkers scatter and yell goodbye. As Otis is about to open his driver’s door, Frankie materializes from nowhere and says, “Say, Mr. Walker, you got a second?”
Otis is immediately suspicious, but Frankie is a black guy with a pleasant smile and Otis is not the first stranger he’s approached. “Maybe,” he says.
Frankie offers his hand and says, “My name’s Frankie Tatum and I’m an investigator for a lawyer out of Savannah.”
Now Otis is even more suspicious. He opens the door, tosses in his lunch pail, closes the door and says, “Okay.”
Frankie raises both hands in mock surrender and says, “I come in peace. I’m just looking for information about an old case.”
At this point a white man would have been rebuffed, but Frankie appears harmless. “I’m listening,” Otis says.
“I’m sure your wife has talked about her first husband, Quincy Miller.”
The name causes a slight sag of the shoulders, but Otis is curious enough to continue for a moment. “Not much,” he says. “A long time ago. Why are you involved with Quincy?”
“The lawyer I work for represents him. We’re convinced Quincy got framed for that murder and we’re trying to prove it.”
“Good luck with that one. Quincy got what he deserved.”
“Not really, Mr. Walker. Quincy is an innocent man who’s served twenty-two years for somebody else’s crime.”
“You really believe that?”
“I do. So does the lawyer I work for.”
Otis considers this for a moment. He has no record, has never been to prison, but his cousin is doing hard time for assaulting a police officer. In white America, prisons are good places where bad men pay for their crimes. In black America, they are too often used as warehouses to keep minorities off the streets.
Otis asks, “So who killed that lawyer?”
“We don’t know, and may never know. But we’re just trying to find the truth and get Quincy out.”
“I’m not sure I can help you.”
“But your wife can. She testified against him. I’m sure she’s told you all about it.”
Otis shrugs and glances around. “Maybe, but it was a long time ago. She hasn’t mentioned Quincy’s name in years.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“Talk about what?”
“Her testimony. She didn’t tell the truth, Mr. Walker. She told the jury that Quincy owned a 12-gauge shotgun. That was the murder weapon, and it was owned by somebody else.”
“Look, I met June years after the murder. In fact, she had another husband before she met me. I’m number three, you understand? I know she had a rough time when she was younger but our life is pretty good right now. The last thing she wants is any trouble related to Quincy Miller.”
“I’m asking for help, Otis. That’s all. We got a brother wasting away in prison not two hours from here. The white cops and white prosecutor and white jury said he killed a white lawyer. Didn’t happen that way.”
Otis spits, leans on his door, and crosses his arms over his chest.
Frankie gently presses on. “Look, I served fourteen years in Georgia for somebody else’s murder. I know what it’s like, okay? I got lucky and got out, but I left some innocent guys behind. Guys like me and you. There’s a lot of us in prison. The system’s rigged against us, Otis. We’re only trying to help Quincy.”
“So what’s June got to do with this?”
“Has she ever told you about the flashlight?”
Otis thinks for a second and shakes his head. Frankie doesn’t want a gap in the conversation. “There was a flashlight with some blood on it. Cops said it came from the crime scene. Quincy never saw it, never touched it. June told the jury he had one very similar to it. Not true, Otis. Not true. She also told the jury that Quincy was somewhere around Seabrook the night of the killing. Not true. He was with a girlfriend an hour away.”
Otis has been married to June for seventeen years. Frankie is assuming he is quite aware of her struggles with the truth, so why beat around the bush?
“You’re calling her a liar?” Otis said.
“No, not now. But you said yourself she was a different woman back then. She and Quincy were at war. He owed her a bunch of money that he couldn’t pay. The cops leaned on her to take the stand and point the finger.”
“A long time ago, man.”
“Damned right. Ask Quincy about it. He’s spent twenty-two years in prison.”
“Well, let’s say she didn’t tell the truth back then. You expect her to admit it now? Come on.”
“I just want to talk to her. I know where she works. I could’ve gone there, but we don’t operate that way. This is not an ambush, Otis. I respect your privacy and I’m asking you to run it by June. That’s all.”
“Feels like an ambush.”
“What else could I do? Send an e-mail? Look, I’m leaving town. You talk to her and see what she says.”
“I know what she’ll say. She ain’t got nothing to do with Quincy Miller.”
“I’m afraid she does.” Frankie hands him a Guardian Ministries business card. “Here’s my phone number. I’m just asking for a favor, Otis.”
Otis takes it and reads the front and back. “You with some kinda church?”
“No. The guy who runs it is the lawyer who got me out of prison. He’s a preacher too. Good guy. This is all he does, gets innocent folk out.”
“Must be a bad dude.”
“You’d like him. So would June. Give us a chance, Otis.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
“Thanks for your time.”
