The Guardians – John Grisham

Duke Russell is not guilty of the unspeakable crimes for which he was convicted; nonetheless, he is scheduled to be executed for them in one hour and forty-four minutes. As always during these dreadful nights, the clock seems to tick faster as the final hour approaches. I’ve suffered through two of these countdowns in other states. One went full cycle and my man uttered his final words. The other was waved off in a miracle finish. Tick away—it’s not going to happen, not tonight anyway. The folks who run Alabama may one day succeed in serving Duke his last meal before sticking a needle in his arm, but not tonight. He’s been on death row for only nine years. The average in this state is fifteen. Twenty is not unusual. There is an appeal bouncing around somewhere in the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, and when it lands on the desk of the right law clerk within the hour this execution will be stayed. Duke will return to the horrors of solitary confinement and live to die another day. He’s been my client for the past four years. His team includes a mammoth firm in Chicago, which has committed thousands of pro bono hours, and an anti–death penalty group out of Birmingham that is spread pretty thin. Four years ago, when I became convinced he was innocent, I signed on as the point man.

Currently I have five cases, all wrongful convictions, at least in my opinion. I’ve watched one of my clients die. I still believe he was innocent. I just couldn’t prove it in time. One is enough. For the third time today, I enter Alabama’s death row and stop at the metal detector blocking the front door where two frowning guards are protecting their turf. One holds a clipboard and stares at me as if he’s forgotten my name since my last visit two hours ago. “Post, Cullen Post,” I say to the dunce. “For Duke Russell.” He scans his clipboard as if it holds vital information, finds what he wants, and nods to a plastic basket on a short conveyor belt.

In it, I place my briefcase and cell phone, same as before. “Watch and belt?” I ask like a real smart-ass. “No,” he grunts with an effort. I step through the detector, get cleared, and once again an innocence lawyer manages to properly enter death row without weaponry. I grab my briefcase and cell phone and follow the other guard down a sterile hallway to a wall of bars. He nods, switches click and clang, the bars slide open, and we hike down another hallway, trudging deeper into this miserable building. Around a corner, some men are waiting outside a windowless steel door. Four are in uniform, two in suits. One of the latter is the warden. He looks gravely at me and steps over.

“Got a minute?” “Not many,” I reply. We move away from the group for a private chat. He’s not a bad guy, just doing his job, which he’s new at and thus he’s never pulled off an execution. He’s also the enemy, and whatever he wants he will not get from me. We huddle up like pals and he whispers, “What’s it look like?” I glance around as if to evaluate the situation and say, “Gee, I don’t know. Looks like an execution to me.” “Come on, Post. Our lawyers are saying it’s a go.” “Your lawyers are idiots. We’ve already had this conversation.

” “Come on, Post. What are the odds right now?” “Fifty-fifty,” I say, lying. This puzzles him and he’s not sure how to respond. “I’d like to see my client,” I say. “Sure,” he says louder as if frustrated. He can’t be viewed as cooperating with me, so he storms off. The guards step back as one of them opens the door. Inside the Death Room, Duke is lying on a cot with his eyes closed. For the festivities, the rules allow him a small color television so he can watch whatever he wants. It’s on mute with cable news giddy over wildfires out west.

His countdown is not a big story on the national front. At execution time, every death state has its own silly rituals, all designed to create as much drama as possible. Here, they allow full-contact visits with close family members in a large visitation room. At 10:00 p.m., they move the condemned man to the Death Room, which is next door to the Death Chamber where he’ll be killed. A chaplain and a lawyer are permitted to sit with him, but no one else. His last meal is served around 10:30, and he can order whatever he wants, except for alcohol. “How you doing?” I ask as he sits up and smiles. “Never felt better.

Any news?” “Not yet, but I’m still optimistic. We should hear something soon.” Duke is thirty-eight and white, and before getting arrested for rape and murder his criminal record consisted of two DUIs and a bunch of speeding tickets. No violence whatsoever. He was a party boy and hell-raiser in his younger days, but after nine years in solitary he has settled down considerably. My job is to set him free, which, at the moment, seems like a crazy dream. I take the remote and change channels to one from Birmingham, but I leave it on mute. “You seem awfully confident,” he says. “I can afford to. I’m not getting the needle.

