Authors: John Grisham
“More than likely but we’ll never know. Neither the shotgun nor the killer’s clothing were recovered. But, we know it was a shotgun because of the buckshot. Two blasts in such a confined area will produce an enormous amount of blood. I guess the photos prove that. What is surprising is that there were no bloody footprints made by the killer as he left.”
“There is no record of any.”
“Then I’d say the killer went to great lengths to avoid detection. No fingerprints, so he probably wore gloves. No shoe or boot prints, so he probably had some type of covering on the soles of his feet. Sounds like a pretty sophisticated killer.”
“It could’ve been a gang killing, by a professional.”
“Well, that’s your business. I can’t go there.”
“Is it possible to fire a shotgun with one hand while holding the flashlight with the other?” I ask, though the answer is fairly obvious.
“Highly unlikely. But it’s a small flashlight with a two-inch lens. It would be possible to hold the flashlight in one hand and use that same hand to steady the forestock of the shotgun. That’s assuming you buy into the prosecution’s theory. But I doubt seriously that the flashlight was at the scene.”
“But Norwood testified that this is blood on the flashlight and it is back spatter.”
“Norwood was wrong again. He should be locked up himself.”
“So your paths have crossed?”
“Oh yes. Twice. I’ve debunked two of his convictions, though both men are still in prison. Norwood was well-known in the business back in his heyday, just one of many. Mercifully he quit, but there are plenty of these guys still out there, still at it. It makes me sick.”
Benderschmidt has been vociferous in his criticism of the one-week seminars in which police officers, investigators, anyone, really, with enough money for the tuition, can be trained quickly, get a graduation certificate, and declare themselves experts.
He continues, “It was grossly irresponsible for him to tell the jury that these specks are blood that came from Russo’s body.” He shakes his head in disbelief and disgust. “There is simply no scientific way to prove it.”
Norwood told the jury that back spatter cannot travel more than forty-eight inches through the air, a common belief back then. Therefore, the barrel was close to the victim. Not so, says Benderschmidt. The distance blood travels varies greatly with each shooting, and for Norwood to be so precise was flat out wrong. “There are just far too many variables involved here to give opinions.”
“So what’s your opinion?”
“That there is no scientific basis for what Norwood told the jury. That there is no way to know if the flashlight was even at the scene. That there is an even chance that these specks of blood are not even blood. Lots of opinions, Mr. Post. I’ll dress ’em all up in beautiful language that leaves no doubt.”
He looks at his watch and says he needs to take a call. He asks if I mind. Of course not. While he’s gone, I pull out some notes, some questions that I cannot answer. Neither can he, but I value his thoughts. I’m certainly paying for them. He returns in fifteen minutes with a cup of coffee.
“So what’s bugging you?” I ask. “Forget the science and let’s do some speculating.”
“That’s almost as much fun as the science,” he says with a grin. “Question one: If the police planted the flashlight in the trunk of Miller’s car, why didn’t they go ahead and plant the shotgun too?”
I’ve asked myself the same question a hundred times. “Maybe they were worried about proving he owned it. I’m sure it was not registered. Or maybe it would have been harder to plant in his trunk. The flashlight is much smaller and easier to simply place there. Pfitzner, the sheriff, testified that he found it when he was searching the trunk. There were other cops at the scene.”
He listens intently and nods along. “That’s plausible.”
“It would have been easy to simply pull the flashlight out of a pocket and drop in the trunk. Not so with a shotgun.”
He keeps nodding. “I can buy that. Next question: According to the snitch, Miller said he drove to the Gulf the next day and tossed the shotgun into the ocean. Why wouldn’t he have tossed the flashlight too? Both were at the crime scene. Both had blood on them. It makes no sense not to dispose of both.”
I respond, “I have no answer to that and it’s a huge gap in the fiction the cops fed to the snitch.”
“And why the ocean where the water is shallow and the tides rise and fall?”
“It makes no sense,” I say.
“It does not. Next question: Why use a shotgun? They make too much noise. The killer got lucky when no one heard the blasts.”
“Well, Carrie Holland said she heard something, but she’s not credible. They used a shotgun because that’s what a guy like Miller would have used, maybe. A pro would have used a pistol with a silencer, but they weren’t framing a pro. They wanted Miller.”
“Agreed. Did Miller have a history of hunting?”
“None whatsoever. Says he never hunted in his life.”
“Did he own guns?”
“He says he kept two pistols in the house for protection. His wife testified that he owned a shotgun, but she’s not credible either.”
“You’re pretty good, Post.”
“Thanks. I’ve had some experience on the streets. So have you, Dr. Benderschmidt. Now that you know the case, I’d like to hear your version of educated guessing. Put the science aside and tell me how this murder happened.”
He gets to his feet and steps to a window for a long gaze. “There’s a brain at work here, Mr. Post, and that’s why you’re not likely to solve this crime, short of a miracle. Diana Russo told a convincing story of the conflict between Miller and her husband. I suspect she exaggerated, but the jury believed her. She pointed to a black guy in a white town. And one with a motive, at that. They, the conspirators, knew enough about crime scene evidence to use the flashlight as the link to Miller. The real killer left behind no traceable clues, which is remarkable and says a lot about his high level of planning. If he did make a mistake, the cops missed it or perhaps covered it up. After twenty-two years, it is indeed a cold case, and one that looks impossible to solve. You won’t find the killer, Mr. Post, but you might succeed in proving your client innocent.”
“Is there a chance he’s guilty?”
“So you have doubts?”
“Always. The doubts keep me awake at night.”
He returns to his chair and takes a sip of coffee. “I don’t see it. Motive is weak. Sure, he may have hated his former lawyer, but blowing his head off is a sure ticket to death row. Miller had an alibi. There is nothing that links him to the crime scene. My best educated guess is that he didn’t do it.”