“Don’t mention it.”
At Guardian, we have a collection of brochures we use for a variety of purposes. If our target is a white guy, I use the one with my smiling face front and center. With the collar. If we need to approach a white woman, we’ll use Vicki’s. Blacks get the one with Mazy arm-in-arm with a black exoneree. We like to say that skin color doesn’t matter, but that’s not always true. We often use it to open doors.
Since Zeke Huffey is white, I sent him my brochure with a chatty letter informing him that his plight has come to the attention of our little foundation and we’re reaching out. Two weeks later, I received a handwritten letter on ruled notebook paper thanking me for my interest. I responded with my usual follow-up and asked if he needed anything. Not surprisingly, his next letter asked for money. I sent him a $200 MoneyGram with another letter asking if it’s okay to visit him. Of course it’s okay.
Zeke is a career criminal who has done time in three states. He is originally from the Tampa area but we have found no trace of his family. When he was twenty-five he married a woman who quickly divorced him when he was convicted of drug trafficking. As far as we know, he has no children, and we’re assuming his visitors are scarce. Three years ago he got busted in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is currently doing five years in the Land of Opportunity.
His career as a snitch began with the trial of Quincy Miller. He was eighteen when he testified, and a month after the trial his drug charges were reduced and he walked. That deal worked so beautifully that he did it again and again. Every jail has a druggie facing more time and eager to avoid it. With the proper coaching from cops and prosecutors, a snitch can be quite effective with his perjury. Jurors simply cannot believe that a witness, any witness, will take the oath, swear to tell the truth, then tell them an outlandish story of pure fiction.
These days Zeke is doing time at a satellite prison in the middle of the cotton fields of northeastern Arkansas. I’m not sure why it is referred to as a satellite. It’s a prison, with all the usual dreary architecture and fencing. Unfortunately, the facility is operated for profit by an out-of-state corporation, which means the guards earn even less and there are fewer of them, the terrible food is even worse, the commissary gouges the men on everything from peanut butter to toilet paper, and the medical care is almost nonexistent. I suppose that in America everything, including education and corrections, is fair game for profiteers.
I am led to a room with a row of enclosed booths for attorney visits. A guard locks me inside. I take a seat and stare at a thick plastic divider. Minutes pass, then half an hour, but I’m in no hurry. The door on the other side opens and Zeke Huffey steps in. He offers me a smile as the guard removes the handcuffs. When we’re alone he says, “Why are we in a lawyer’s room?” He’s looking at my collar.
“Nice to meet you, Zeke. Thanks for taking the time.”
“Oh, I got plenty of time. Didn’t know you were a lawyer.”
“I’m a lawyer and a priest. How are they treating you here?”
He laughs and lights a cigarette. Of course the room has no ventilation. “I’ve seen my share of prisons and this has to be the worst,” he says. “Owned by the state but leased to an outfit called Atlantic Corrections Corporation. Ever heard of them?”
“Yes. I’ve been a guest in several of their units. Seriously bad stuff, right?”
“Four bucks for a roll of toilet paper. Should be a dollar. They give us one roll per week, sandpaper that makes you limp when you walk. I guess I’m lucky you sent me that money. Thank you, Mr. Post. Some of my buddies never see a dime from the outside.”
Hideous prison tattoos are crawling up his neck. His eyes and cheeks are sunken, the look of a street addict who’s been stoned on cheap drugs for most of his life.
I say, “I’ll send some more money when I can, but we operate on a pretty lean budget.”
“Who is ‘we’ and why are you really here? A lawyer ain’t gonna help me.”
“I work for a nonprofit foundation dedicated to saving innocent men. One of our clients is Quincy Miller. Remember him?”
He chuckles and releases a cloud of smoke. “So you’re here under false pretenses, huh?”
“You want me to leave?”
“Depends on what you want.” As a career criminal, Zeke knows that the game has suddenly changed. I want something that only he possesses, and he’s already thinking about how to capitalize. He has played this game before.
I say, “Let’s start with the truth.”
He laughs and says, “Truth, justice, and the American way. You must be a fool, Mr. Post, searching for the truth in a place like this.”
“It’s my job, Zeke. It’s the only way I can get Quincy out of prison. You and I both know that you’re an experienced snitch who lied to the jury at Quincy’s trial. He never confessed to you. The details of the crime were fed to you by the cops and prosecutor who rehearsed your story with you. The jury bought it and Quincy has been locked up for twenty-two years. It’s time to get him out.”
He smiles as if he’s only humoring me. “I’m hungry. Can you fetch me a Coke and some peanuts?”
