Authors: John Grisham
Because I am cautious out of necessity, I am not yet his attorney. Though Guardian has spent almost $20,000 and two years investigating, we are not officially involved. He worried me from the beginning and I’ve kept the escape hatch open.
“You still want revenge, don’t you, Gerald?”
His lip quivers and his eyes water again. He glares at me and nods yes.
“I’m sorry, Gerald, but I’m saying no. I will not represent you.”
He suddenly erupts in a fit of rage. “You can’t do that, Post!” he screams into the phone, then flings it and lunges at the Plexiglas partition. “No! No! You can’t do that, dammit! I’ll die in here!” He begins slapping the Plexiglas.
I am startled and move back.
“You gotta help me, Post! You know I’m innocent! You can’t just walk out of here and leave me to die. I’m innocent! I’m innocent and you damned well know I’m innocent!”
The door behind me jerks open and a guard steps in. “Sit down,” he yells at Gerald who is pounding the Plexiglas with his fists on the other side. The guard yells at him as the door behind him opens and another guard appears. He grabs Gerald and pushes him away from the partition. As I ease through the door to escape he’s screaming, “I’m innocent, Post! I’m innocent.”
I can almost hear him as I drive away from Tully Run.
Four hours later I enter the grounds of the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW) in Raleigh. The parking lot is full and, as always, I grumble about the money spent on corrections in this country. It’s a huge business, quite literally a profit-maker in some states, but certainly a big employer for any community lucky enough to get itself a prison. In the U.S. there are over two million people locked up, and it takes one million employees and $80 billion in tax dollars to take care of them.
NCCIW should be closed, like all women’s prisons. Very few women are criminals. Their mistakes are picking bad boyfriends.
North Carolina sends its female death row inmates to NCCIW. There are seven of them now, including our client, Shasta Briley. She was convicted of murdering her three children about twenty miles from where she is now incarcerated.
Hers is another sad story of a kid who never had a chance. She was a crack baby who was bounced from foster homes to orphanages to in-laws in the projects. She dropped out of school, had a baby, lived with an aunt, worked here and there for minimum wages, had another baby, became an addict. After her third child was born, she got a break and found a room in a homeless shelter where a counselor helped her get clean. A man from a church gave her a job and sort of adopted her and the kids, and she moved into a small rental duplex. Every day was a struggle, though, and she was arrested for bad checks. She sold her body for cash, and then began selling drugs.
Her life was a nightmare; thus, she was easy to convict.
Eight years ago her duplex caught on fire in the middle of the night. She escaped through a window, with cuts and burns, and ran around the outside of the house screaming as neighbors rushed to help. Her three daughters perished in the fire. The community rallied around her after the tragedy. The funeral was gut-wrenching and made the local news. Then the state arson investigator came to town. When he mentioned the word “arson,” all sympathy for Shasta vanished.
At her trial, the State proved that she had been busy buying insurance in the months before the fire: three policies of $10,000 for the life of each child, and a $10,000 policy on the contents of her duplex. A relative testified that Shasta had offered to sell her the children for $1,000 each. The arson expert was clear with his opinions. Shasta had plenty of baggage: a criminal record, three children by three different men, and a history of drug use and prostitution. At the scene, her neighbors had told the police that she tried to enter the burning duplex but the flames were too much. She was covered in blood, had burns on her hands, and was frantic out of her mind. However, once the arson theory was circulated, most of the neighbors backed off. At trial, three of them told the jury that she had seemed unconcerned as the fire raged. One was allowed to speculate that she was probably stoned.
Seven years later, she spends her days alone in a cell with little human contact. Sex is the currency in a women’s prison, but so far the guards have left her alone. She is frail, eats little, reads the Bible and old paperbacks for hours, and speaks in a soft voice. We talk through a screen, so phones are not necessary. She thanks me for coming and asks about Mazy.
With four kids, Mazy seldom leaves Savannah, but she has visited here twice and has bonded with Shasta. They swap letters weekly and talk by phone once a month. By now, Mazy knows more about arson than most experts.
“Got a letter from Mazy yesterday,” she says with a smile. “Sounds like her kids are doing well.”
“Her kids are doing great.”
“I miss my kids, Mr. Post. That’s the worst thing of all. I miss my babies.”
Today time is not important. Here they allow the lawyers to stay as long as we want, and Shasta enjoys being out of her cell. We talk about her case, Mazy’s children, the weather, the Bible, books, anything that interests her. After an hour I ask, “Have you read the report?”
“Every word, twice. Sounds like Dr. Muscrove knows his stuff.”
“Let’s hope so.” Muscrove is our arson expert, a genuine scientist who has thoroughly debunked the State’s investigation. He is of the firm opinion that the fire was not deliberate. In other words, there was no crime at all. But getting his report in the hands of a sympathetic judge will be difficult. Our best shot will be an eleventh-hour pardon from the Governor, another unlikely scenario.
As we talk, I remind myself that this is a case we will probably lose. Of our six current clients, Shasta Briley has the worst chance of survival.
We try to talk about Muscrove’s report, but the science is often overwhelming, even for me. She drifts back to the latest romance novel she’s read, and I happily go along. I am often amazed at how literate some of these inmates become during their incarcerations.
A guard reminds me that it’s late. We’ve been chatting for three hours. We touch hands at the screen and say goodbye. As always, she thanks me for my time.
At the time of the Russo murder, Seabrook’s police chief was Bruno McKnatt, who, according to our research, apparently had little to do with the investigation. In Florida, the county sheriff is the principal law enforcement official and can assume jurisdiction over any crime, even those within municipalities, though in the larger cities the police departments run things. Russo was murdered inside the city limits of Seabrook, but McKnatt was shoved aside by Bradley Pfitzner, the longtime sheriff.
