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Authors: Marti Green

Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller

Unintended Consequences (2 page)

BOOK: Unintended Consequences
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C
HAPTER

2

W
hen she arrived at HIPP the next morning, Dani saw through Bruce’s open office door that he was sitting behind his desk. She hung up her coat and settled into her office, sipping the lukewarm coffee she’d picked up at the corner deli. Behind her functional, brown, laminate desk was a black swivel chair, its thin cushions flattened from years of overuse. Yesterday’s stack of folders had been reviewed and now sat on her secretary’s desk for follow-up. One folder remained. Inside was a single sheet of paper, the handwritten letter from George Calhoun. She stared at his folder while she finished her coffee and then walked to the office Xerox machine to photocopy a legal brief she’d written at home. With a copy of the document in hand, she marched into Bruce’s office and dropped it on top of his already cluttered desk. Bruce had the only window office in HIPP’s spartan space. The other attorneys were housed in a row of small boxlike rooms, and the investigators and paralegals sat at desks on the open floor. It was as far removed from a Wall Street firm as a lawyer could get.

“Here’s the Brigham brief,” Dani said.

Bruce looked up from his computer, startled. “Already? That was fast. It’s not due for another week.”

“I know. This’ll give you more time to go over it.” As director of HIPP, Bruce reviewed all the filings that came out of the office. He rarely marked up Dani’s work, though, and she’d gotten into the habit of turning in her drafts only a day or two before they were due. “Besides, I’ve been thinking more about the Calhoun case.”

Bruce leaned back in his chair, and with his arms behind his head, fingers entwined, he smiled like a fisherman who’s reeled in his catch. “You want HIPP to take his case, don’t you?”

Dani took a deep breath. She’d tossed and turned for much of the night as she wrestled with her decision. Finally, she’d given up on sleep, crept downstairs to the kitchen, and after brewing a cup of coffee, begun a list. On the left side were the reasons to reject Calhoun’s request; on the right, the reasons to follow up on his letter. She had easily filled the left side. The right column contained only one entry: Find out what happened to Angelina Calhoun. “I do.”

“Are you willing to handle it from the start?”

Dani nodded. “I think it’s time. Can I pick my team on this?” Considering HIPP’s nonprofit status, with underpaid and overworked staff, an impressive roster of credentials was attached to the attorneys, paralegals, and investigators on salary. Even though everyone there was top notch, Dani had her favorites.

“Who’ve you got in mind?”

She knew just who she wanted. “Tommy and Melanie.”

“Should be okay. I’ll check their assignments and see if they can free up some time.”

Dani walked back to her office and busied herself with paperwork until she could put in a call to State Prison in Indiana, where George Calhoun was incarcerated. She’d already researched the head of State Prison and knew that Jared Coates counted as one of the new breed of prison wardens—smart, tough, and fair.

When she reached the prison, Dani identified herself and asked to be put through to the warden. A few minutes later she heard a deep voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Trumball. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, Warden Coates. I’m a staff attorney with the Help Innocent Prisoners Project in New York City. I’m calling about George Calhoun. I’ve received a letter from him.”

“Yes?”

“I’ll be overnighting him a retainer letter, and once it comes back, I’d like to meet with you first. I’m just calling to give you a heads-up, since his scheduled date of execution is only six weeks away. We’ll need to move quickly on this.”

“George Calhoun contacted you? That’s interesting.”

“Why?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad he did. It’s just that he’s seemed resigned to what’s coming. Most of the others on death row fight as hard as they can to get out. They go through lawyers like chicken feed. But George stuck with the same lawyer from the beginning. It always seemed like he didn’t care what happened.”

That surprised Dani. Innocent prisoners, especially those on death row, were usually persistent in their fight for freedom. “Do you think he’s guilty?”

“Can’t say I don’t; can’t say I do. The jury spoke and they said he was.”

“I’m confused. If that’s how you feel, why are you glad George wrote us?”

“As far as I can tell, George has always insisted he’s innocent. The way I look at it, if a man keeps saying he didn’t do the crime, he should have every chance possible to prove it. That’s why I’m glad he contacted you.”

“That’s refreshing coming from a warden.”

