Authors: John Grisham
“Look, Mr. Post, I get out in seventeen months, and I’m not doing anything to screw that up.”
“Arkansas doesn’t care what you did in a Florida courtroom twenty-two years ago. You didn’t perjure yourself here. These guys couldn’t care less. Once you’re paroled, their only concern is filling your cell with the next man. You know how it all works, Zeke. You’re a pro at this game.”
He’s stupid enough to smile at this compliment. He likes the idea of being in control. He sips his Coke, lights another cigarette, finally says, “I don’t know, Mr. Post, it sounds awfully risky to me. Why should I get involved?”
“Why not? You have no loyalty to the cops and prosecutors. They don’t care what happens to you, Zeke. You’re on the other side of the street. Do something good for one of your own.”
There is a long gap in the conversation. Time means nothing. He finishes one pack of peanuts and opens the second. He says, “Never knew of lawyers who do what you do. How many innocent people have you sprung?”
“Eight, in the past ten years. All innocent. We have six clients now, including Quincy.”
“Can you get me out?” he says, and it strikes both of us as funny.
“Well, Zeke, if I thought you were innocent I might give it a shot.”
“Probably a waste of your time.”
“Probably so. Can you help us, Zeke?”
“When’s all this going down?”
“Well, we’re hard at work now. We investigate everything and build a case for innocence. But it’s slow work, as you might guess. There’s no real rush on your part, but I would like to keep in touch.”
“You do that, Mr. Post, and if you find a few extra bucks pass them along. Peanuts and a Coke mean fine dining in this dump.”
“I’ll send some money, Zeke. And if you find a few extra minutes of time, think about Quincy. You owe him one.”
“That I do.”
Carrie Holland was nineteen years old when she told Quincy’s jury that she saw a black man running down a dark street at the time of the murder. He was of the same height and build as Quincy and was carrying what appeared to be a stick, or something. She said she had just parked her car in front of an apartment building, heard two loud noises coming from the direction of the Russos’ law office three blocks away, and saw a man running. On cross-examination, Tyler Townsend attacked. She didn’t live in the apartment building but said she was there to visit a friend. The friend’s name? When she hesitated, Tyler reacted with disbelief and mocked her. When he said, “Give me the friend’s name and I’ll call her as a witness,” the prosecutor objected and the judge sustained. From the transcript, it appeared as though she couldn’t remember a name.
Tyler zeroed in on the dark street, one without lighting. Using a map, he pinpointed the buildings and the distance from her car to the Russos’ office and raised questions about her ability to see what she claimed she saw. He argued with her until the judge intervened and made him stop.
She had a drug charge from the year before and Tyler assaulted her with it. He asked her if she was under the influence on the witness stand and suggested that she was still struggling with addiction. He demanded to know if it was true that she had been dating a deputy on the Ruiz County police force. She denied this. When his cross-examination dragged on, the judge asked him to speed things along. When he protested that the prosecutor seemed to be taking his time, the judge threatened him with contempt, and not for the first time. When Tyler was finished with Carrie Holland he had raised doubts about her credibility, but he had also verbally abused her to the point of making her sympathetic to the jury.
Not long after the trial, Carrie left the area. She lived for a while near Columbus, Georgia, married a man there, had two kids, got a divorce and dropped out of sight. It took Vicki a year in one of her many desktop investigations to find the witness living as Carrie Pruitt in a remote part of western Tennessee. She works in a furniture factory near Kingsport, and lives off a county road in a mobile home she shares with a man called Buck.
To her credit, she has managed to stay out of trouble. Her rap sheet has only the drug conviction from Seabrook, one that was never expunged. We’re assuming that Carrie is clean and sober, and in our business that’s always a plus.
A month ago, Frankie eased into the area and did his usual reconnaissance. He has photos of her mobile home and the acreage around it, and of the factory where she is employed. Working with an investigator from Kingsport, he has learned that she has one son in the army and another living in Knoxville. Buck drives a truck and has no criminal record. Oddly enough, his father once pastored a small rural church twenty miles from where they live. There could be an element of stability in the family.
