Authors: Marti Green
Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller
Dani took the elevator to the lobby and headed to the hotel bar. She spotted Tommy and Melanie and slid into a seat at their table. They hadn’t discussed the interview with Sallie since leaving the prison. Dani usually preferred to let an interview rumble around in her head and settle into place before discussing it.
“What are you guys drinking?”
“Apple martini,” Melanie said. Tommy just held up his glass. He always drank scotch and water.
“Any good?” she asked Melanie.
Dani followed her lead and ordered the same. “So, is she crazy or sane?”
“Calhoun’s lawyer never pushed for a psych evaluation of her,” Melanie said.
“And there’s been no need to do one since. I spoke to the assistant warden. She’s a decent prisoner. Keeps to herself most of the time. She does her work, doesn’t cause any trouble, so she pretty much flies under the radar.”
“She seemed pretty emphatic this afternoon that they both killed their daughter,” Tommy said.
“That’s not what she said in her testimony. There she said she stood by and watched George kill Angelina,” Melanie said.
Heading up this investigation was new turf for Dani. Before, the facts had been handed to her and she stirred them up into a legal argument. For it to be a winning argument, though, she had to analyze the facts, something she excelled at. Her analysis of the facts so far didn’t add up. “You’re right, Melanie. When they questioned her at her home, she said, ‘We killed her.’ Her story changed when she testified at George’s trial. Now she’s back to her original statement: ‘We killed her.’ But she said something else today that throws everything in her testimony into question. Remember when she asked if she’d said what she was supposed to say? If she’d done it right?”
Tommy shook his head. “Let’s go over it again. The police knocked on her door, asked questions, and she fingers herself and her husband. I assume they took her down to the station, she went over the details, and she realizes she’s in big trouble. She figures they’ll go easier on her if she was just a watcher, so her story changes. Then they ask her to do it again for the trial. Don’t you think that’s what she was referring to, doing it right at the trial?”
“It could be that. Or maybe she was told to say something different.”
Melanie looked puzzled. “Why would the prosecutor have her change her story? Her immediate confession was enough to convict George. How would it help them if she’d only been a bystander?”
“I don’t know. But if the police or the prosecutor asked her to change her story, there must be a reason. Maybe her version didn’t match the details of the crime, so they fed her a story. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that happened.”
They sipped their drinks silently for a moment. Before flying to Indianapolis, Dani had held on to a slim hope that they’d know after interviewing Sallie whether her version of the events was real or a delusion. Instead, the truth seemed even more distant.
The clouds had drifted away and Dani rummaged through her pocketbook for her sunglasses. They headed north on Interstate 65 to Michigan City, less than three hours away. Melanie drove while Tommy continued to track down leads with his cell phone and Dani studied the file. They hadn’t advanced any further in their understanding of the case since finishing dinner last night. Today they’d meet first with Warden Coates and then with their client. They traveled in silence, all of them aware of the limited time and the stakes at hand.
As they drove, the realization struck Dani that never before had she met with a death-row inmate in a case where the decision for HIPP to represent him resided with her. She must decide whether she believed in his innocence. She must decide whether he got one more chance to try to escape the sentence he’d lived with for seventeen years. The heaviness of this responsibility weighed on her, and she wondered if she’d made the right choice in her career path. As an associate editor of the
Harvard Law Review
, graduating with honors, she could have gone anywhere. She’d been handed offers on silver platters, from obscenely well-paying positions with white-glove Wall Street firms to federal judicial clerkships with some of the brightest legal minds on the bench. She’d chosen the US Attorney’s Office. Assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York. That’s where she met Doug. Those were heady days while they lasted, but then Jonah came along. They could have turned him over to day care and kept going in the fast lane, but really, they couldn’t. Not after his diagnosis. Jonah deserved his chance in life, whatever that might be, and they both wanted to make sure he got it. Dani dropped out of law for about seven years, and Doug accepted an associate-professor position at Columbia Law School. And four years ago she’d signed on with HIPP. Now that Doug taught criminal law, specializing in death-penalty law, she guessed you could say she practiced and he preached. A bad lecture didn’t condemn a prisoner to a lethal injection, but she didn’t have it so easy. If she couldn’t sort through the facts and figure out what really happened, her client would die. And that scared her.