” “You’re a funny man, Post.” “Relax, Duke.” “Relax?” He swings his feet to the floor and smiles again. He does indeed look rather relaxed, given the circumstances. He laughs and says, “Do you remember Lucky Skelton?” “No.” “They finally got him, about five years ago, but not before serving him three last meals. Three times he walked the gangplank before getting the shove. Sausage pizza and a cherry Coke.” “And what did you order?” “Steak and fries, with a six-pack of beer.” “I wouldn’t count on the beer.

” “Are you gonna get me outta here, Post?” “Not tonight, but I’m working on it.” “If I get out I’m going straight to a bar and drinking cold beer until I pass out.” “I’ll go with you. Here’s the Governor.” He appears on-screen and I hit the volume. He’s standing in front of a bank of microphones with camera lights glaring at him. Dark suit, paisley tie, white shirt, every tinted hair gelled with precision. A walking campaign ad. Sufficiently burdened, he says, “I have thoroughly reviewed Mr. Russell’s case and discussed it at length with my investigators.

I’ve also met with the family of Emily Broone, the victim of Mr. Russell’s crimes, and the family is very much opposed to the idea of clemency. After considering all aspects of this case, I have decided to allow his conviction to stand. The court order will remain in place, and the execution will go forward. The people have spoken. Clemency for Mr. Russell is therefore denied.” He announces this with as much drama as he can muster, then bows and slowly backs away from the cameras, his grand performance complete. Elvis has left the building. Three days ago, he found the time to grant me an audience for fifteen minutes, after which he discussed our “private” meeting with his favorite reporters.

If his review had been so thorough, he would know that Duke Russell had nothing to do with the rape and murder of Emily Broone eleven years ago. I hit the mute again and say, “No surprise there.” “Has he ever granted clemency?” Duke asks. “Of course not.” There is a loud knock on the door and it swings open. Two guards enter and one is pushing a cart with the last meal. They leave it and disappear. Duke stares at the steak and fries and a rather slim slice of chocolate cake, and says, “No beer.” “Enjoy your iced tea.” He sits on the cot and begins to eat.

The food smells delicious and it hits me that I have not eaten in at least twenty-four hours. “Want some fries?” he asks. “No thanks.” “I can’t eat all this. For some reason I don’t have much of an appetite.” “How was your mom?” He stuffs in a large chunk of steak and chews slowly. “Not too good, as you might expect. A lot of tears. It was pretty awful.” The cell phone in my pocket vibrates and I grab it.

I look at the caller ID and say, “Here it is.” I smile at Duke and say hello. It’s the law clerk at the Eleventh Circuit, a guy I know pretty well, and he informs me that his boss has just signed an order staying the execution on the grounds that more time is needed to determine whether Duke Russell received a fair trial. I ask him when the stay will be announced and he says immediately. I look at my client and say, “You got a stay. No needle tonight. How long will it take to finish that steak?” “Five minutes,” he says with a wide smile as he carves more beef. “Can you give me ten minutes?” I ask the clerk. “My client would like to finish his last meal.” We go back and forth and finally agree on seven minutes.

I thank him, end the call, and punch another number. “Eat fast,” I say. He has suddenly found his appetite and is as happy as a pig at the trough. The architect of Duke’s wrongful conviction is a small-town prosecutor named Chad Falwright. Right now he’s waiting in the prison’s administration building half a mile away, poised for the proudest moment of his career. He thinks that at 11:30 he’ll be escorted to a prison van, along with the Broone family and the local sheriff, and driven here to death row where they’ll be led to a small room with a large glass window that’s covered with a curtain. Once situated there, Chad thinks, they’ll wait for the moment when Duke is strapped to the gurney with needles in his arms and the curtain will be pulled back in dramatic fashion. For a prosecutor, there is no greater sense of accomplishment than to witness an execution for which he is responsible. Chad, though, will be denied the thrill. I punch his number and he answers quickly.

“It’s Post,” I say. “Over here on death row with some bad news. The Eleventh Circuit just issued a stay. Looks like you’ll crawl back to Verona with your tail between your legs.” He stutters and manages to say, “What the hell?” “You heard me, Chad. Your bogus conviction is unraveling and this is as close as you’ll ever get to Duke’s scalp, which, I must say, is pretty damned close. The Eleventh Circuit has doubts about the trivial notion of a fair trial, so they’re sending it back. It’s over, Chad. Sorry to ruin your big moment.” “Is this a joke, Post?” “Oh sure.