“Sure.” It’s not unusual, even in a place like this, for visitors to buy snacks. I tap on my door and a guard eventually opens it. He and I walk to a wall of vending machines where I start shoving in quarters. Two bucks for a twelve-ounce soda, a dollar each for two small packs of peanuts. The guard takes me back to our room and a few minutes later reappears on Zeke’s side and hands him the goodies. “Thanks,” he says and takes a drink.
It’s important to keep the conversation flowing, so I ask, “How did the cops convince you to testify against Quincy?”
“You know how they operate, Mr. Post. They’re always looking for witnesses, especially when they got no proof. I don’t remember all the details. It was a long time ago.”
“Yes. It’s certainly been a long time for Quincy. Do you ever think about him, Zeke? You know how bad prison is. You ever stop and think that you helped put an innocent man behind bars for the rest of his life?”
“Not really. Been too busy doing other things, you know?”
“Don’t know. Quincy has a chance of getting out. It’s a long shot but then all of them are. This is my work, Zeke, and I know what I’m doing. We need your help.”
“Help? What am I supposed to do?”
“Tell the truth. Sign an affidavit saying that you lied at trial and you did so because the cops and prosecutors offered you a sweet deal.”
He crunches on a mouthful of peanuts and studies the floor. I press on. “I know what you’re thinking, Zeke. You’re thinking that Florida is far away and you have no desire to get involved in a case this old. You’re thinking that if you come clean now with the truth then the cops and prosecutor will charge you with perjury and lock you up again. But that’s not going to happen. The statute of limitations on perjury ran out a long time ago. Plus, they’re all gone. The sheriff retired. The prosecutor did too. The judge is dead. The system back there has no interest in you whatsoever. You have nothing to gain and nothing to lose by helping Quincy get out. It’s really a no-brainer, Zeke. Do the right thing, tell the truth, and your life goes on.”
“Look, Mr. Post, I get out in seventeen months, and I’m not doing anything to screw that up.”
“Arkansas doesn’t care what you did in a Florida courtroom twenty-two years ago. You didn’t perjure yourself here. These guys couldn’t care less. Once you’re paroled, their only concern is filling your cell with the next man. You know how it all works, Zeke. You’re a pro at this game.”
He’s stupid enough to smile at this compliment. He likes the idea of being in control. He sips his Coke, lights another cigarette, finally says, “I don’t know, Mr. Post, it sounds awfully risky to me. Why should I get involved?”
“Why not? You have no loyalty to the cops and prosecutors. They don’t care what happens to you, Zeke. You’re on the other side of the street. Do something good for one of your own.”
There is a long gap in the conversation. Time means nothing. He finishes one pack of peanuts and opens the second. He says, “Never knew of lawyers who do what you do. How many innocent people have you sprung?”
“Eight, in the past ten years. All innocent. We have six clients now, including Quincy.”
“Can you get me out?” he says, and it strikes both of us as funny.
“Well, Zeke, if I thought you were innocent I might give it a shot.”
“Probably a waste of your time.”
“Probably so. Can you help us, Zeke?”
“When’s all this going down?”
“Well, we’re hard at work now. We investigate everything and build a case for innocence. But it’s slow work, as you might guess. There’s no real rush on your part, but I would like to keep in touch.”
“You do that, Mr. Post, and if you find a few extra bucks pass them along. Peanuts and a Coke mean fine dining in this dump.”
“I’ll send some money, Zeke. And if you find a few extra minutes of time, think about Quincy. You owe him one.”
“That I do.”
Carrie Holland was nineteen years old when she told Quincy’s jury that she saw a black man running down a dark street at the time of the murder. He was of the same height and build as Quincy and was carrying what appeared to be a stick, or something. She said she had just parked her car in front of an apartment building, heard two loud noises coming from the direction of the Russos’ law office three blocks away, and saw a man running. On cross-examination, Tyler Townsend attacked. She didn’t live in the apartment building but said she was there to visit a friend. The friend’s name? When she hesitated, Tyler reacted with disbelief and mocked her. When he said, “Give me the friend’s name and I’ll call her as a witness,” the prosecutor objected and the judge sustained. From the transcript, it appeared as though she couldn’t remember a name.
Tyler zeroed in on the dark street, one without lighting. Using a map, he pinpointed the buildings and the distance from her car to the Russos’ office and raised questions about her ability to see what she claimed she saw. He argued with her until the judge intervened and made him stop.
She had a drug charge from the year before and Tyler assaulted her with it. He asked her if she was under the influence on the witness stand and suggested that she was still struggling with addiction. He demanded to know if it was true that she had been dating a deputy on the Ruiz County police force. She denied this. When his cross-examination dragged on, the judge asked him to speed things along. When he protested that the prosecutor seemed to be taking his time, the judge threatened him with contempt, and not for the first time. When Tyler was finished with Carrie Holland he had raised doubts about her credibility, but he had also verbally abused her to the point of making her sympathetic to the jury.