The state’s case relied on two witnesses. If Sallie’s confession could be discredited, there was still the gas station owner’s identification of George and his car. Although eyewitness testimony often made jurors comfortable with returning a guilty verdict, it was notoriously unreliable. Dani leafed through the trial transcript again, looking for errors to form the basis for appeal. She knew she’d find them. Ineffective assistance of counsel would top the list. Bob Wilson could have been asleep at trial and he’d have done a better job. And because he represented George on his appeals, he certainly hadn’t raised his own inadequacy as a reason to overturn the jury verdict. Until four or five years ago, they wouldn’t have been able to attack the verdict and sentence on grounds of ineffective counsel. Unless raised in the first appeal, that defense was gone. Thankfully, the Supreme Court had recognized that when the trial lawyer handled the direct appeal, he wouldn’t claim he’d been ineffective.
Dani turned toward the backseat and saw Tommy, lost in his laptop. “Hey, can you add to your to-do list a checkup of George’s lawyer? Let’s see if there’s any dirt on him.” Tommy nodded without looking up from his screen.
They spent the rest of the trip in silence.
“Thank you for meeting with us, Warden Coates.” They were all seated in front of the warden’s immaculate mahogany desk in a room large enough to house the entire HIPP staff. Bars covered the three large windows overlooking the prison yard, but sheer white curtains draped over them softened the effect. A uniformed man stood guard in the corner, silent, although his very presence shouted loudly that they were in a prison facility. The warden looked younger than most, perhaps pushing forty, with dark-brown hair free of graying wisps. His handshake had been strong enough to hurt the beginning arthritis in Dani’s fingers. “So,” Dani continued, “as you know, we’re looking into an appeal for George Calhoun. You were very helpful when we spoke on the phone last week, but I wonder if there’s anything else you can tell us about Mr. Calhoun?”
“Well, you mentioned that he’s always maintained his innocence. How does that come up here?”
“You have to understand, prisoners on death row are kept separate from the rest of the men. Except for about thirty minutes each day, they’re in their cells alone. They don’t even get much chance to talk to each other.”
“I’m confused,” Dani said.
“Well, I’m getting to that. See, everyone needs to talk, whether it’s to the chaplain or often to the guards. Otherwise they’d go crazy. Lots of convicts boast about their misdeeds. Others blather on and on about being railroaded. George never says much one way or the other. But he’s gotten close to one of the guards. George doesn’t talk much about his daughter, but after every visit with his lawyer, he’d storm back to his cell shaking his head and complaining to the guard about his lawyer not believing him. And then he’d say he’d never hurt a hair on his precious daughter’s head, never had and never would. You can take that for what it’s worth, which isn’t much in a prison. But like I told you before, when it comes to killing a man, I like to be sure we got the right person.”
Dani didn’t know if a warden with a conscience was hard to find or typical nowadays, but whatever the case, Warden Coates had an open mind. “Has George ever had a psych consult here?”
“Nope. No need to.”
“So, no evidence of delusional thinking?”
“Seems lucid every encounter I’ve had with him. In fact, most of the men facing death here seem like coiled snakes, ready to attack. It’s not a stretch to picture them murdering someone. Not so with George. He’s always been calm, almost serene. Whatever he’s done, he’s at peace with it.”
“As far as you know, has he ever told anyone what happened to his daughter?”
“Other than those times he’s upset about his lawyer, he never talks about her.”
