Abigail and I went way back. We both made our livings defending the accused. I said made because she was dead, of course, and I was long retired. Abigail was a good woman and I was always befuddled as to why she chose to make her living defending mobsters. Lord knows there was plenty of money to be made representing wealthy private citizens because they are as screwed up as the poor, but she always maintained everyone was entitled to a good defense and it was pointless to argue with that because it was true, everyone, even members of the Firm, were entitled to a proper and competent defense and she certainly provided that. Oftentimes she provided a brilliant defense. I thought she had done that with our client, but there simply wasn’t an acquittal to be had there. It happens. Everyone was of a mind to convict and then condemn. All you could do was keep scrambling.
I’d always found her intuition to be trusty, too, so after she died I remembered she had said he was a good sort and that she was certain he wasn’t a murderer. Pimp, yes. Extortionist, of course. Kidnapper, well, ransom collector, acknowledged. These things fell from him as leaves fell from a tree.
But Abigail was adamant he was not a killer.
A good sort was a compliment from her and that was enough for me to take a look at his case. She never bothered to marry and I was the executor of her estate so I had access to everything and I dove right in. It was tedious work, but it was work I had long been accustomed to and work I rather enjoyed and was happy to be doing again. I read the trial record and the record of the automatic appeal that had been denied, as well as the appeals she had been working on. I wrote the gentleman advising him of Abigail’s death, though I did not make an offer to represent him, or even tell him I had taken an interest in his case.
They were appealing both his conviction and his death sentence. Their first appeal – an automatic one – had been denied and after reading everything I thought that further appeals would be a tough nut to crack because the trial judge, whom I knew well and who had earned my respect, had done her job with her usual degree of impartiality, competence and diligence. There was little to appeal, frankly, though that wouldn’t stop an attorney of my caliber from mustering something to muddy the waters with.
I met him when he was brought to town to talk with the judge who had overall jurisdiction over his appeals. It had been difficult for him to get time with her and several months had passed since Abigail had died.
He was short and trim and polite. Intelligent, too, capable of using the common sense he was born with and I could see where Abigail was certain he was innocent. He knew I was the one who had sent him the letter telling him of Abigail’s death, so he knew I was familiar with the case. I offered to be his attorney – solicitor he called it – and he accepted, after looking around to see if there was anyone else in the room who might take up his cause, his way of signifying he didn’t have a whole lot of options, which was rather funny.
I gave him forms to sign that certified I was his new attorney and which transferred Abigail’s power-of-attorney to me. I told him I was comfortably retired and I would prefer to work for nothing, which he didn’t really like. He said he was not broke and eventually we settled on him paying my expenses, though I never billed him for those.
I knew Constable and had earned the privilege of her friendship, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him she was long dead and he never asked.
I would work my tail off for him and his case utterly consumed me, but this would be the only time I would ever actually see him.
I worked with some young attorneys who worked for an innocence project who had taken up his cause in filing his appeals. They were pretty talented and did a lot of the legwork.
Our writ to have the conviction vacated based on insufficient evidence was dismissed. So was our appeal based on some minor technicalities from the trial. These were not surprises. All told, five more years passed before our appeals were exhausted and an execution date was set. The ambassador’s assassination was now over two decades old.
A lot started happening after his execution date was set. His home country, typically reticent at first, starting making noise. It started with the ambassador, then the foreign and prime ministers got involved and finally, the monarch himself started exerting influence on the matter. Our president, however, was unmoved.
We had one appeal left, the usual one condemned men file as their execution draws near, having to do with lethal injection violating the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Personally, and professionally, I have never seen how death itself is not cruel and unusual punishment. Forget the method. The punishment itself is cruel – what’s worse than death? – and unusual – it is seldom actually carried out.
About a week before his execution date the Feds arrested a foreigner on a weapons charge. His resemblance to my client was astonishing. Shorter than most, trim, same balding head of hair. Same run-of-the-mill looks. He could be everyone and no one. There wasn’t enough to put two and two together, but holy Christ, a similar appearance to my client and a weapons charge? This could not be ignored. A week before my client’s execution we had something to sink our teeth into rather than marking time with final, rabble-rousing appeals we all knew would be denied. In a week we would know if this luck was good or merely poignant.
The first thing I did was contact this British reporter who’d been pestering me every hour on the hour since I took the case. He had interviewed him and had championed his case, keeping a worldwide audience up-to-date and mobilized. I recalled his trial when everyone was out tying nooses and everyone was equally ready to untie them.
I also contacted a reporter in town I’d long known. He was an excellent and heroic muckraker and it only took one column for him to tie the arrestee to the ambassador’s assassination and to demand a full investigation. He had some contacts and he was along when the search warrant was executed on the suspect’s apartment, where they found a rifle that was the same model as the one used to assassinate the ambassador. Hardly enough to get my client off death row, but we were moving. I called Pastor Rob to keep him posted. He said our client was in hiding, incommunicado at his insistence, trying mightily to die with some peace. I told him good, there were no guarantees so let’s not get our hopes up yet. The courts were averse to overturning convictions.
Spurred on publicly by the press and privately by me, a ballistics test was done. It showed it was the same rifle used to assassinate the ambassador. You might think this might be sufficient for the judge to go to death row herself and personally escort my client out, but you would be wrong. Our country has shown that mere innocence is never a barrier to execution.
It was Wednesday. The days we had to work with had turned to hours. We had the weapon used in the assassination and we had a suspect. Young lawyers I was using – mere kids, really – had appeals and writs filed in every court east of the Mississippi. We had appeals ready to file if these were turned down. There were no guarantees. It had been 20 years. A jury had long ago convicted someone, someone who had been condemned as punishment and was a day away from dying.
Thursday afternoon, the suspect confessed. Me and the kiddie corps got busy. The usual writs and appeals were filed in the usual places.
We had three hours.
Then we had two hours.
Then we had one hour and then we didn’t even have that. We were down to minutes.