Nothing but laughs over here on death row. You’ve had fun talking to the reporters all day, now have some fun with this.” To say I loathe this guy would be a tremendous understatement. I end the call and look at Duke, who’s feasting away. With his mouth full he asks, “Can you call my mother?” “No. Only lawyers can use cell phones in here, but she’ll know soon enough. Hurry up.” He washes it down with tea and attacks the chocolate cake. I take the remote and turn up the volume. As he scrapes his plate, a breathless reporter appears somewhere on the prison grounds and, stuttering, tells us that a stay has been granted.

He looks bewildered and confused, and there is confusion all around him. Within seconds there is a knock on the door and the warden enters. He sees the television and says, “So I guess you’ve heard?” “Right, Warden, sorry to ruin the party. Tell your boys to stand down and please call the van for me.” Duke wipes his mouth with a sleeve, starts laughing and says, “Don’t look so disappointed, Warden.” “No, actually I’m relieved,” he says, but the truth is obvious. He, too, has spent the day talking to reporters and savoring the spotlight. Suddenly, though, his exciting broken-field run has ended with a fumble at the goal line. “I’m out of here,” I say as I shake Duke’s hand. “Thanks Post,” he says.

“I’ll be in touch.” I head for the door and say to the warden, “Please give my regards to the Governor.” I’m escorted outside the building where the cool air hits hard and feels exhilarating. A guard leads me to an unmarked prison van a few feet away. I get in and he closes the door. “The front gate,” I say to the driver. As I ride through the sprawl of Holman Correctional Facility, I am hit with fatigue and hunger. And relief. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and absorb the miracle that Duke will live to see another day. I’ve saved his life for now.

Securing his freedom will take another miracle. For reasons known only to the people who run this place, it has been on lockdown for the past five hours, as if angry inmates might organize into a Bastille-like mob and storm death row to rescue Duke. Now the lockdown is subsiding; the excitement is over. The extra manpower brought in to maintain order is withdrawing, and all I want is to get out of here. I’m parked in a small lot near the front gate, where the TV crews are unplugging and going home. I thank the driver, get in my little Ford SUV, and leave in a hurry. Two miles down the highway I stop at a closed country store to make a call. His name is Mark Carter. White male, age thirty-three, lives in a small rental house in the town of Bayliss, ten miles from Verona. In my files I have photos of his house and truck and current live-in girlfriend.

Eleven years ago, Carter raped and murdered Emily Broone, and now all I have to do is prove it. Using a burner, I call the number of his cell phone, a number I’m not supposed to have. After five rings he says, “Hello.” “Is this Mark Carter?” “Who wants to know?” “You don’t know me, Carter, but I’m calling from the prison. Duke Russell just got a stay, so I’m sorry to inform you that the case is still alive. Are you watching television?” “Who is this?” “I’m sure you’re watching the TV, Carter, sitting there on your fat ass with your fat girlfriend hoping and praying that the State finally kills Duke for your crime. You’re a scumbag Carter, willing to watch him die for something you did. What a coward.” “Say it to my face.” “Oh, I will Carter, one day in a courtroom.

I’ll find the evidence and before long Duke will get out. You’ll take his place. I’m coming your way, Carter.” I end the call before he can say anything else. Chapter 2 Since gas is slightly cheaper than cheap motels, I spend a lot of time driving lonely roads at dark hours. As always, I tell myself that I will sleep later, as if a long hibernation is waiting just around the corner. The truth is that I nap a lot but rarely sleep and this is unlikely to change. I have saddled myself with the burdens of innocent people rotting away in prison while rapists and murderers roam free. Duke Russell was convicted in a backwater redneck town where half the jurors struggle to read and all were easily misled by two pompous and bogus experts put on the stand by Chad Falwright. The first was a retired small-town dentist from Wyoming, and how he found his way to Verona, Alabama, is another story.