There it was again—the one piece of the puzzle that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. George had been steadfast that the child found in the woods was not his daughter. Yet with a lethal injection awaiting him in little more than a month, he still hadn’t offered any explanation for Angelina’s disappearance. No matter how powerful a legal argument she could make that he hadn’t received a fair trial, she hoped, for a whole litany of reasons, it would come down to that one question: What happened to Angelina Calhoun? They weren’t going to get that answer today. The warden had informed them when they arrived that George, fighting off a bout of pneumonia, had been removed to the medical wing. It could be a few days before they’d be able to meet with him. Dani figured they’d use that time to meet with Bob Wilson and try to track down the couple whose daughter disappeared around the same time. She couldn’t shake her concern, though. George had reached out to HIPP, so she guessed he wanted to be saved. But did he want it enough to give them answers?
“I miss you.”
“Isn’t Gracie a good enough substitute for me?”
Doug laughed, and the sound of it rushed through Dani’s body, briefly lightening the feeling of apprehension that had filled her these past few days. “Not even close.”
“How’s Jonah doing?” She felt torn. She wanted Doug to answer that her son missed her terribly, that his world had fallen apart without her. But she knew it was better for Jonah that he didn’t.
“Katie is spoiling him rotten, so he’s quite happy. By the way, the camp application came in the mail today.”
It was an application for music camp. Camp Adagio, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, served children with Williams syndrome. Jonah had played piano since the age of three. It had begun with the typical toddler’s toy keyboard. Instead of plunking random keys, he quickly began to mimic melodies he heard on the radio. By five, he’d graduated to a professional keyboard, and a year later they bought a used upright for him. Two years ago, he’d begun composing piano concertos.
Williams syndrome children often had a great passion for music. Some expressed it through singing; others, through playing musical instruments; and still others, through composing music. Many were considered musical prodigies, and most had such an acute perception of sound that they could hear tiny deviations in pitch.
“Are we really sure he’s ready to be away for a whole month?”
“Dani, we’ve gone over this a hundred times. He’s ready. It’ll be good for him.”
“He’s growing up so fast. I know he’ll always need us, but going away for a month makes it feel like he’ll need us less.”
“And isn’t that a good thing?”
“How’re the interviews going?” Doug was a master of redirection when she felt sorry for herself.
“Unproductive so far. And we hit a roadblock today. George is sick and we can’t see him until his fever breaks. Hopefully, that won’t be more than a day or two, but it does set us back.”
“So what happens in the meantime?”
“I planned to wait until after we see George to meet with his trial counsel, but I think I’ll take a ride over there tomorrow.”
“Well, good luck with that. And hurry up home. Even if Jonah doesn’t need you, I still do.”
No, she thought as she hung up. Doug might want her, but right now it was George who needed her.
ommy searched through the mini-bar in his hotel room for a shot of scotch. With none in sight, he settled for a Coors, twisted off the cap, and sank into the cushioned vinyl chair in front of his desk. Dani worried him. Before even talking to George, she’d already thought him innocent. And that was bad. Most of the men on death row were guilty and deserved to die. Although he understood that it was important to make sure a mistake hadn’t been made, you needed to investigate with a clean slate. At this stage, the presumption of innocence was crap. As far as he was concerned, presume guilt and search for any evidence otherwise. This was Dani’s first investigation, and her inexperience showed. At least to him. She was smart, all right. When the evidence showed that an inmate was innocent, no one did a better job of marshaling the facts into a top-notch brief. And he’d watched her argue cases before appellate courts—even the Supreme Court. Damn, she was persuasive, looking like a fox but sounding like a tiger.
Sallie may have mixed up her story along the way, but it always came back to the same culprit: George. Maybe she’d taken part; maybe not. That didn’t matter. It was George who was being readied for execution, George who was their client. And so far it looked like the jury had gotten it right. Still, he needed to check out every lead, no matter how far fetched. He picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hammond Police Department. How can I direct your call?”
“Is Detective Hank Cannon in?” Tommy waited several minutes before he heard a loud raspy voice answer.
“Detective Cannon, my name is Tom Noorland. Jimmy Velasquez said you could help me.”
“How do you know Jimmy?”
“We worked together at the Bureau back in the ’90s. I’m retired now, working with the Help Innocent Prisoners Project in New York.”