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In fifty-nine days, if the State of California had its way, the man inside the Plexiglas booth would die by lethal injection.
Teresa Peralta Paget paused to study him, the guard quiet at her side. Her new client stood with his back to them. He was bulky, the blue prison shirt covering his broad back like an oversize bolt of cloth. A picture of enthrallment, he gazed through the high window of the exterior wall at the San Francisco Bay, its water glistening in the afternoon sun. She was reluctant to distract him; the man’s sole glimpses of the world outside, Terri knew, occurred when his lawyers came to see him.
The others were out of it now; the last set of lawyers had withdrawn after their latest defeat. The final desperate efforts to keep Rennell Price alive—what she thought of as the ritual death spasms ordained by the legal system—had fallen to Teresa Paget. This was their first meeting: but for his solitude, she could not have picked her client out from the other men huddled with their lawyers in the two rows of Plexiglas cubicles. It resembled, Terri thought, an exhibit of the damned—sooner or later, in months, or more likely years, the impersonal, inexorable grinding of the machinery of death would consume each one in turn.
But perhaps not, Terri promised herself, this one. At least not until she had burnt herself down to the nerve ends, sleep-deprived from the effort to save him.
To her new client, she supposed, Terri might appear a mere morsel for the machine, insufficient even to slow its gears. She was small—barely five feet four—and slight, with olive skin and a sculpted face, which her husband stubbornly insisted was beautiful: high cheekbones; a delicate chin; a ridged nose too pronounced for her liking; straight black hair, which, in Terri’s mind, she shared with several million other Latinas far more striking than she. There was little about her to suggest the steeliness an inmate might hope for in his lawyer except, perhaps, the green-flecked brown eyes, which even when she smiled never quite lost their keenness, or their watchfulness.
This wariness was Terri’s birthright, the reflex of a child schooled by the volatile chemistry which transformed her father’s drinking to bru- tality, and reinforced by the miserable first marriage which Terri, who had no better model, had chosen as the solution to her pregnancy with Elena. Her personal life was different now. As if to compensate for this good fortune, she had turned her career down a path more arduous than most lawyers could endure: at thirty-nine, she had spent the last seven years representing death row inmates, a specialty which virtually guaranteed the opposition and, quite frequently, the outright hostility of judges, prosecutors, witnesses, cops, governors, most relatives of the victim, and by design, the legal system itself—not to mention, often, her own clients. Now that stress and anxiety no longer waited for her at home, Terri sometimes thought, she had sought them out.
What would be most stressful about this client was not the crime of which he stood convicted, though it was far more odious than most— especially, given certain facts, to Terri herself. Nor was it whatever version of humanity this man turned out to be: her death row clients had run the gamut from peaceable through schizophrenic to barking mad. But this client represented the rarest and most draining kind of all: for fifteen years, through a trial court conviction in 1987, then a chain of defeats in the California Supreme Court, the Federal District Court, the Federal Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court, Rennell Price had claimed his innocence of the crime for which the state meant to kill him.
No court had considered this claim worthy of belief or even, in the last five of these proceedings, a hearing. As far as the State was concerned, its sole remaining task should be to dispatch three psychiatrists to advise the Governor’s office, within twenty days of the appointed date of execution, whether her client was sane enough to die: one of the niceties of capital punishment, Terri thought sardonically, was the State’s insistence that the condemned fully appreciate that lethal injection would, in fact, be lethal.
She nodded to the guard.
He rapped sharply on the Plexiglas. With a twitch of his shoulders, as though startled, the black man inside the cage turned to face them.
His eyes were expressionless; for him, Terri thought, the highlight of her visit—a view of the bay—was already over. With a resignation born of fifteen years of meeting lawyers in these booths, he backed toward the door and, hands held behind his back, thrust them through an open slot.
The guard clapped on his handcuffs, closing them with a metallic click. Then Rennell Price, shackled, stepped away from the door.
The guard opened it, admitting Terri.
The door shut, and Rennell stood over her. As he backed to the slot again, waiting for the guard to uncuff his outthrust hands, Terri had an involuntary spurt of fear, the reflex of a small woman confined with a hulking stranger who had, in the estimate of twelve jurors, done a terrible thing to someone much smaller than she.
