When burnt-out reporter Matt Cowart receives a letter from a death row inmate pleading his innocence, he is tempted to dismiss it out of hand. Sure, they’re all innocent. But as the Miami newspaperman digs into the case of Robert Earl Ferguson, an African American given the death penalty for the brutal slaying of a white girl, he begins to believe that Ferguson is the real victim of hate and prejudice. And if he doesn’t act, the wrong man is going to be executed. In the months that follow, Cowart’s investigative articles not only set Ferguson free, but make Cowart a celebrity and win him a Pulitzer Prize—and set in motion a new chain of unimaginable horror. For there is a monster out there, and he is not through with killing. Chillingly complex, Just Cause is a powerhouse story about confronting our worst fears, in society, and in ourselves.
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A MAN OF OPINIONS
On the morning that he received the letter, Matthew Cowart awakened alone to a false winter.
A steady north wind had picked up after midnight and seemed to push the nighttime black away, smearing the morning sky with a dirty gray that made a lie of the city's image. As he walked from his apartment to the street outside, he could hear the breeze rattle and push at a palm tree, making the fronds clash together like so many swords.
He hunched his shoulders together tightly and wished that he'd worn a sweater beneath his suit coat. Every year there were a few mornings like this one, filled with the promise of bleak skies and blustery winds. Nature making a small joke, causing the tourists on Miami Beach to grumble and walk the sandy stretches in their sweaters. In Little Havana, the older Cuban women would wear heavy woolen overcoats and curse the wind, forgetting that in the summer they carried parasols and cursed the heat. In Liberty City, the rat holes in the crack houses would whistle with cold. The junkies would shiver and struggle with their pipes. But soon enough the city would return to sweaty, sticky normalcy.
One day, he thought as he walked briskly, perhaps two. Then the warm air will freshen out of the South and we will all quickly forget the cold.
Matthew Cowart was a man moving light through life.
Circumstances and bad luck had cut away many of the accoutrements of impending middle age; a simple divorce had sliced away his wife and child, messy death his parents; his friends had slid into separate existences defined by rising careers, squads of young children, car payments, and mortgages. For a time there had been attempts by some to include him in outings and parties, but, as his solitude had grown, accompanied by his apparent comfort in it, these invitations had fallen off and finally stopped. His social life was defined by an occasional office party and shop talk. He had no lover and felt a vague confusion as to why he didn't. His own apartment was modest, in a sturdy highrise overlooking the bay, built in the 1950s. He had filled it with old furniture, bookcases stuffed with mystery novels and true crime nonfiction, chipped but utilitarian dinnerware, a few forgettable framed prints hanging on the walls.
Sometimes he thought that when his wife had taken their daughter, all the color had fled from his life. His own needs were satisfied by exercise — an obligatory six miles a day, running through a downtown park, an occasional game of pickup basketball at the YMCA — and his job at the newspaper. He felt possessed of a remarkable freedom yet somehow worried that he had so few recognizable debts.
The wind was still gusting hard, pulling and tugging at a trio of flags outside the main entrance to the Miami Journal. He paused momentarily, looking up at the stolid yellow square building. The paper's name was emblazoned in huge red, electric letters against one wall. It was a famous place, well known for its aggressiveness and power. On the other side, the paper looked over the bay. He could see wild waters splashing up against the dock where huge rolls of newsprint were unloaded. Once, while sitting alone in the cafeteria eating a sandwich, he'd spotted a family of manatees cavorting about in the pale blue water, no more than ten yards from the loading dock. Their brown backs burst through the surface, then fell back beneath the waves. He'd looked about for someone to tell but had found no one, and had spent the next few days, at lunch, staring constantly out at the shifting blue- green surface for another glimpse of the animals. It was what he liked about Florida; the state seemed cut from some jungle, which was always threatening to overtake all the development and return it to something primeval. The paper was forever doing stories about twelve-foot alligators getting trapped on entrance ramps to the interstate and stopping traffic. He loved those stories: an ancient beast confronting a modern one.
Cowart moved quickly through the double doors that led to the Journal's newsroom, waving at the receptionist who sat partially hidden behind a telephone console. Next to the entrance was a wall devoted to plaques, citations, and awards: a parade of Pulitzers, Kennedys, Cabots, Pyles, and others with more mundane names. He paused at a bank of mailboxes to pick up his morning mail, flipping rapidly through the usual handouts and dozens of press releases, political statements, and proposals that arrived every day from the congressional delegation, the mayor's office, the county manager's office, and various police agencies, all alerting him to some development that they thought worthy of editorial attention. He sighed, wondering how much money was wasted on all these hopeless efforts. One envelope, however, caught his eye. He separated it from the pile.
It was a thin, white envelope with his name and address written in sturdy block print. There was a return address in the corner, giving a post office box number in Starke, Florida, in the northern portion of the state. The state prison, he thought instantly.