“That’s good to hear,” I reply with a smile. He is no bleeding-heart and has testified for the prosecution more than the defense. He shoots straight and is not afraid to criticize another expert, even a colleague, when he disagrees. We spend a few minutes talking about other famous blood-spatter cases, and it’s soon time to leave.
“Thanks, Doctor,” I say as I gather my things. “I know your time is valuable.”
“You’re paying for it,” he says with a smile. Yep, $30,000.
As I open the door, he says, “One last thing, Mr. Post, and this is even farther from my expertise, but that situation down there could get sticky. None of my business, you know, but you’d better be careful.”
My travels take me to the next prison on my little checklist. It’s called Tully Run and it’s hidden at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of Virginia. This is my second visit here. Because of the Internet, there are now hundreds of thousands of convicted sex offenders. For many reasons, they do not fare well in general prison populations. Most states are trying to segregate them into separate facilities. Virginia sends most of its to Tully Run.
The man’s name is Gerald Cook. White male, age forty-three, serving twenty years for molesting his two stepdaughters. Because I have so many other clients to choose from, I have always tried to avoid sex offenders. However, in this line of work I’ve learned that some of them are actually innocent.
In his younger days, Cook was a wild man, a hard-drinking redneck prone to brawling and chasing women. Nine years ago he caught the wrong one and married her. They spent a few rough years together taking turns moving in and out. Both had trouble keeping jobs and money was always an issue. A week after his wife filed for divorce, Gerald won $100,000 in the Virginia State Lottery and tried to keep it quiet. She heard about it almost immediately and her lawyers got excited. Gerald fled the area with his loot and the divorce dragged on. To get his attention, and at least some of the money, she conspired with her daughters, then ages eleven and fourteen, to accuse him of sexual abuse, crimes that had never been mentioned. The girls signed sworn written statements detailing a pattern of rape and molestation. Gerald was arrested, thrown in jail with an exorbitant bond, and has never stopped claiming he is innocent.
In Virginia, it is difficult to defend such charges. At his trial, both girls took the stand, and in wrenching testimony described the horrible things their stepfather had allegedly done. Gerald countered with his own testimony but, being a hothead, made a poor witness. He was sentenced to twenty years. By the time he left for prison, his lottery winnings were long gone.
Neither stepdaughter finished high school. The older has led a life of astonishing promiscuity, and, at the age of twenty-one, is in her second marriage. The younger has a child and works for minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant. Their mother owns a beauty salon on the outskirts of Lynchburg, and has a big mouth. Our investigator there has affidavits from two former clients who describe the woman constantly telling hilarious stories of framing Gerald with the bogus charges. We also have an affidavit from a former boyfriend with similar stories. She frightened him so bad he moved out.
Cook came to our attention two years ago with a letter from prison. We receive about twenty per week, and the backlog is frustrating. Vicki, Mazy, and I spend as much time as possible reading them and trying to weed out the ones we cannot help. The vast majority are from guilty inmates who have plenty of time to work on their claims of innocence and write long letters. I travel with a stack that I read when I should be sleeping. At Guardian, we have a policy of answering every letter.
Cook’s story sounded plausible and I wrote back. We swapped a few letters and he sent his trial transcript and file. We did a preliminary investigation and became convinced that he was probably telling the truth. I visited him a year ago and disliked him immediately. He confirmed what I had learned through our correspondence: he is obsessed with thoughts of revenge. His goal is to get out and either do bodily harm to his ex-wife and her daughters, or, more likely, to frame them on drug charges and see them locked up. He dreams of one day visiting them in prison. I have tried to temper this by explaining that we have expectations of our clients once they are free, and that we will not be involved with anyone plotting retribution.
Most of the inmates I visit in prison are subdued and thankful for the face time. But, again, Cook is belligerent. He sneers at me through the Plexiglas, grabs the phone and says, “What’s taking so long, Post? You know I’m innocent, now get me out of here.”
I smile and say, “Nice to see you, Gerald. How are you doing?”
“Don’t give me that happy horseshit, Post. I want to know what you’re doing out there while I’m stuck in here with a bunch of perverts. I’ve been fighting these fairies off for seven years now and I’m damned tired of it.”
Calmly I say, “Gerald, perhaps we should start over with this session. You’re already yelling at me and I don’t appreciate it. You’re not paying me. I’m a volunteer. If you can’t keep things pleasant then I’ll leave.”
He lowers his head and starts crying. I wait patiently as he tries to collect himself. He wipes both cheeks on his sleeves and doesn’t make eye contact.
“I am so innocent, Post,” he says, his voice cracking.
“I believe that or I wouldn’t be here.”
“That bitch put those girls up to lying and all three are still laughing about it.”
“I believe that, Gerald. I really do, but getting you out will take a long time. There is simply no way to speed things along. As I told you before, it’s fairly easy to convict an innocent man and virtually impossible to exonerate one.”
“This is so wrong, Post.”
“I know, I know. Here’s my problem right now, Gerald. If you walked out tomorrow, I’m afraid you would do something really stupid. I’ve cautioned you many times about harboring thoughts of revenge, and if that’s still on your mind, then I’m not getting involved.”
“I won’t kill her, Post. I promise. I won’t do something stupid enough to get my ass thrown back into a place like this.”
“But what might you do, Gerald?”
“I’ll think of something. She deserves to do some time after what she’s done to me, Post. I can’t just let it go.”
“You have to let it go, Gerald. You have to go somewhere far away and forget about her.”
“I can’t do it, Post. I can’t keep my mind off that lying bitch. And her two daughters. I hate them with every bone in my body. Here I sit, an innocent man, and they’re going about their lives laughing at me. Where is the justice?”