With grave authority, a nice suit, and an impressive vocabulary, he testified that three nicks on the arms of Emily Broone were inflicted by Duke’s teeth. This clown makes a living testifying across the country, always for the prosecution and always for nice fees, and in his twisted mind a rape is not violent enough unless the rapist somehow manages to bite the victim hard enough to leave imprints. Such an unfounded and ridiculous theory should have been exposed on cross-examination, but Duke’s lawyer was either drunk or napping. The second expert was from the state crime lab. His area of expertise was, and still is, hair analysis. Seven pubic hairs were found on Emily’s body, and this guy convinced the jury that they came from Duke. They did not. They probably came from Mark Carter but we don’t know that. Yet. The local yokels in charge of the investigation had only a passing interest in Carter as a suspect, though he was the last person seen with Emily the night she disappeared.

Bite mark and hair analysis have been discredited in most advanced jurisdictions. Both belong to that pathetic and ever-shifting field of knowledge derisively known among defense and innocence lawyers as “junk science.” God only knows how many innocent people are serving long sentences because of unqualified experts and their unfounded theories of guilt. Any defense lawyer worth his salt would have had a fine time with those two experts on crossexamination, but Duke’s lawyer was not worth the $3,000 the State paid him. Indeed, he was worth nothing. He had little criminal experience, reeked of alcohol during the trial, was woefully unprepared, believed his client was guilty, got three DUIs the year after the trial, got disbarred, and eventually died of cirrhosis. And I’m supposed to pick up the pieces and find justice. But no one drafted me into this case. As always, I’m a volunteer. I’m on the interstate headed toward Montgomery, two and a half hours away, and I have time to plot and scheme.

If I stopped at a motel I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. I’m too pumped over the lastminute miracle that I just pulled out of thin air. I send a text to the law clerk in Atlanta and say thanks. I send a text to my boss who, hopefully, is asleep by now. Her name is Vicki Gourley and she works in our little foundation’s office in the old section of Savannah. She founded Guardian Ministries twelve years ago with her own money. Vicki is a devout Christian who considers her work to be derived straight from the Gospels. Jesus said to remember the prisoners. She doesn’t spend much time hanging around jails but she works fifteen hours a day trying to free the innocent. Years ago she was on a jury that convicted a young man of murder and sentenced him to die.

Two years later the bad conviction was exposed. The prosecutor had concealed exculpatory evidence and solicited perjured testimony from a jailhouse snitch. The police had planted evidence and lied to the jury. When the real killer was identified by DNA, Vicki sold her flooring business to her nephews, took the money and started Guardian Ministries. I was her first employee. Now we have one more. We also have a freelancer named Francois Tatum. He’s a forty-five-year-old black guy who realized as a teenager that life in rural Georgia might be easier if he called himself Frankie and not Francois. Seems his mother had some Haitian blood and gave her kids French names, none of which were common in her remote corner of the English-speaking world. Frankie was my first exoneree.

He was serving life in Georgia for someone else’s murder when I met him. At the time, I was working as an Episcopal priest at a small church in Savannah. We ran a prison ministry and that’s how I met Frankie. He was obsessed with his innocence and talked of nothing else. He was bright and extremely well-read, and had taught himself the law inside and out. After two visits he had me convinced. During the first phase of my legal career I defended people who could not afford a lawyer. I had hundreds of clients and before long I reached the point where I assumed they were all guilty. I had never stopped for a moment to consider the plight of the wrongfully convicted. Frankie changed all that.

I plunged into an investigation of his case and soon realized I might be able to prove his innocence. Then I met Vicki and she offered me a job that paid even less than my pastoral work. Still does. So Francois Tatum became the first client signed up by Guardian Ministries. After fourteen years in prison he had been completely abandoned by his family. All his friends were gone. The aforementioned mother had dumped him and his siblings at the doorstep of an aunt and was never seen again. He’s never known his father. When I met him in prison I was his first visitor in twelve years. All of this neglect sounds terrible, but there was a silver lining.

Once freed and fully exonerated, Frankie got a lot of money from the State of Georgia and the locals who had put him away. And with no family or friends to hound him for cash, he managed to ease into freedom like a ghost with no trail. He keeps a small apartment in Atlanta, a post office box in Chattanooga, and spends most of his time on the road savoring the open spaces. His money is buried in various banks throughout the South so no one can find it. He avoids relationships because he has been scarred by all of them. That, and he’s always fearful that someone will try to get in his pockets. Frankie trusts me and no one else. When his lawsuits were settled, he offered me a generous fee. I said no. He’d earned every dime of that money surviving prison.

