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Authors: James Ellroy

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Destination (9 page)

BOOK: Destination
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Said decision goes down. The Trial Court sets a new date: 8/17/93.

7/21/93: Graham files a civil suit. The suit requests a Board of Pardons hearing. The hearing is scheduled for 8/10/93.

The hearing occurs. The Board of Pardons files an appeal notice. Graham's execution is stayed.

4/20/94: The Court of Criminal Appeals voids said stay.

The process continued. The process attenuated.

Graham got new lawyers. They filed new writs.

They stressed the alleged incompetence of Graham's trial counsel. They stressed the sole eyewit. They stressed the contradicting eyewits. They stressed the alibi wits.


Lethal injections scheduled and postponed.

Publicity. Graham—pro and con. The Lambert snuff as justice cause célèbre.

Defense committees. Hollywood endorsements. Amnesty International. A twenty-minute agitprop film.

A schmaltzy soundtrack. Gary Graham—Nelson Mandela West.

The process dragged. Graham stayed on death row. Graham changed his name to Shaka Sankofa.

The process dragged into 2000.


Houston was the shits.

I caught it coming in. I caught it off a high freeway.

Some strip malls were new. Some strip malls were old. Future strip malls stood half-completed.

The floor plan jarred. The color scheme clashed.

Jerry-rigged suburbs. Southwest pastels. Too much white on beige.

It was humid. It was hot in November.

I flew in with my friend Rick Jackson. We brought our paperwork. Graham's appellate lawyer supplied it.

Rick was a PI. He was ex-LAPD. He worked murders in Hollywood. He worked major crimes at Robbery-Homicide. He sandwiched in a USC master's.

Rick loved crime. Rick loved crime past his vocation. Rick loved the riddle of motive and lives in duress. Rick loved crime as social history. Rick loved crime with the guilelessness of a kid discovering sex.

Rick cosigned the death penalty. Rick sent two men to death row. One man fried. One man killed himself.

I cosigned the death penalty. I dismissed the inherent inequities based on class and race. I believed in punishment and the ultimate censure of vicious and wanton acts. I knew the death penalty did not deter murder. I believed that the death penalty unified and set a tone of intolerance for murder. I countered all rebuttals steeped in mitigation. Poverty did not move me. The cumulative effect of historical racism did not move me. I weighed systemic injustices against the necessity for judiciously applied vengeance and viewed the abrogation of individual rights as a palatable trade. My bottom line—thoroughly reasoned and in no way disingenuous:

If you have to know why we need the death penalty, you're never going to know.

One counterthought torqued me. One quasi-rebuttal lurked.

I dismissed most mercy pleas based on mitigation. I dismissed the unequal levy of death decrees against people of color. I could not condone the execution of innocent men and women.

Hence Gary Graham.

I read the paperwork. Rick read it. We discussed it.

The details played ambiguous. The details contradicted and counterweighted. The details lacked the cohesive logic of innocence or guilt.

Graham's spree follows the Lambert snuff. Some snuff details and spree details cohere. Graham says he's killed people. Graham tells a victim: If I'm caught, I'll burn.

Witness Skillern's ID. Variant IDs. The alibi wits.

Rick's bottom line:

He wouldn't file a case off a single-wit ID.

We checked into our hotel. We prepared to roll.

We had a phone list. Rick made calls. We arranged interviews.

Rick called Detective Owen. Owen worked for the DEA now.

Owen was brusque. Owen said he was vague on the Graham case.

Rick called Detective Ellis. Ellis lived in San Diego. Ellis said he was vague on the Graham case.

Witness Grady was dead. We tried to locate Witness Amos. We tapped out.

Rick called Witness Skillern. Rick left a message. Rick asked her to call the hotel.

Rick called Witness Etuk. Rick called Chester Thornton and Ron Mock. They agreed to interviews.

Rick called Florence McDonald. She promised to find her son and James Mukes. Leodis Wilkerson was long gone.

Rick called the D.A.'s Office. An assistant pledged more paperwork.

Rick called Witness Hubbard. Rick left a message. Rick asked him to call the hotel.

Rick called the Terrell Unit. Rick confirmed our meet with Gary Graham.

We studied our papers. We gleaned new details.

Per photo spread #2:

Witness Skillern views mug shots. Graham is clean-shaven. Graham has short hair.

Four men have longer hair. Four men have facial hair.

Ms. Skillern said the shooter was clean-shaven. Ms. Skillern said he had short hair.

