Authors: John Grisham
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.