When I signed on with Guardian I took a vow of poverty. If my clients can survive on two bucks a day for food, the least I can do is cut every corner. East of Montgomery, I pull into a truck stop near Tuskegee. It’s still dark, not yet 6:00 a.m., and the sprawling gravel lot is packed with big rigs purring away while their drivers either nap or get breakfast. The café is busy and the thick aroma of bacon and sausage hits me hard as I enter. Someone waves from the rear. Frankie has secured a booth. Since we are in rural Alabama, we greet each other with a proper handshake, as opposed to a man hug we might otherwise consider.

Two men, one black and the other white, hugging in a crowded truck stop might attract a look or two, not that we really care. Frankie has more money than all these guys combined, and he’s still lean and quick from his prison days. He doesn’t start fights. He simply has the air and confidence to discourage them. “Congrats,” he says. “That was pretty close.” “Duke had just started his last meal when the call came. Had to eat in a hurry.” “But you seemed confident.” “I was faking, the old tough lawyer routine.

Inside, my guts were boiling.” “Speaking of which. I’m sure you’re starving.” “Yes, I am. I called Carter as I left the prison. Couldn’t help myself.” He frowns slightly and says, “Okay. I’m sure there was a reason.” “Not a good one. I was just too pissed not to.

The guy was sitting there counting the minutes until Duke got the needle. Can you imagine what that’s like, being the real killer and silently cheering from the sideline as somebody else is executed? We gotta nail him, Frankie.” “We will.” A waitress appears and I order eggs and coffee. Frankie wants pancakes and sausage. He knows as much about my cases as I do. He reads every file, memo, report, and trial transcript. Fun for Frankie is easing into a place like Verona, Alabama, where no one has ever seen him, and digging for information. He’s fearless but he never takes chances because he is not going to get caught. His new life is too good, his freedom especially valuable because he suffered so long without it.

“We have to get Carter’s DNA,” I say. “One way or the other.” “I know, I know. I’m working on it. You need some rest, boss.” “Don’t I always? And, as we well know, being the lawyer I can’t obtain his DNA by illegal means.” “But I can, right?” He smiles and sips his coffee. The waitress delivers mine and fills the cup. “Maybe. Let’s discuss it later.

For the next few weeks, he’ll be spooked because of my call. Good for him. He’ll make a mistake at some point and we’ll be there.” “Where are you headed now?” “Savannah. I’ll be there for a couple of days, then head to Florida.” “Florida. Seabrook?” “Yes, Seabrook. I’ve decided to take the case.” Frankie’s face never reveals much. His eyes seldom blink, his voice is steady and flat as if he’s measuring every word.

Survival in prison required a poker face. Long stretches of solitude were common. “Are you sure?” he asks. It’s obvious he has doubts about Seabrook. “The guy is innocent, Frankie. And he has no lawyer.” The platters arrive and we busy ourselves with butter, syrup, and hot sauce. The Seabrook case has been in our office for almost three years as we, the staff, have debated whether or not to get involved. That’s not unusual in our business. Not surprisingly, Guardian is inundated with mail from inmates in fifty states, all claiming to be innocent.

The vast majority are not, so we screen and screen and pick and choose with care, and take only those with the strongest claims of innocence. And we still make mistakes. Frankie says, “That could be a pretty dangerous situation down there.” “I know. We’ve kicked this around for a long time. Meanwhile he’s counting his days, serving someone else’s time.” He chews on pancakes and nods slightly, still unconvinced. I ask, “When have we ever run from a good fight, Frankie?” “Maybe this is the time to take a pass. You decline cases every day, right? Maybe this is more dangerous than all the others. God knows you have enough potential clients out there.

” “Are you getting soft?” “No. I just don’t want to see you hurt. No one ever sees me, Cullen. I live and work in the shadows. But your name is on the pleadings. You start digging around in an awful place like Seabrook and you could upset some nasty characters.” I smile and say, “All the more reason to do it.” The sun is up when we leave the café. In the parking lot we do a proper man hug and say farewell. I have no idea which direction he is headed, and that’s the beautiful thing about Frankie.

He wakes up free every morning, thanks God for his good fortune, gets in his late-model pickup truck with a club cab, and follows the sun. His freedom invigorates me and keeps me going. If not for Guardian Ministries, he would still be rotting away.

.

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