Four shots bear dates. Four shots bear booking numbers. Graham's numbers are obscured.

Ms. Skillern says Graham looks like the shooter.


The shooter had darker skin.

Ms. Skillern views a live lineup. Ms. Skillern ID's Graham.

Graham was in the lineup. Graham was in photo spread #2.

Graham was the only man in both displays.

Ms. Skillern knows this. She tells Detective Owen. She recalled Graham from spread #2.

From the defense brief. A known expert comments.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus:

There is an enhanced likelihood that a witness will identify the person in the lineup whom she has seen in the photo spread, whether or not the person is actually the one whose crime she witnessed.

. . . This familiarity may be mistakenly related back to the crime rather than back to the photograph where it may properly belong.

Rick found the logic credible. I agreed.

From the defense brief. Two wits volunteer.


Malcolm Stephens sees news spots on Gary Graham. He relates them to an event.

It's 5/13/81. Stephens approaches the Safeway. His wife is with him.

A black male runs in front of their car.

He's “about 5′5″ . . . compact, but not big, short hair, no beard or anything like that.”

They approach the store. They get close. They see the victim prone.

Cut to:


Mr. Stephens sees the black male again.

He's by some apartments. He's familiar.

They talk. Mr. Stephens tries to place him.

He puts it together. He's the parking-lot dude.

Mr. Stephens sees him “several more times.” Mr. Stephens “learned more about him.”

Cut to:

4/93. Gary Graham on TV.

the Safeway killer. He's not the parking-lot dude.

Mr. Stephens comes forth. Mr. Stephens views the Skillern composite.

It looks like the parking-lot dude. It does not look like Gary Graham.

I thought it was bullshit. Street jive triumphant. Rick agreed.

I called my friend Bill Stoner. Bill worked Sheriff's Homicide. He worked it fifteen years.

I asked him if he'd file on a one-wit ID.

Bill said, “No way.”

HOUSTON WAS BIG. Freeway grids crosshatched it. Dive neighborhoods stretched wide.

Rick dug the grid aspect. Heist men loved freeways. On-ramps greased quick escapes.

Graham stayed mobile. His spree turf stretched wide. He dodged hot-car bulletins. He spreed for seven days.

I drove. Rick navigated. We toured black Houston.

The strip malls were old. The houses were shabby. Triple locks and window bars reigned.

The color scheme held. Southwest shades abundant. The bars and steel doors clashed.

Witness Skillern didn't call. We left a card in her mailbox. Witness Hubbard didn't call. We left a card on his door.

It was hot. Pedestrians walked slow. Houston was heat-warped.

We drove by the alibi alley. We drove to the Safeway. We logged six miles between.

The Safeway was defunct. The building was a new-car show-room.

We toured the parking lot. We toured in daylight.

I turned off the sun. I turned on the night lights. I added vintage cars.

I added flustered witnesses. I saw what they saw.

Witness Skillern sees Gary Graham. Graham's 5′9″. Graham is thin.

Witness Grady sees a man. He's “tall and slim.” He wears a white sport coat.

Witness Amos sees a man. He's “in his twenties.”

Witness Etuk sees a man. He wears black slacks and a white blazer. Windows blur his face.

Witness Hubbard sees a man. He's 5′5″, 130. He's “in his early twenties.” He hides his face.

Three boys see a local dude. They recognize him. They provide no other description.

The initial statements cohere on clothing. The initial statements diverge on height.

Subsequent affidavits recohere.

Witness Etuk—'93 affidavit—less than 5′6″. Witness Amos— '93 affidavit—5′4″. Witness Stephens—'93 affidavit—5′5″. Witness Wilkerson—'93 affidavit—shorter than the 5′6″ victim.

Ambiguous. A partial consensus in 1981. A greater retrospective consensus.

I said it was all fucked up.

Rick praised indoor murders.

We braced Alfonzo McDonald. We braced him at his pad.

His family watched. They ran the TV concurrent.

Rich charmed them. He played up his white beard. He said he was Saint Nick in disguise.

We questioned McDonald. He offered this story:

He's eight years old. He's in his mother's wagon.

He's with Leodis and James. He sees a tussle. The white guy's shorter and heavier than the black guy.

He hears shots. The white man runs in the store. The black man runs away.

The cops quizzed Leodis mostly. Leodis was twelve. Some cops came around. Some cops displayed pictures.

That's all he knew. He was a kid then.

WE BRACED SHERIAN ETUK. She offered this story:

She was a fast checker. She worked the express line. She got bored. She watched people for fun.