Dani heard a soft chuckle on the other end of the line. “I suppose it is. But I sleep better at night knowing something wasn’t missed.”

Dani got off the phone relieved that she wouldn’t get the runaround from the warden. HIPP had worked with enough prisoners in enough prisons for her to know that with one word from the top man, the job could become easier or tortuous. Given the short time they had, an obstructionist warden would make the task truly impossible.

She turned to her computer and logged in to Lexis/Nexis, the online research tool for lawyers. She typed in
The People of Indiana v. George Calhoun
and began reading the earliest appeals court decision, handed down six months after his conviction.

In May 1990, the charred remains of a child were found half-buried in the woods near a gas station a few miles off an isolated stretch of Route 80 between Orland and Howe, Indiana. Through study of the skeleton, the county’s forensic anthropologist determined that the child had been a three- or four-year-old Caucasian female. Her fingers and feet had been burned too badly to check databases for matches. Walter Jankiewicz, the gas station owner, recalled seeing a run-down American car, maybe a Chevy, at least six or seven years old, black or dark blue, pull off the road one day several weeks earlier, after the sun had set but before darkness had fully settled. He watched as a medium-built man emerged from the car and struggled with the large package in his arms as he headed into the forest. Twenty minutes later, a truck pulled into the gas station, and after the station owner finished filling the tank, the car parked along the road was gone.

Inevitably, a dead Caucasian girl burned beyond recognition created fodder for the media. But after weeks of constant attention, with talking heads speculating
ad nauseam
about the identity of the victim and the circumstances of her death, the news coverage finally petered out. Two years later,
America’s Most Wanted
ran a program around the story and, as always, ended the show with a call for help from viewers. A week later they had received dozens of calls. One of them led to George Calhoun.

“Hey, gorgeous. I hear you want me.”

Dani looked up from the computer and saw a grinning Tommy Noorland standing in her doorway. She used to bristle when a male colleague referred to her looks. She thought it a backhanded way of being sexist—you know, a woman mattered only if she were attractive. And if she were, there was no reason to see past that. She’d wanted to matter because she was smart and worked hard, not because she happened to be pretty. As she’d gotten older, she’d mellowed. Now she could appreciate that men like Tommy were natural flirts and that his banter was not demeaning. She knew he respected the hell out of her, so she just smiled and answered, “In your dreams, Tommy.”

“Ah, baby, you don’t know what you’re missing,” he said and gave her a wink.

This was Tommy’s standard repartee, not just with Dani but with every female in the office. “Did Bruce fill you in on the Calhoun case?” she asked as Tommy settled his large frame into a chair.

“Nope. Just said you had something for me.”

Dani told Tommy what she knew about the case. “We’re going to have to move fast on this one. Probably early next week, we’ll fly out to meet him and then stay on to do interviews. In the meantime, I’d like you to start pulling old news reports about the case. Do you have any buddies that landed in Indiana?”

As a former FBI agent, Tommy knew other retired “Fibbies” all over the country. After leaving the government, many took private jobs that kept them in contact with local authorities, and they were a valuable source of information. “I can’t think of anyone offhand, but I’ll check around.”

After he left, Dani turned back to the information on her screen. One of the callers in response to the television show told police that the four-year-old daughter of her neighbors, George and Sallie Calhoun, had mysteriously disappeared two years earlier. Sylvia Grant had occasionally baby-sat Angelina Calhoun. Although George worked days at a local garage and Sallie, nights at a diner, whenever an extra shift became available, Sallie took it. On those days, Sylvia watched their little girl. One day, after Sylvia had stopped seeing Angelina play in front of her small bungalow-style house, she asked Sallie where she was.

“She’s gone,” Sallie had said.

“Gone where?” Sylvia asked.

“Just gone.”

Sallie never explained what had happened. When Sylvia asked if Angelina had died, Sallie turned and walked away. Sylvia never saw the little girl again. “It just seemed strange to me,” she’d told the program director. “And you know, it was about the same time as that little girl’s body was found. I suppose it’s nothing, but I thought you should know about it.”

