Authors: Linda Peterson
“Today,” said Eleanor, “you've gotten a chance to play the good guy.” She put her arms around me for a hug, and put her mouth close to my ear and said, “Just remember, the habeas clock is ticking.”
As I drove home, a summary of how the death-penalty appeal process works rattled around in my head. Isabella and Eleanor had explained it in brief strokes, which, as Isabella pointed out, saved me hours of boredom the rest of them had to endure in law school.
“Criminal law always looks so exciting in the movies,” I'd protested.
They both laughed at my naÃ¯vetÃ©.
“It looks good in the movies because appeals only take 125 minutes, tops, from opening titles to end credits, the guy lawyers are handsome and sensitive, even when they haven't slept for several
days on end, and the women get to wear great clothes,” Eleanor had pointed out. “That does not happen in our world. Except for Isabella, who apparently doesn't even own sweats.”
Isabella ignored the jibe and moved onto Appeals 101 for me, explaining that there are two flavors, direct and habeas petition.
“And Gifford's is?”
“Habeas,” said Isabella. “And that's good. A direct appeal means that you've got to stick to issues you can identify from the trial transcript. But in habeas, you can go âextra-record,' meaning, you can go outside the transcript and find evidence or issues that didn't come up during the trial.”
“Such as lots of things. Evidence the police suppressed or mishandled, a witness who wouldn't come forward during the original trial.”
“Have you got any of those?”
“No,” said Isabella, “not yet. But we do have one mystery we haven't been able to figure out.” She'd leafed through the file again, and pulled out a few sheets fastened together with a red paper clip. “Take a look at this,” she said, “when you go through the file. The police canvassed the Plummers' neighborhood during their investigation, and a neighbor insisted she hadn't seen Travis drop Grace offâwhich would have been nice corroborating evidence, but she did say she'd noticed two other vehicles at Grace's late that night.”
Isabella shook her head. “We wish. She was unclear about whether it was two cars, a car and a truck, a van, an ice cream truck! Apparently this particular little old lady was the self-appointed neighborhood watch warden. Her husband went to bed early every night, and she was a night owl. So she was constantly peering out her window late at night.”
“Didn't the fact that she'd seen two other vehicles, parked at Grace's, whatever they were, support Travis's theory that someone else could have come byâanother sweetheart, or a burglar or
“That would have been nice,” said Isabella. “But unfortunately this neighbor, Mrs. Herbert Orson Lomaxâshe referred to herself that way, all three names, every single timeâwas the quintessential elderly lady, with failing eyesight and slightly muddled recall. She was recovering from cataract surgery on the night Grace was murdered.”
“They pulled a
Twelve Angry Men
discredit on poor Mrs. Herbert Orson Lomax during the trial,” said Eleanor.
“Got it,” I said, thinking of the Henry Fonda classic in which the busybody neighbor who insisted she'd seen the wrongly accused young man neglected to mention that she'd spied the crime at the exact moment an El train rumbled past, obscuring her view.
“Still, I guess your investigator is going back to talk to her again.”
“Again, I wish,” said Isabella. “Mrs. Lomax has gone to her reward since the trial.”
“What about all the new DNA evidence?” I asked. “I heard Barry Scheckâthe guy from the OJ criminal trialâon the news the other day, flogging his book about stuff like that.”
“That's an exciting emerging area,” said Eleanor. “It's one reason they reopened the Sam Sheppard case after all these years. And that may be something Isabella can pursue. But right now, the DNA evidence is hurting her case. It's Gifford's DNA that was all over Mrs. Plummer. We don't know yet if there's any other angle to pursue.” Eleanor and Isabella exchanged a quick look. Neither said anything.
“Okay, so what next?”
“Now,” said Isabella, “we're in the process of writing a brief and investigating the habeas. It's on a killer deadline. Because once we file our AOBâthat's an appellant's opening briefâand the state responds, we file a reply brief, and then the habeas petition is due in 180 days. If we miss the deadline, the issues that are in the habeas petition are lost forever. No one can ever raise them again.”
“What aren't you telling me?” I asked.
“Lots,” said Isabella. “That's why we want you to read the file.”
I persisted. “I mean, why did you and Eleanor give each other the big look a minute ago?”
Isabella shook her head. “Read the file. There is another possibilityâ¦”
“This mysterious possibilityâis it the reason you're convinced Travis Gifford is innocent?”
The room grew uncomfortably quiet. “Maggie,” said Eleanor gently. “Isabella may not want to discuss some things with you until she knows you're committed to helping.”
Isabella gave me a barely perceptible nod. And I walked out the door thinking that I might be turning into a real journalist after all. The possibility of access to inside information was fueling a suddenly ungovernable hunger to be on a “need-to-know” basis with the Gasworks Gang.
fter breakfast, cold cereal and lukewarm coffee, Travis Gifford closed his eyes and tried to imagine this woman, Maggie Fiori, Isabella was bringing to visit that day. Smart for sure, he thought, careless, maybe. The way she scribbled notes in the margins of her books made him think she might be quick to judge, likely to trust her own instincts. He put his hands flat on either side of his bowl, as if he were trying to levitate right out of the chair, through the roof of his cell and into the early spring sky. What was that song his mother liked? “I remember sky/It was blue as ink/Or at least I think/I remember sky.” He opened his eyes. Had Isabella said that the Fiori woman was a mother? He hoped so
ake a breath, Maggie,” said Isabella, as she paid the toll at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
She gunned the motor and zipped up the slow rise to the bridge. I looked out over the edge, into the cold, blue-gray waters. “Have I been talking too much? I guess I'm a little nervous.”