He put it on top of the other letters and headed toward his office, maneuvering amidst the room of desks, nodding at the few reporters who were in early and already working the telephones. He waved at the city editor, who had his feet up on his desk in the center of the room and was reading the last edition. Then he moved through a set of doors in the rear of the newsroom marked EDITORIAL. He was halfway into his cubicle when he heard a voice from nearby.
"Ahh, the young Turk arrives early. What could bring you in before the hordes? Unsettled by the troubles in Beirut? Sleepless over the president's economic recovery program?"
Cowart stuck his head around a partition. "Morning, Will. Actually, I just wanted to use the WATS line to call my daughter. I'll leave the truly deep and useless worrying to you."
Will Martin laughed and brushed a forelock of white hair out of his eyes, a motion that belonged more to a child than an old man. "Go. Abuse the abundant financial generosity of our beloved newspaper. When you get finished, take a look at the story on the Local page. It seems that one of our black-robed dispensers of justice cut something of a deal for an old buddy caught driving under the influence. It could be time for one of your ever- popular crime-and-punishment crusades."
"I'll look at it," Cowart said.
"Damn cold this morning," said Martin. "What's the point of living down here if you still have to shiver on the way to work? Might as well be Alaska."
"Why don't we editorialize against the weather? We're always trying to influence the heavens, anyway. Maybe they'll listen to us this time."
"You've got a point." Martin smiled.
"And you're just the man for the job," Cowart said.
"True," Martin replied. "Not steeped in sin, like you, I have a much better connection to the Almighty. It helps in this job."
"That's because you're so much closer to joining him than I."
His neighbor roared. "You're an ageist," he protested, waggling a finger. "Probably a sexist, a racist, a pacifist — all the other ists, too."
Cowart laughed and headed to his desk, dumping the pile of mail in the middle and leaving the single envelope on top. He reached out for it, while with the other hand he started dialing his ex-wife's number. With any luck, he thought, they should be at breakfast.
He crooked the receiver beneath his shoulder and ear, freeing his hand while the connection was being made. As the telephone began ringing he opened the envelope and took out a single sheet of yellow legal-ruled paper.
Dear Mr. Cowart:
I am currently awaiting execution on Death Row for a crime that I DID NOT COMMIT.
He put the letter down. "Hello, Sandy. It's Matt. I just wanted to talk to Becky for a minute. I hope I didn't disturb anything."
"Hello, Matt." He heard a hesitation in her voice. "No, it's just we're getting ready to go. Tom has to be in court early, so he's taking her to school, and ..." She paused, then continued. "No, it's okay. I have a few things I need to talk over with you anyway. But they've got to go, so can you make it quick?"
He closed his eyes and thought how painful it was not to be involved in the routine of his daughter's life. He imagined spilling milk at breakfast, reading books at night, holding her hand when she got sick, admiring the pictures she drew in school. He bit back his disappointment. "Sure. I just wanted to say hi."
"I'll get her."
The phone clunked on the table and in the silence that followed, Matthew Cowart looked at the words: I DID NOT COMMIT.
He remembered his wife on the day they'd met, in the newspaper office at the University of Michigan. She'd been small, but her intensity had seemed to contradict her size. She'd been a graphic design student, who worked part- time doing layouts and headlines, poring over page proofs, pushing her dark wavy hair away from her face, concentrating so hard she rarely heard the phone ring or reacted to any of the dirty jokes that flew about in the unbridled newsroom air. She'd been a person of precision and order, with a draftsman's approach to life. The daughter of a Midwestern-city fire captain who'd died in the line of duty, and a grade-school teacher, she craved possessions, longed for comforts. He'd thought her beautiful, was intimidated by her desire, and was surprised when she'd agreed to go on a date with him; surprised further when, after a dozen dates, she'd slept with him.
He'd been the sports editor, which she had thought was a silly waste of time. Overmuscled men in bizarre outfits fighting over variously shaped balls, she would say. He had tried to educate her to the romance of the events, but she had been intransigent. After a while, he had switched to covering real news, throwing himself tenaciously after stories, as their relationship had solidified. He'd loved the endless hours, the pursuit of the story, the seduction of writing. She'd thought he would be famous or, if not famous, important. She'd followed him when he got his first job offer on a small Midwestern paper. A half dozen years later, they'd still been together. On the same day that she announced she was pregnant, he got his offer from the Journal. He was to cover criminal courts. She was to have Becky.
"Hi, Daddy. Mommy says I can only talk for a minute. Got to get to school."
"Is it cold there, too, honey? You should wear a coat."
"I will. Tom got me a coat with a pirate on it that's all orange for the Bucs. I'm going to wear that. I got to meet some of the players, too. They were at a picnic where we were helping get money for charity."
"That's great," Matthew replied. Damn, he thought.
"Are football players important, Daddy?"
He laughed. "Sort of."
"Daddy, is something wrong?"
"No, honey, why?"
"Well, you don't usually call in the morning."
"I just woke up missing you and wanted to hear your voice."
"I miss you, too, Daddy. Will you take me back to Disney World?"
"This spring. I promise."
"Daddy, I've got to go. Tom is waving for me. Oh, Daddy, guess what? We have a special club in second grade called the hundred-book club. You get a prize when you read one hundred books. I just made it!"