There is also an excellent chance that neither Buck nor anyone else within five hundred miles knows much about her past. This complicates matters. Why should she revisit her brief encounter with Quincy Miller two decades earlier and upset her life now?
I meet Frankie at a pancake house in Kingsport, and over waffles we discuss the photos. The mobile home is remote with a fenced dog-run out back where Buck keeps some hounds. He drives the obligatory pickup. She has a Honda. Vicki has run the tag numbers and verified ownership. Neither is registered to vote. A nice bass boat sits under a shelter beside the trailer. Buck is obviously serious about his hunting and fishing.
“I don’t like the looks of this place,” Frankie says, shuffling the photos.
“I’ve seen worse,” I say, and I certainly have. I’ve knocked on a lot of doors where I expected to be met by either a Doberman or a rifle. “But let’s assume Buck doesn’t know about her past, never heard of Quincy. If we assume that, then we can also assume she really would like to keep it quiet.”
“Agreed. So stay away from the house.”
“What time does she leave for work?”
“I don’t know, but she punches in at eight, out at five, doesn’t leave for lunch. Makes about nine bucks an hour. She’s on an assembly line, not in an office, so you can’t call her at work.”
“And she won’t talk around her coworkers. What’s the weather forecast for Saturday?”
“Clear and sunny. Perfect day for fishing.”
“Let’s hope so.”
At daybreak Saturday, Frankie is pumping gas at a convenience store a mile from the trailer. It’s our lucky day, or so we think for a moment. Buck and a friend roll past towing the bass rig, headed for a lake or a river. Frankie calls me, and I immediately call the listed number of their land line.
A sleepy woman answers the phone. In a friendly voice I say, “Ms. Pruitt, my name is Cullen Post, and I’m a lawyer from Savannah, Georgia. Got a minute?”
“Who? What do you want?” The sleepiness vanishes.
“Cullen Post is my name. I’d like to talk to you about a trial you were involved in a long time ago.”
“You got the wrong number.”
“You were Carrie Holland back then and you lived in Seabrook, Florida. I have all the records, Carrie, and I’m not here to cause you any trouble.”
“Wrong number, mister.”
“I represent Quincy Miller. He’s been in prison for twenty-two years because of you, Carrie. The least you can do is give me thirty minutes.”
The line goes dead. Ten minutes later, I park in front of the trailer. Frankie is not far away, just in case I get shot.
Carrie finally comes to the door, opens it slowly, and steps onto the narrow wooden porch. She is slim and wearing tight jeans. Her blond hair is pulled back. Even with no makeup, she is not a bad-looking woman, but the years of nicotine have bunched lines of wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She holds a cigarette and glares at me.
I’m wearing my collar but she is not impressed by it. I smile and say, “Sorry to barge in like this, but I just happened to be in the area.”
“What do you want?” she asks and takes a puff.
“I want my client out of prison, Carrie, and that’s where you come in. Look, I’m not here to embarrass or harass you. I’ll bet Buck has never heard of Quincy Miller, right? Can’t blame you for that. I wouldn’t talk about it either. But Quincy is still serving hard time for a murder committed by someone else. He didn’t kill anyone. You didn’t see a black man running from the scene. You testified because the cops leaned on you, right? You had been dating one of them and so they knew you. They needed a witness and you had that little drug problem, right Carrie?”
“How’d you find me?”
“You’re not exactly hiding.”
“Get outta here before I call the law.”
I raise my hands in mock surrender. “No problem. It’s your property. I’m leaving.” I toss a business card on the grass and say, “Here’s my number. My job will not allow me to forget about you, so I’ll be back. And I promise I will not blow your cover. I just want to talk, that’s all, Carrie. You did a terrible thing twenty-two years ago and it’s time to make it right.”
She doesn’t move, and watches me drive away.