She held out her hand. “I’m Terri Paget,” she told him. “Your new lawyer.”
His expression was somewhere between sullen and indifferent—she might as well have pronounced herself an emissary from Pluto. But after a moment, he looked up at her and said in a monotone, “My name Rennell.”
She searched his eyes for hope or, at least, some instinct to trust. She saw none.
“Why don’t we sit,” Terri said. “Get acquainted a little.”
With a fractional shrug, her client turned, slid out the orange plastic chair on the far side of a laminated wood table, and sat, staring past Terri. Settling across from him, Terri saw the inmates in the next two cages huddled with their lawyers, lips moving without sound.
Rennell’s face, Terri decided, was more than inexpressive—it had no lines, as if no emotion had ever crossed it. She reminded herself that he had been only eighteen when convicted, now was barely thirty-three, and that the fifteen years in between had been, were this man lucky, mostly solitary, and unrelentingly the same. But not even Terri’s presence—a novelty, at least—caused the line of his full mouth to soften, or his wide brown eyes to acknowledge her.
Terri tried to wait him out. Yet the broad plane of his face remained so impassive that he seemed not so much to look through her as to deny her presence. It was hard to know the reasons. But one of the hallmarks of an adult abused as a child, Terri reflected, was an emotional numbing to the point of dissociation—a willful process of going blank, of withdrawing mentally from this earth. Jurors often thought such men indifferent to the crimes their prosecutors described so vividly; in the case of this crime, that could hardly have helped Rennell Price.
“I’ve taken over your case,” Terri explained. “Your lawyers at Kenyon and Walker thought you deserved a fresh pair of eyes.”
This drew no reaction. Mentally, Terri cursed her predecessors for their absence, the ultimate act of cowardice and desertion—leaving her to build a relationship with a sullen stranger, the better to save his life, or prepare him to die. Then, to her surprise, he asked, “You know Payton?”
“Your brother? No, I don’t.” Terri tried to animate her voice with curiosity. “How’s he doing?”
“Fixing to die. They’re going to kill him. Before me.”
Oddly, Terri thought, this last detail about Payton seemed to carry more dread than his own fate. “How do you know?” she inquired.
He slumped forward on the table, not answering. “I can’t be there,” he said dully. “Warden told me that.”
Struck by the answer, Terri chose to ignore its unresponsiveness. “What else did she tell you?”
“That I can pick five people. When my time come.”
Five witnesses, Terri thought, granted the condemned by the grace of the State of California. But from what Terri knew, it would be hard to find five people, outside the victim’s family, who gave enough of a damn to watch. Rennell Price’s death, if it came, would be a very private affair.
“You don’t have to worry about that yet.” Pausing, Terri looked hard into his eyes. “We’ll have a lot of help—my husband, Chris, who’s a terrific lawyer, and a team of investigators to look into your case. You’ll meet them all soon. We’ll be doing everything we can to save your life.”
For almost half that life, he had heard this—Terri could see that much in his face. And each time, she already suspected, whoever said it had been lying.
Slowly, his eyelids dropped.
“I didn’t do that little girl,” he said. “Payton didn’t do her.”
The denial sounded rote, yet etched with fatigue. “How do you know about Payton?” Terri asked.
“He told me.”
What to make of that, she wondered. As either a reason to believe his brother or a statement of truth, it was implausible to the point of pitiful, and she could not divine if this man knew it. “Who do you think ‘did’ her, Rennell?”
He gave a silent shrug of the shoulders, suggesting an absence of knowledge or, perhaps, a massive indifference.
“The day she died,” Terri persisted, “can you remember where you were?”
“I don’t remember nothing.”
As an answer, it was at least as credible as the alibi the defense had offered at the brothers’ trial. But one or the other could not be true, suggesting—unhelpfully—that neither was.
Terri simply nodded. There was little else to ask until she combed the record, little purpose to her visit beyond starting to persuade Rennell Price—against the odds, given his life lessons—that someone cared about him. “I’ll be coming to see you every few days,” she assured him. “Is there anything you need?”
