Authors: John Grisham
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.