All the leads were passed on to the FBI. The body had been found in Indiana, and the caller lived in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, so her tip didn’t receive priority treatment. Several months later, they got around to questioning her. Sylvia pointed out the bungalow where George and Sallie still lived, and the feds went next door to question them. They’d arrived at eleven o’clock in the morning; George was at work and Sallie was home alone. The two men told Sallie they were investigating the murder of the young girl found in Indiana two years earlier. When they asked her about her daughter, she looked blankly at them at first and then answered, “That was my baby you found in Indiana. We killed her.”

Those words sent George Calhoun to death row and committed Sallie to life in prison. She pled guilty, but George insisted his wife was crazy, and he went to trial. The prosecution offered no forensic evidence to establish that the burned corpse was Angelina Calhoun. After all, there had been no reason to conduct any test to establish parentage: They had a confession from a woman who offered no other explanation for her daughter’s absence. George testified at his trial and denied killing his daughter but refused to answer questions about her whereabouts. He simply stared silently at the floor.

Dani looked away from the computer. Of course the jurors found George guilty. How could they have done otherwise? Yet so many years later, he still insisted the dead child hadn’t been his daughter. If so, what had happened to Angelina? How could a four-year-old child simply vanish? With lethal injection only a few weeks away, Dani wondered if George Calhoun was finally ready to provide the answer.

After delivery of the afternoon mail, a new stack of folders was placed in Dani’s in-box. More letters from inmates were inside, waiting for an attorney’s review. Yes or no. Hope or despair. A chance at freedom or continued incarceration. Their answers lay in her hands. Dani hated this part of the job most, sitting in judgment on a person’s plea for help. She tried to perform the job objectively, devoid of emotion but focused on the facts, only the facts. The facts of Calhoun’s case told her to pass. His wife identified the child as their daughter. Her inquiry should stop right there. Yet it hadn’t. His story had triggered an emotional response and she wanted to learn more.

A knock at Dani’s door broke her concentration. “Am I interrupting?”

Melanie Quinn stood in the doorway. “Nope. C’mon in.”

“Bruce said you have something for me.” Melanie sat down and Dani filled her in on their next project. At twenty-seven, Melanie still carried within her the passion of youth and the certainty of her convictions. Dani hoped that didn’t change too quickly but knew it would—it must. Doubt was a necessary element of life, one often not appreciated until later in life. Only with doubt could one challenge her assumptions and ensure that her course was proper.

Dani handed Melanie the printout of
People v. George Calhoun
. “We’re considering taking his case and time is short. Less than six weeks until his scheduled execution. I’m going to head it up, and I’ve asked for you and Tommy on my team.”

Melanie shook her head. “Just six weeks? We’ve never turned around a conviction that quickly. Is it even possible?”

“Well, it’s not
im
possible. But no question it’ll be difficult.”

“What do you want me to do first?”

“Research everything you can about the case on Lexis/Nexis. I’ve overnighted a retainer letter to George, and when it’s returned, we’ll fly out there, probably at the beginning of next week. Is your schedule clear for this?”

“I…I can clear it. Nothing pressing right now.”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

The hint of a smile passed across Melanie’s face and abruptly disappeared as she resumed her professional pose. “It’s nothing. Next Tuesday is my one-year anniversary of dating Brad and we were going to celebrate at Per Se. It took forever to get reservations, but Brad will understand. I’m sure he will.”

Dani thought back on her courtship with Doug. The one-year anniversary of their first date had been a momentous occasion. It signified that they were a couple, not just a passing fling. Despite Melanie’s casual dismissal of her celebration plans, Dani appreciated how disappointed she was. “Okay. Read up on this case, see what you can find, and report back to me tomorrow.”

As Melanie left, Dani wondered whether Brad appreciated what a jewel she was. Certainly, her beauty must have dazzled him. Melanie was stunning. Her thick, shoulder-length, strawberry-blond locks framed a perfectly oval face with thickly lashed eyes the color of an arctic glacier. Her body curved in all the right places, without an extraneous ounce of fat. She was more than her appearance, though. An assistant editor of the
Yale Law Review
, she’d graduated at the top of her class at the age of twenty-two, having skipped two years of school. She could do anything, including clerking for a Supreme Court justice, but she had a fire burning within her that compelled her to right wrongs. Dani felt lucky to have her as part of her team.

BOOK: Unintended Consequences
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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