Rennell gazed at the table. “A TV,” he said at last. “Mine’s been broke for a long time now.”
“Before it broke, what did you like to watch?”
“Superheroes. Especially Hawkman. Monday through Friday at four o’clock.”
She could not tell if this commercial announcement was a statement of fact or suggested an unexpected gift for irony. Whatever the case, given the size of his cell and the cubic footage limitations on his possessions, a new TV would not bankrupt the Paget family. And fifty-nine days of Hawkman was not too much to ask—though it was not easy for Terri to imagine the waning existence which would be measured out, hour by hour, in images on the Cartoon Network.
“I’ll get you a new one,” she promised.
Her client did not answer. Maybe, Terri thought, he did not believe her. Even when she stood to leave, he did not look up.
Only as the guard approached did Rennell Price speak again, his voice quiet but insistent.
“I didn’t do that little girl,” he told his lawyer.
“To look at his reactions,” Teresa Paget told her hus- band and stepson, “most people would wonder if there’s a human being inside. But I began to wonder if he’s retarded.”
Chris’s mouth formed a smile. “Or maybe just antisocial. In the Attorney General’s Office, that means just smart enough to feel no remorse.”
The three of them—Terri, Chris, and Carlo—sat on the deck of the Pagets’ Victorian home in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco, three tall glasses resting on the table in front of them. In the foreground of their sweeping view, Victorians and Edwardians and red-brick Georgians crowded the hill, which descended to the Italianate homes of the Marina District. Beyond that, the bay was still crowded with boats in the failing sun of a late Saturday afternoon, their sails swelling with a steady wind, which on the Pagets’ deck calmed to a fitful breeze. Though the panorama relieved Terri’s sense of claustrophobia, so intense in the Plexiglas booth, it heightened her consciousness of the surreal gap between Rennell’s existence and her own, intensified by the familiar visages to either side of her.
At fifty-five, Christopher Paget remained trim and fit, the first streaks of silver barely visible in his copper hair, the clean angles of his face as yet unsoftened by age. Wealthy by inheritance, Chris carried an air of sophistication and detachment which never obscured, at least for Terri, his devotion to their reconfigured family: her thirteen-year-old daughter, Elena; their seven-year-old son, Kit; and, as always, their newest legal associate—Chris’s son Carlo, fresh from Yale Law School at the age of twenty-five.
If anything, Carlo appeared more blessed than Chris. His mother, of Italian descent, had been a beauty, and Carlo had dark good looks which Terri had seen stop women on the street. Among Carlo’s many graces was that he seemed unaware of this. Unlike Chris, who superficially did not appear so, Carlo was idealistic, a sweet and loving soul—all of which, Terri knew, had everything to do with Chris himself. That was part of what had caused Terri to fall in love with Chris. So here she was, the daughter of a struggling Hispanic family, sitting in a beautiful house in a beautiful city with two men who, by all appearances, had been showered with God’s favors since the moment they were born.
It was not quite true, of course. Chris’s parents were unloving and alcoholic socialites whose wasted lives had ended in a car wreck. Carlo had been the by-product of an affair, the miserable and unloved son of a single mother who despised Chris too much to let him raise Carlo—until the moment, fearful that the stunted seven-year-old child would become a damaged adult, Chris had given her no choice. It was this sense of life’s underside that had given Chris the capacity to understand, at least as much as he could, what it was like for Terri to grow up in a household where her father raped and brutalized her mother, indifferent to what their daughter saw or felt. That this experience had led her—with whatever emotional crosscurrents—to comprehend the lives which so often created death row inmates, and to feel that representing them was recompense for her own escape, was something that Chris still strove to understand; that their law firm would subsidize her efforts, and that Chris would help, was a given. Which was why Carlo—preserved in his idealism, Chris wryly remarked, by an absence of student loans—had chosen to join them.
They drank iced tea; though it was close to the Pagets’ accustomed cocktail hour, the conversation was too purposeful for that. “Still,” Chris ventured, “it’s a strange crime.”
Only after a quick glance at Terri did Carlo turn to him, and she was acutely aware of the sensitivity toward her that, for a moment, delayed his question: “Strange in what sense?”