Not long after the trial, Carrie left the area. She lived for a while near Columbus, Georgia, married a man there, had two kids, got a divorce and dropped out of sight. It took Vicki a year in one of her many desktop investigations to find the witness living as Carrie Pruitt in a remote part of western Tennessee. She works in a furniture factory near Kingsport, and lives off a county road in a mobile home she shares with a man called Buck.
To her credit, she has managed to stay out of trouble. Her rap sheet has only the drug conviction from Seabrook, one that was never expunged. We’re assuming that Carrie is clean and sober, and in our business that’s always a plus.
A month ago, Frankie eased into the area and did his usual reconnaissance. He has photos of her mobile home and the acreage around it, and of the factory where she is employed. Working with an investigator from Kingsport, he has learned that she has one son in the army and another living in Knoxville. Buck drives a truck and has no criminal record. Oddly enough, his father once pastored a small rural church twenty miles from where they live. There could be an element of stability in the family.
There is also an excellent chance that neither Buck nor anyone else within five hundred miles knows much about her past. This complicates matters. Why should she revisit her brief encounter with Quincy Miller two decades earlier and upset her life now?
I meet Frankie at a pancake house in Kingsport, and over waffles we discuss the photos. The mobile home is remote with a fenced dog-run out back where Buck keeps some hounds. He drives the obligatory pickup. She has a Honda. Vicki has run the tag numbers and verified ownership. Neither is registered to vote. A nice bass boat sits under a shelter beside the trailer. Buck is obviously serious about his hunting and fishing.
“I don’t like the looks of this place,” Frankie says, shuffling the photos.
“I’ve seen worse,” I say, and I certainly have. I’ve knocked on a lot of doors where I expected to be met by either a Doberman or a rifle. “But let’s assume Buck doesn’t know about her past, never heard of Quincy. If we assume that, then we can also assume she really would like to keep it quiet.”
“Agreed. So stay away from the house.”
“What time does she leave for work?”
“I don’t know, but she punches in at eight, out at five, doesn’t leave for lunch. Makes about nine bucks an hour. She’s on an assembly line, not in an office, so you can’t call her at work.”
“And she won’t talk around her coworkers. What’s the weather forecast for Saturday?”
“Clear and sunny. Perfect day for fishing.”
“Let’s hope so.”
At daybreak Saturday, Frankie is pumping gas at a convenience store a mile from the trailer. It’s our lucky day, or so we think for a moment. Buck and a friend roll past towing the bass rig, headed for a lake or a river. Frankie calls me, and I immediately call the listed number of their land line.
A sleepy woman answers the phone. In a friendly voice I say, “Ms. Pruitt, my name is Cullen Post, and I’m a lawyer from Savannah, Georgia. Got a minute?”
“Who? What do you want?” The sleepiness vanishes.
“Cullen Post is my name. I’d like to talk to you about a trial you were involved in a long time ago.”
“You got the wrong number.”
“You were Carrie Holland back then and you lived in Seabrook, Florida. I have all the records, Carrie, and I’m not here to cause you any trouble.”
“Wrong number, mister.”
“I represent Quincy Miller. He’s been in prison for twenty-two years because of you, Carrie. The least you can do is give me thirty minutes.”
The line goes dead. Ten minutes later, I park in front of the trailer. Frankie is not far away, just in case I get shot.
Carrie finally comes to the door, opens it slowly, and steps onto the narrow wooden porch. She is slim and wearing tight jeans. Her blond hair is pulled back. Even with no makeup, she is not a bad-looking woman, but the years of nicotine have bunched lines of wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She holds a cigarette and glares at me.
I’m wearing my collar but she is not impressed by it. I smile and say, “Sorry to barge in like this, but I just happened to be in the area.”
“What do you want?” she asks and takes a puff.
“I want my client out of prison, Carrie, and that’s where you come in. Look, I’m not here to embarrass or harass you. I’ll bet Buck has never heard of Quincy Miller, right? Can’t blame you for that. I wouldn’t talk about it either. But Quincy is still serving hard time for a murder committed by someone else. He didn’t kill anyone. You didn’t see a black man running from the scene. You testified because the cops leaned on you, right? You had been dating one of them and so they knew you. They needed a witness and you had that little drug problem, right Carrie?”
“How’d you find me?”
“You’re not exactly hiding.”
“Get outta here before I call the law.”
I raise my hands in mock surrender. “No problem. It’s your property. I’m leaving.” I toss a business card on the grass and say, “Here’s my number. My job will not allow me to forget about you, so I’ll be back. And I promise I will not blow your cover. I just want to talk, that’s all, Carrie. You did a terrible thing twenty-two years ago and it’s time to make it