Isabella took her hand off the polished burl of the gearshift and patted vaguely in the direction of my knee.
. Everyone gets a little nervous on the way to Death Row. Even if you're just visiting.”
“Hey,” I said, “can I ask you a personal question?”
Isabella glanced my way. “Isn't that what you do for a living?”
“You speak Spanish, right?”
“I grew up speaking Spanish. I still leak the stuff, and it comes in handy once in a while.”
“But you don't lookâ¦”
Isabella laughed. “Latina? I am, though. Mom was Vietnamese, Dad's family came on the run from some horrible regime or other in Nicaragua. My brother always described us as Latisians. I loved that, made it sound as if we came from somewhere else in the solar system. Instead of just being another brown-skinned, weird immigrant mix. When we were kids and went to Hawaii on vacation, I always felt it was the only place on earth people didn't stare at us and wonder, âWhere'd
“Oh, because in Hawaii, everybody's a mix of something or other, so nobody wonders about your ethnicity. Everybody looks like some variation of me.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I didn't mean to pry.”
Isabella laughed. “Oh, right. Now, I've got a question for you. What made you decide to come with me today?”
“The photos,” I said. “They were haunting me.”
After several sleepless nights when the
âstyle, brutal black-and-white police photos kept swimming to the surface every time I dropped off, I knew the only way to get them out of my head was to visit Travis Gifford.
“I don't get it,” said Michael, over breakfast. “If this thing is creeping you out enough to keep you up at night, why do you even want to go meet this guy?” Without missing a beat, he added, “Hey, Josh, what's the rule? Drink the last of the orange juice, you've got to mix up another batch.”
Josh looked guilty. “How'd you know I was drinking the end of the pitcher?”
“Your father has eyes in the back of his head,” I said. “All parents do. You might as well learn it now.”
Josh rolled his eyes. He was leggy and mouthy, two inches taller than me, and a poster kid for irritating adolescence. I scrutinized Josh as he hauled another can of orange juice out of the freezer with a martyred sigh. My sweet-tempered first-born was morphing into some wiseass, moody teenager. Some days, I felt as if I'd retrieved the wrong kid at school, like turning in a plaid wool skirt at the dry cleaners and coming home with a leather mini. His major sign of affection these days was absently patting me on the head as he walked by, much as he did the dog, and saying, “How ya doing, little buddy?” I was constantly confused: Was I still his mom or just a really boring playmate he'd outgrown?
Zach, on the other hand, still seemed like his real selfâgoofy, completely unself-conscious about his affection for Michael and me. Lately, though, I'd noted him watching Josh, and I worried that the wheels were turning. If his adored, hero-worshipped older
brother thought the parents were so lame, maybe he needed to readjust his thinking as well. Soon, I suspected, Zach would just find us annoying as well. I figured we had two, three years tops to enjoy an uncomplicated relationship, and I wanted to make the most of it.
“Maggie?” said Michael. “Did you hear anything I said?”
“Sorry,” I said. “You know what? I don't get why I want to go either, but I guess it's the devil-you-know theory. I mean, maybe Gifford is innocent, but right now I've got those awful police photos stuck in my head. And until I meet Gifford himself, I've got a monster pictured.”
Michael tugged at the comics planted under my elbow. “If you're not reading those, I want them.”
“I can't read the comics on the morning of a trip to Death Row,” I said. “Take 'em.”
“So, you think that if you see this guy, you'll be able to tell just by looking at him that he isâor he isn't a monster?” Michael persisted. “Gee, let's get rid of the criminal justice system,
, and let you take a look at accused people. Save the taxpayers a lot of time and money, eliminate jury trials altogether.” He sipped his coffee and gave me a particularly smug grin. “Why don't you explain your intuition to the warden at San Quentin, and maybe he'll send this guy home with you?”
I examined Michael while he read the comics, top to bottom. The fact that he was making wisecracks about my visit puzzled me.
I reached over and tapped my fingers on the back of his hand. Without looking up, he turned his hand over and clasped mine.
“Hey,” I said. “How come you're not trying to talk me out of going to San Quentin?”
He put down the paper. “You're interrupting
,” he said. “Okay, remember when we were at Dr. McQuist's the other day?” he asked.
“You said you're interested in this as a story. I've decided I've got to believe you. I can't be second-guessing everything you're
doing at work, looking for trouble. You want me to trust you, so I guess I'm going to try. If it turns into anything else, can I assume you'll talk to me?”
“I will,” I said eagerly. “I promise. It's justâ¦”
“Well, that's great. That's wonderful. I guess that means therapy is working, it's just that I never would have thought that someone like Dr. Coat of Many Colors would work for us.”
Michael sipped his coffee. “You don't think much of her, huh?”
“Do you? Look at her!”
Michael regarded me coolly. “And the great evenhanded journalist Maggie Fiori is judging people on the basis of looks again?”
“Oh, for heaven's sake. I'm not a real journalist, I was an underemployed freelance writer who fell into this job, and I'm trying to take it seriously, and yes, absolutely, I'm a terrible, shallow person and I do judge people not by how they look but by how they choose to present themselves.”
“Well, if you don't give Dr. McQuist a chance, this whole thing isn't going to work,” he pointed out, letting go of my hand.
Shut up, Maggie, I said to myself, just shut up. I stood, came around behind Michael and threw my arms around his neck. “I'm an idiot,” I said. “Dr. McQuist is fashion-challenged, but she's a genius. I saw you light up when she made me stop talking and listen to you.” I kissed the top of his head. “I've got to run. I promise not to get into any mischief today.”