"Fantastic! What do you get?"
"A special plaque and a party at the end of the year."
"That's great. What was your favorite book?"
"Oh, that's easy. The one you sent me: The Reluctant Dragon." She laughed. "It reminds me of you."
He laughed with her.
"I've got to go," she said again.
"Okay. I love you and I really miss you."
"Me too. Bye-bye."
"Bye," he said, but she had already left the telephone.
There was another blank moment until his ex-wife picked up the line. He spoke first.
"A charity picnic with football players?"
He had always wanted to hate the man who'd replaced him, wanted to hate him for what he did, which was corporate law, how he looked, which was stocky and chesty, with the build of a man who spent lunchtimes lifting weights at an expensive health club, wanted to imagine that he was cruel, a thoughtless lover, a poor stepfather, an inadequate provider, but he was none of those things. Shortly after his ex-wife had announced her impending marriage, Tom had flown to Miami (without telling her) to meet with him. They had had drinks and dinner. The purpose had been murky, but, after the second bottle of wine, the lawyer had told him with direct honesty that he wasn't trying to replace him in his daughter's eyes, but because he was going to be there, he was going to do his damnedest to help her love him, too. Cowart had believed him, had felt an odd sort of satisfaction and relief, ordered another bottle of wine and decided he sort of liked his successor.
"It's the law firm. They help sponsor some of the United Way stuff in Tampa. That's how the football players get involved. Becky was pretty impressed, but of course Tom didn't tell her how many games the Bucs won last year."
"That makes sense."
"I suppose so. They certainly are the biggest men I've ever seen." Sandy laughed.
There was a momentary pause before she continued. "How are you? How's Miami?"
He laughed. "Miami's cold, which makes everyone crazy. You know how it is, nobody owns a winter coat, nobody has any heat in their homes. Everyone shivers and gets a little insane until it heats up again. I'm okay. I fit right in."
"Still having the nightmares?"
"Not too much. Every so often. It's under control."
It was a mild falsehood, one he knew she would disbelieve but would accept without further questioning. He shrugged hard, thinking how much he hated the night.
"You could get some help. The paper would pay."
"Waste of time. I haven't had one in months," he lied more flagrantly.
He heard her take a breath.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Well," she said, "I suppose I should just tell you."
"So just tell me."
"Tom and I are going to have a baby. Becky's no longer going to be alone."
He felt a bit dizzy, and a dozen different thoughts and feelings ricocheted within him. "Well, well, well. Congratulations."
"Thank you," his ex-wife said. "But you don't understand."
"Becky's going to be part of a family. Even more than before."
"You don't see, do you? What will happen. That you'll be the one squeezed out. At least, that's what I'm afraid of. It's already hard for her, with you being in the other part of the state."
He felt as if someone had slapped him across the face. "I'm not the one in the other part of the state. You are. You're the one that moved out."
"That's old business," Sandy replied. After a moment, she continued. "Anyway, things are going to change."
"I don't see why ..." he stammered.
"Trust me," she said. Her tone displayed that she had considered her words carefully, far in advance. "Less time for you. I'm sure of it. I've been thinking about it a lot."
"But that's not the agreement."
"The agreement can change. We knew that."
"I don't think so," he replied, the first edge of anger sliding into his voice.
"Well," she said abruptly. "I'm not going to allow myself to get upset talking about it. We'll see."
"Matt, I have to go. I just wanted you to know."
"Great," he said. "Thanks a bunch."
"We can discuss this later, if there's anything to discuss."
Sure, he thought, after you've talked to attorneys and social workers and edited me out completely. He knew the thought was untrue, but it refused to be dislodged.
"It's not your life we're talking about," she added. "Not anymore. It's mine."
And then she hung up.
You're wrong, he thought. He looked about his work cubicle. Through a small window he could see the sky stretching slate gray over the downtown. Then he looked down at the words in front of him: I DID NOT COMMIT.
We are all innocent, he thought. It is proving it that is so hard.
Then, trying to banish the conversation from his mind, he picked up the letter and continued reading:
On May 4th, 1987, I had just returned home to my grandmother's house in the town of Pachoula, Escambia County. At the time I was a college student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, just completing my junior year. I had been visiting her for several days, when I was picked up by the sheriff's office for questioning in a rape-murder that took place a few miles from my grandmother's place. The victim was white. I am black. An eyewitness had seen a green Ford sedan similar to one I owned leaving the scene where the girl disappeared. I was held without food or water or sleep and without a chance to talk to counsel for thirty-six hours straight. I was beaten several times by deputies. They used folded telephone books to pound on me, because those don't make any marks. They told me they would kill me and one held a revolver to my head and kept pulling the trigger. Each time the hammer clicked down on an empty cylinder. At the end of this they told me that if I confessed, everything would be okay. I was scared and exhausted, so I did. Not knowing any details, but letting them lead me through the crime, I confessed. After what they put me through, I would have confessed to anything.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Just Cause"
Copyright © 1992 John Katzenbach.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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