She's checking. She's got downtime. She looks out the window.

She sees a man. She thinks he's cute. She studies him.

He's black. He's short. He's muscular. He's dark complected. He's wearing a turtleneck. He's wearing dark pants and a tan jacket. It might be vice versa.

He's late 20s/early 30s. He's got a low-cut Afro.

She's inside. He's outside. He's leaning on a column.

She's checking. He's loitering. She peeks at him. She peeks ten to thirty minutes.

Their eyes meet. He's good-looking. He's well-dressed.

She's checking. She's bored. An old girl's counting coins.

She looks outside. She hears a “pop!” She sees muzzle light.

A white man staggers up.

He makes the store. He collapses. The cute man walks off.

She transfers to another store. She fears reprisals. The killer might be a “hit man.”

Her account contradicted her initial account. She said she never saw the man's face.

I said it was all fucked up.

Rick said hit men were out. Serial killers were in.

RON MOCK HAD asuite downtown. His office was Black History Month.

Wall paintings. Photos. Malcolm X and Dr. King. Muhammad Ali.

Mock was gracious. Mock was feisty. Mock was blunt.

Mock said, “Gary Graham's a dumb-ass son of a bitch.”

Mock said, “His lawyers educated him to be articulate.”

Mock said, “He's full of born-again bullshit.”

Rick said, “Do you think Graham did it?”

Mock said, “Yes.”

I said, “Did he admit the crime to you?”

Mock said, “No.”

I stretched out. Rick stretched out. We sensed a monologue.

Mock delivered.

He talked. He fucked with an unlit cigar.

Bernadine Skillern was gooood. He didn't impugn her. She was “strong as an acre of garlic.”

Two women showed up. Alibi wits. He didn't use them. They weren't credible.

The case was all strategy. His budget impinged. He got $500.

He excluded the heists at the guilt phase. He looked for character wits. He tapped out cold.

Rick cited Merv West's affidavit. West claimed you sandbagged Graham.

Mock denied it. Mock stressed his strategy call. Mock said he'd try Graham the same way today.

I cited the other eyewits. I cited their descriptions.

Mock cited strategy.

He didn't press them. He didn't want to risk equivocation.

I shut my eyes. I screened pictures.

I conjured eyewits. I conjured spatial perspectives. Mock described Graham's heist spree. Mock described his rape.

My pictures blurred. Mock presumed guilt. I leaned toward his assessment.

WE DINED WITH Chester Thornton. We let him expound.

Thornton was gracious. Thornton was perceptive. Thornton was blunt.

He wasn't sure Graham did it. He wasn't sure he did not. He knew Graham. He handled his juvie case. Juvie records were sealed. He refused to divulge data.

I stretched out. Rick stretched out. We sensed a monologue.

Thornton delivered.

He knew Graham already. He had more bench time. He should have run the show.

Ron Mock was an insider. He secured court appointments. He played the game well.

Judges sided with prosecutors routinely. Judges assigned defense counsel in capital cases routinely. Judges looked for adequate and noncombative lawyers.

Competent lawyers. No inspired defenses. No reversals on appeal.

Thornton spoke abstractly. He did not condemn Ron Mock flat-out.

He cited poor strategy. He cited Merv West's affidavit. He cited West's early presumption of guilt. He cited West's lackluster job.

He found one alibi wit compelling. Jo Carolyn Johnson made sense.

He questioned Graham's overall counsel. He assumed partial blame.

He critiqued the Texas court-appointment system. He critiqued the death penalty.

Play-ball lawyers got capital cases. They notched big paydays. They contributed to judges' reelection campaigns.

Texas law ran exclusionary. Death-penalty opponents could not serve on capital juries. Their opposition meant they could “not discharge the law.”

The prosecution trumped Graham's lawyers. It occurred at voir dire.

They got their jury. They got their consensus.

We'll “discharge the law.” We'll condemn off one ID.

Dinner wound down. Thornton and Rick had dessert.

I screened witness perspectives.


Gun huts. Reinforced fences. Barbed-wire balls.

One-story cell blocks. White-glazed brick. High guard-to-con numbers.

Terrell was new. Terrell was adjunct death row. The State executed at Huntsville.

A guard boss escorted us. A PR man tagged along.

Terrell sparkled. Inmates passed by. They wore white jump-suits.

We hit a hallway. We saw the interview slots.

There's Gary Graham—aka Shaka Sankofa.

BOOK: Destination
9.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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