McKnatt was police chief from 1984 through 1990, then moved on to police work in Gainesville. There his career sputtered and he tried selling real estate. Vicki found him in a low-end retirement village called Sunset Village near Winter Haven. He is sixty-six and drawing two pensions, one from Social Security, the other from the State. He is married with three adult children scattered around south Florida. Our file on McKnatt is thin because he had little to do with the investigation. He did not testify at trial and his name is barely mentioned.
Contacting McKnatt is my first real foray into Seabrook. He is not from the town and spent only a few years there. I am assuming he left behind few contacts and had little interest in the murder. I called him the day before I arrived and he seemed willing to talk.
Sunset Village is a series of neat circles of tidy mobile homes around a central community center. Each home has a shade tree beside a concrete driveway, and each vehicle is at least ten years old. The residents seem eager to escape the confines of their cramped quarters and there is a lot of porch sitting and socializing. Many of the trailers have jerry-rigged ramps for wheelchairs. As I loop around the first circle, I am carefully observed. A few of the old folks offer friendly waves but most stare at my Ford SUV with Georgia plates as if noting the intrusion of a trespasser. I park near the community center and watch for a moment as some elderly men slowly go about a game of shuffleboard under a large pavilion. Others are playing checkers, chess, and dominoes.
At sixty-six, McKnatt is definitely on the younger side of this population. I spot him wearing a blue Braves baseball cap and walk over. We sit at a picnic table near a wall with dozens of posters and bulletins. He’s overweight but seems to be in decent shape. At least he’s not on oxygen.
He says, somewhat defensively, “I like it here, lots of good people who take care of each other. No one has any money so there’s no pretense. We try to stay active and there’s plenty to do.”
I offer something banal, like it seems to be a nice place. If he’s suspicious he doesn’t appear so. He wants to talk and seems proud to have a visitor. I walk him through his career in law enforcement for a few minutes, and he finally gets to the point.
“So why are you interested in Quincy Miller?”
“He’s my client and I’m trying to get him out of prison.”
“Been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Twenty-two years. Did you know him?”
“No, not till the murder.”
“Were you at the crime scene?”
“Of course I was. Pfitzner was already there, got there pretty fast, and he asked me to take Ms. Russo home. She’d found the body, you know, and called 911. Poor lady was a mess, as you might guess. I drove her home and sat with her until some friends came over, it was awful, then I went back to the scene. Pfitzner was in charge, as always, and he was barking orders. I said I thought we should call the state police, which is what we were supposed to do, but Pfitzner said he would do it later.”
“The next day. He took his time. He didn’t want anybody else working the case.”
“What was your relationship with Pfitzner?” I ask.
He smiles but not in a pleasant way. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, as if he has been dishonest so far. “Pfitzner got me fired, so I have no use for the man. He’d been the sheriff for twenty years when the town hired me as chief, and he never respected me or any officer in my department. He had an iron grip on the county and didn’t want anybody else with a badge trespassing on his turf. That’s just the way it was.”
“Why did he get you fired?”
McKnatt grunts and watches the old men play shuffleboard. He finally shrugs and says, “You gotta understand small-town politics. I had about a dozen men, Pfitzner had twice that. He had a big budget, whatever he wanted, and I got the leftovers. We never got along because he saw me as a threat. He fired a deputy, and when I hired the guy Pfitzner got pissed. All the politicians were afraid of him and he pulled some strings, got me sacked. I couldn’t leave town fast enough. You been to Seabrook?”
“You won’t find much. Pfitzner’s been gone for a long time and I’m sure all his tracks are covered.”
It is a loaded statement, as if he wants me to jump in, but I let it slide. This is the first meeting, and I don’t want to seem too eager. I have to build trust and that takes time. Enough of Sheriff Pfitzner. I’ll circle back in due course.
“Did you know Keith Russo?” I ask.
“Sure. I knew all the lawyers. It’s a small town.”
“What was your opinion of him?”
“Smart, cocky, not one of my favorites. He roughed up a couple of my men once in a trial and I didn’t like it. Guess he was just doing his job. He wanted to be a big-shot lawyer and I guess he was on his way. One day we looked up and he was driving a sleek new black Jaguar, probably the only one in town. Rumor was he settled a big case down in Sarasota and made a killing. He was flashy like that.”
“And his wife, Diana?”
He shakes his head as if in pain. “Poor lady. I guess I’ll always have a soft spot for her. Can you imagine what she went through finding his body like that? She was a mess.”
“I cannot. Was she a good lawyer?”
“Well regarded, I guess. I never had dealings with her. A knockout, though, a real beauty.”
“Did you watch the trial?”
“No. They moved it next door to Butler County, and I couldn’t justify taking time off to sit through a trial.”
“At the time, did you think Quincy Miller committed the murder?”
He shrugs, says, “Sure. I never had any reason to doubt it. As I recall, there was a pretty strong motive for the killing, some bad blood. Wasn’t there a witness who saw him running away from the scene?”
“Yes, but she didn’t make a positive ID.”
“Didn’t they find the murder weapon in Miller’s car?”
“Not exactly. They found a flashlight with some blood on it.”
“And the DNA matched, right?”
“No, there was no DNA testing in 1988. And the flashlight disappeared.”
He thinks about this for a moment and it’s obvious he doesn’t remember the important details. He left Seabrook two years after the murder and has tried to forget the place. He says, “I always thought it was an open-and-shut case. I suppose you think otherwise, right?”
“I do, or else I wouldn’t be here.”
“So what makes you think Miller’s innocent after all these years?”
I’m not about to share my theories, not at this point anyway. Maybe later. I reply, “The State’s case doesn’t hold up,” I say vaguely, then move on with “Did you maintain any contacts in Seabrook after you left?”