Authors: John Grisham
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.