Authors: John Grisham
The more Paul Norwood testified, the smarter he became. One year before Quincy’s trial in 1988, Norwood spent twenty-four hours in a bloodstain analysis seminar put on by a private company in Kentucky. He passed the course, was given a certificate to prove his knowledge, and added another field of expertise to his growing repertoire. He was soon impressing juries with his scientific knowledge of the many intricate ways blood is dispersed in a grisly crime. He specialized in blood, crime scene reconstruction, ballistics, and hair analysis. He advertised his services, networked with law enforcement and prosecutors, and even wrote a book on forensics. His reputation grew and he was in demand.
Over a twenty-five-year career, Norwood testified in hundreds of criminal trials, always for the prosecution and always implicating the defendant. And always for a nice fee.
Then DNA testing arrived and put a serious dent in his business. DNA testing not only changed the future of criminal investigations, it brought a fresh and devastating scrutiny to the junk science Norwood and his ilk had been peddling. In at least half of the DNA exonerations of innocent men and women, bad forensics have been the cornerstone of the prosecution’s evidence.
In one year, 2005, three of Norwood’s convictions were invalidated when DNA testing exposed his faulty methods and testimony. His three victims had spent a combined fifty-nine years in prison, one on death row. He retired under pressure after a single trial in 2006. On cross-examination, after giving his standard bloodstain analysis, he was discredited like never before. The defense lawyer painfully walked him through each of the prior year’s three exonerations. The questioning was brilliant, brutal, and revealing. The defendant was found not guilty. The real killer was later identified. And Norwood called it quits.
However, the damage was done. Quincy Miller had long since been convicted because of Norwood’s analysis of the bloody flashlight, which, of course, he had never seen. His razor-sharp analysis of the case consisted of reviewing large color photos of the crime scene and the flashlight. He never touched the most crucial piece of evidence, but rather relied on photos of it. Undaunted by this, he testified with certainty that the specks of blood on the lens were back spatter from the shotgun blasts that killed Keith Russo.
The flashlight disappeared before the trial.
Norwood refuses to discuss the case with me. I’ve written him twice. He responded once and said he would not talk about it, not even on the phone. He claims he’s in bad health; the case was a long time ago; his memory is failing; and so on. Not that a conversation would be that productive. As of now, at least seven of his convictions have been exposed as frauds and he is regularly used as the poster boy for junk science gone awry. Death penalty lawyers attack regularly. He’s even been sued. Bloggers excoriate him for the misery he created. Appellate judges detail his wretched career. An innocence group is trying to raise a fortune in funds to review all of his cases, but that kind of money is hard to find. If given an audience, I would ask him to repudiate his work and try to help Quincy, but so far he has shown no sign of remorse.
With or without Norwood, we have no choice but to hire our own forensic scientists, and the best ones are expensive.
I’m in Savannah for a couple of days putting out fires. Vicki, Mazy, and I are in the conference room discussing forensics. On the table in front of us are four résumés, our final four. All are top criminologists with impeccable credentials. We’ll start with two and send them the case. The cheapest wants $15,000 for a review and consultation. The most expensive gets $30,000 and there’s no negotiating. As innocence work has intensified over the past decade, these guys have become highly sought-after by groups advocating for the wrongfully convicted.
Our top man is Dr. Kyle Benderschmidt at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He has taught for decades and has built one of the leading forensic science departments in the country. I’ve talked to other lawyers and they rave about him.
We try to keep $75,000 in a war chest to pay experts, private investigators, and lawyers when necessary. We don’t like to pay lawyers, and over the years we have become quite convincing at begging sympathetic litigators to go pro bono. We have a loose network of them around the country. And some scientists will reduce their fees to help an innocent person, but that’s rare.
Benderschmidt’s standard rate is $30,000. “Do we have it?” I ask Vicki.
“Of course,” she says with a smile, always the optimist. If we don’t have it, she’ll get on the phone and fire up some donors.
“Then let’s hire him,” I say. Mazy agrees. We move on to the second expert.
Mazy says, “Looks like you’re off to another slow start on this one, Post. I mean, you’ve struck out with June Walker, Zeke Huffey, and Carrie Holland. So far nobody wants to talk to you.”
As with any office, there is a fair amount of good-natured ribbing within Guardian. Vicki and Mazy get along well enough, though each gives the other a wide berth. When I’m in town I become an easy target. If we didn’t love each other we would be throwing rocks.
I laugh and say, “No kidding. And please remind me of the last case where we got off to a fast start.”
“We’re a tortoise not a rabbit,” Vicki says, offering one of her favorites.
I say, “Yep. It took us three years before we signed on. You want an exoneration in a month?”
“Just show us some progress,” Mazy says.
“I haven’t hit the charm button yet,” I say.
Mazy smiles along. “When are you going to Seabrook?”
“Don’t know. I’m putting it off as long as I can. No one there knows we’re involved and I’d like to stay in the shadows.”
“What’s the level of fear?” Vicki asks.
“Hard to say but it’s definitely a factor. If Russo got himself rubbed out by a drug gang, then those guys are still around. The killer is among them. When I show up, they’ll probably know it.”
“It sounds awfully risky, Post,” Mazy says.
“It is, but there’s risk in most of our cases, right? Our clients are in prison because someone else pulled the trigger. They’re still out there, laughing because the cops nailed the wrong guy. The last thing they want is an innocence lawyer digging through the old case.”
“Just be careful,” Vicki says. It’s obvious these two have worried at length behind my back.
“I’m always careful. Are you cooking tonight?”
“We’re having frozen pizza,” Mazy says. She dislikes cooking, and with four kids at home she relies heavily on the frozen food section.