The letter from Quincy is handwritten in neat block letters. It must have taken him hours. It reads:
thank you sir once again for taking my case. you cannot know what it means to be locked up like this with no one out there believing in you. i’m a different person these days, post, and it’s all because of you. now get to work and get me out of here.
you asked me if my wonderful young lawyer tyler townsend had a theory about the real murderer. he did. he told me many times that it was well-known around that part of florida that keith russo and his wife were involved with the wrong people. they were lawyers for some drug dealers. they started making a lot of money and this got noticed. there ain’t much money in seabrook, not even for lawyers, and folks became suspicious. the high sheriff, pfitzner, was a crook himself and tyler said he was in on the drugs. probably in on the killing too.
i know this for a fact, post. somebody put that damned flashlight in the trunk of my car, and i just know it was pfitzner. the whole deal was one big frame job. they knew it would be easier to convict a black guy in seabrook than a white one and man they got that right.
a friend said i should hire russo for my divorce. bad, bad advice. he charged me too much money and did a terrible job. about halfway through i could tell he didn’t want to be no divorce lawyer. when the judge hit me with all that alimony and child support i said to russo, man you gotta be kiddin me. no way i can pay all that. you know what he said? said, you’re lucky it wasn’t more. the judge was a big church man and really disliked men who chased skirts. my ex said i was screwing around. russo acted like i got what i deserved.
russo himself was a ladies’ man. anyway, enough of that. he’s dead.
tyler didn’t know why they killed russo, but, when you’re dealing with a drug gang you have to figure he double-crossed them in some way. maybe he kept too much of the money. maybe he was snitching. maybe his wife didn’t want to lose everything they had. i met her a few times when i was in the office and didn’t like her. one tough gal.
after my trial, tyler got threats and he was really scared. they finally ran him out of town. he said there were some bad people back there and he was moving on. years later, after my appeals were over, and he wasn’t my lawyer anymore, he told me that a deputy sheriff got killed in seabrook. said he thought it was related to the russo murder and the drug gangs. but he was only speculating by then.
so there it is, post. tyler’s theory of who really killed russo. and he also thought that russo’s wife was probably involved too. but it’s too late to prove any of that.
thanks again, post. hope this is helpful and i hope to see you soon. get busy.
your client and friend, quincy miller.
The bloodstain expert who testified against Quincy was a former Denver homicide detective named Paul Norwood. After working crime scenes for a few years, he had decided to hand in his badge, buy a couple of nice suits, and become an expert witness. He had dropped out of college and did not have the time to pursue a degree in criminology or anything related to actual science, so he attended seminars and workshops on forensics, and he read books and magazine articles written by other experts. He was a smooth talker with a good vocabulary, and he found it easy to convince judges that he knew his stuff. Once qualified as a forensics expert, he found it even easier to convince unsophisticated jurors that his opinions were based on solid science.
Norwood was far from alone. In the 1980s and 1990s, expert testimony proliferated in the criminal courts as all manner of self-anointed authorities roamed the country impressing juries with their freewheeling opinions. To make matters worse, popular television crime shows portrayed forensic investigators as brilliant sleuths able to solve complex crimes with infallible science. The famous ones could practically look at a bloodied corpse and, within an hour or two, name the killer. In real life, thousands of criminal defendants were convicted and put away by shaky theories about bloodstains, blood spatter, arson, bite marks, fabrics, glass breakage, scalp and pubic hair, boot prints, ballistics, and even fingerprints.
Good defense lawyers challenged the credibility of these experts, but were rarely successful. Judges were often overwhelmed by the science and had little or no time to educate themselves. If a proffered witness had some training and seemed to know what he was talking about, he was allowed to testify. Over time, judges adopted the rationale that since a witness had been qualified as an expert in other trials in other states, then certainly he must be a genuine authority. Appellate courts got into the act by affirming convictions without seriously questioning the science behind the forensics, and thus bolstering the reputations of the experts. As résumés grew thicker, the opinions grew to encompass even more theories of guilt.