“That it would involve both brothers. It’s a matter of shame—if you put a nine-year-old boy on the fifty-yard line at Notre Dame stadium, and packed the seats with pedophile priests, none of them would move. Child molesters tend to act alone.”
This remark, with its echoes from her daughter Elena’s past, reminded Terri that walling herself off from the nature of Rennell Price’s alleged crime might be far more difficult than she had made herself believe. Then Chris reached across the table and touched her hand. Quietly, he said, “You don’t have to take this case, you know.”
Pensive, Terri curled her fingers in his. “The Habeas Corpus Resource Center is jammed, and they’re out of volunteers. So it’s me or no one.” She faced Carlo. “About child molesters,” she told him baldly, “your dad’s right. Elena could tell you that. But Rennell Price still claims he’s innocent. That’s where we have to start—and quickly.”
This settled the matter, as Terri had known it would. After another glance at his father, Carlo nodded.
“So,” she continued, “we have to look at the facts as if no one ever has before. Review the police reports, the physical evidence, the witness statements, the trial transcript. Track down the key witnesses—could they have been mistaken, we’ll want to know, or have had a motive to lie? Both happen more often than you’d think.”
“What about the cops?”
“If they’re willing. Same with the prosecutor and Rennell’s trial lawyer—we’ll want to know why they made the choices they did. That will be far more touchy for defense counsel.”
Carlo raised his eyebrows in inquiry. “Because we’ll second-guess him?”
“More than that,” Chris told him. “We have to prove that Rennell Price’s trial lawyer was so incompetent that his client was denied the effective assistance of counsel granted by the Sixth Amendment. It won’t be easy, given that some courts have ruled that even sleeping through your client’s trial is not enough to qualify. Damned few lawyers will admit they were worse than that.”
“If we can prove Rennell Price is innocent, why should it matter?”
Terri suppressed a rueful smile: framed against the panoply of sailboats, his crew-neck burgundy sweater carelessly draped over his shoulders, Carlo still seemed innocent himself. But so had she been.
“Later on,” she promised, “I’ll induct you into the wonderland of death penalty jurisprudence. For now, take my word that the State of California can claim that even compelling new proof of this guy’s innocence doesn’t bar his execution—at least, taken alone. If the trial was fair, then they’ll say his execution is constitutional. Even if the verdict may well have been wrong.”
“How can innocence not matter?”
“Because that’s the law—you’ll find out soon enough. Rennell Price was convicted of an awful crime, and fifteen years later, he’s still alive. He’s become an overdue debt to the victim’s parents, and the State of California is determined to collect on their behalf.”
Saying this reminded Terri of how solitary Rennell was—and of why she must distance herself, as much as possible, from the fact that the victim had suffered a death which caused Terri to cringe with guilt at what her own daughter still was forced to live with.
“So we’d better hope he is retarded,” Chris remarked to Carlo. “That’s the good news, if there is any. While you were holed up cramming for the bar exam, the Supreme Court decided in Atkins v. Virginia that we no longer execute the mentally retarded. The trick, if Terri’s right, is proving that she’s right with respect to Rennell Price. Otherwise,” Chris added sardonically, “or so the argument goes, we’ll be flooded with claims of retardation filed by crafty middle-aged inmates who suddenly can’t tie their own shoes.
“That means we need to show who Rennell was at age eighteen, and how he got that way—his parents, relatives, brother, friends, home, neighborhood, educational and medical histories, mental profile. Everything that ever happened to him, an entire social history in fifty-nine days.”
The task was so daunting that Carlo, feigning a careless shrug, simply inquired, “So where do we start?”
Restless, Terri stood. “By going to the office,” she told him with faux good cheer. “Right now. We’ll start by reading reams of paper, then tracking down the cops.”
Now Carlo looked genuinely startled. “What if I have a date?”
Chris laughed aloud. “Ask her to come to your place late,” he suggested helpfully, “and hope that she’ll stay over.” Abruptly, his eyes grew serious and, in his wife’s appraisal, a little sad. “Until you save Rennell Price, or the State of California kills him, life as you know it is over. After that, it will merely never be the same. I know that from living with Terri.”
From the Hardcover edition.