“Is James around?” I ask. Mazy and her husband separated a few years back and attempted a divorce. It didn’t work, but living together is not working either. She knows I truly care and I’m not being nosy.
“He comes and goes, spends some time with the kids.”
“I pray for you guys.”
“I know you do, Post. And we pray for you.”
I don’t keep food in my penthouse because it tends to rot from neglect. Since I can’t squeeze a meal out of either of my colleagues, I work until after dark then go for a long walk through the old section of town. Christmas is two weeks away and the air is cool. I’ve been in Savannah for a dozen years but don’t really know the city. I’m away too much to enjoy its charm and history, and it’s difficult to foster friendships with a nomadic lifestyle. But my first friend is at home and looking for company.
Luther Hodges hired me out of seminary and enticed me to Savannah. He’s retired now and his wife died a few years ago. He lives in a small cottage owned by the diocese, two blocks from Chippewa Square. He’s waiting on the porch, eager to get out of the house.
“Hello Padre,” I say as we embrace.
“Hello, my son,” he says piously. Our standard greetings.
“You look thin,” he says. He worries about my lifestyle—bad diet, little sleep, stress.
“Well, you certainly don’t,” I reply. He pats his stomach and says, “I can’t stay away from the ice cream.”
“I’m starving. Let’s go.”
We’re on the sidewalk, arm in arm, strolling Whitaker Street. Luther is almost eighty now, and with each visit I notice he’s moving a bit slower. He has a slight limp and needs a new knee but says replacement parts are for geezers. “You just can’t let the old man in,” is one of his favorite lines.
“Where have you been?” he asks.
“The usual. Here and there.”
“Tell me about the case,” he says. He is fascinated by my work and wants updates. He knows the names of Guardian’s clients and follows any developments online.
I talk about Quincy Miller and our typical slow start. He listens carefully, and, as always, says little. How many of us have a true friend who loves what we do and is willing to listen for hours? I am blessed to have Luther Hodges.
I hit the high points without revealing anything confidential, and ask about his work. He spends hours each day writing letters to men and women behind bars. This is his ministry and he’s committed to it. He keeps meticulous records and copies of all correspondence. If you’re on Luther’s list, you get letters along with birthday and Christmas cards. If he had money, he would send it all to prisoners.
There are sixty on his list at the moment. One died last week. A young man in Missouri hung himself, and Luther’s voice breaks as he talks about it. The guy had mentioned suicide in a couple of letters and Luther was concerned. He called the prison numerous times looking for help but got nowhere.
We descend to the Savannah River and walk the cobblestone street near the water. Our favorite little bistro is a seafood joint that’s been here for decades. Luther took me to lunch there on my first visit. At the door, he says, “My treat.”
He knows my financial situation. “If you insist,” I say.
VCU is a city campus and seems to occupy most of downtown Richmond. On a raw January afternoon, I make my way to the Department of Forensic Science on West Main Street. Kyle Benderschmidt has chaired the department for two decades and rules the place. His suite occupies an entire corner of the floor. A secretary offers coffee and I never decline. Students come and go. At exactly 3:00 p.m., the renowned criminologist appears and welcomes me with a smile.
Dr. Benderschmidt is in his early seventies, lean and energetic, and still dresses like the old frat boy he was back in the day. Starched khakis, penny loafers, a button-down shirt. Though he is in demand as an expert, he still loves the classroom and teaches two courses each semester. He does not like courtrooms and tries to avoid testifying. He and I both know that if we get as far as a retrial in Quincy’s case, it will be years away. Typically, he reviews a case, prepares his findings, offers his opinions, and moves on to the next one as the lawyers go about their business.
I follow him into a small conference room. On the table is the stack of materials I sent him three weeks ago: photos and diagrams of the crime scene, photos of the flashlight, the autopsy report, and the entire trial transcript, almost 1,200 pages.
I wave at the paperwork and ask, “So what do you think?”
He smiles and shakes his head. “I’ve read everything and I’m not sure how Mr. Miller got convicted. But then this is not unusual. What really happened to the flashlight?”
“There was a fire in the storage unit where the cops stored evidence. It was never found.”
“I know, I read that part too. But what really happened?”
“Don’t know yet. We haven’t investigated the fire and probably won’t be able to.”
“So, let’s assume the fire was deliberate and somebody wanted the flashlight to disappear. There is no link to Miller without it. What do the police gain by destroying it and keeping it away from the jury?”
I feel like I’m a witness getting peppered on cross-examination. “Good question,” I say and sip my coffee. “Since we’re working with assumptions, then let’s assume the police did not want a defense expert taking a close look at it.”
“But there was no defense expert,” he says.
“Of course not. It was an indigent defense case with a court-appointed lawyer. The judge refused to provide funds for an opposing expert. The cops probably anticipated this, but decided not to take a chance. They figured they could find a guy like Norwood who would be happy to analyze and speculate using only the photos.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“We’re just guessing here, Dr. Benderschmidt. It’s all we can do at this point. And maybe those little specks of blood belong to someone else.”
“Precisely,” he says with a smile, as if he’s already figured out something. He takes an enlarged color photo of the two-inch flashlight lens. “We’ve examined this with all sorts of image enhancers. Me and some of my colleagues. I’m not even sure these specks are human blood, or blood at all.”
“If they’re not blood, then what are they?”
“It’s impossible to tell. What is so troubling about this is that the flashlight was not recovered from the crime scene. We don’t know where it came from or how the blood, if it’s blood, made it to the surface of the lens. There is such a small sample to work with, it’s impossible to determine anything.”
“If it’s back spatter, wouldn’t the shotgun and even the killer be covered as well?”