Read an Excerpt
The seminar met in Fisk Hall, one of the oldest buildings on Northwestern’s campus and the crusted, beating heart of the university’s Medill School of Journalism. I took a seat at a table in the back. The pile of red hair at the front shook itself like a dog shaking off the weather. A hand beckoned.
Won’t do, Mr. Joyce.”
I sighed, grabbed my backpack, and found a place up front. The pile of hair parted itself, revealing a considerable length of nose and eyes of violent blue.
“My name is Judy Zombrowski. You can call me Z. Do you know Ms. Gold?”
The hand directed my attention to a woman sitting directly to my left. She had a perfectly square chin, high cheekbones, and long, brown hair that turned crimson in the late--afternoon sun. Sarah Gold waved. I felt queasy. Gloriously so.
“We know each other from undergrad,” Sarah said, smiling at me as if we’d exchanged more than three words during our four years together.
“Of course you do.” Z cast a look toward the back of the room. “We’re waiting for one more.”
A door banged open.
The third student in the summer graduate seminar was tall and angular. He had thick shoulders and a long jaw covered by a blond scruff of beard. His eyes were shaded and hard to read.
“Jake Havens?” Z’s voice rang down the empty aisle and echoed off the walls. Havens took the same seat I’d picked out for myself.
“What is it with you people?” Z waved Havens forward. “Up here.”
“I’m good, thanks.” His voice was ragged, like a car knocking through its low end of gears. He looked older. In his thirties, even.
“Fine. Sit where you want.” Z poked at the mass of papers piled up around her. From underneath a legal pad she pulled out what looked like a Big Mac and unwrapped it. She took a bite, then found a Coke with a straw and sipped.
“So, can someone tell me what we’re here for?” Z took another bite and watched us as she chewed.
“We’re here to work on wrongful convictions.” Sarah Gold tapped a pen lightly against the table as she spoke. “Men who’ve been sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit.”
“You mean murder, Ms. Gold.”
“And what if, heaven forbid, the son of a bitch is guilty?” A pickle dropped out of Z’s Big Mac. She ignored it. “What if you spend the quarter working a file and, at the end of the day, he raped the little girl, cut her into pieces, and stuffed them all into Hefty bags. Just like the state said he did.”
Sarah opened her mouth to speak.
“I’m not finished,” Z said. “What if you work a case and are convinced the poor bastard is innocent? Not a doubt about it. But you don’t have the evidence. Or you do have the evidence, but for some reason it’s tainted. Inadmissible. What then?”
Z took another bite of her sandwich, put it down, and held up her hands like she was a doctor getting ready to operate. “I’m not supposed to eat this stuff, but I love it.” She wiped her fingers with a napkin, wrapped up what was left of the burger, and stuffed it into its paper bag. “My point is this. We have a lot of files. And a lot of possible outcomes. But we don’t root for one result over the other.”
“What do we root for?” Sarah said.
“The truth, if we can find it. And a good story. As for the actual workings of our legal system”—-a flick of hands to the heavens—-“sometimes it’s necessary to let things fall where they may. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
We all nodded.
“Like hell you do. But that’s all right. Just keep in mind rule number one. The evidence is what it is. Allow it to tell its own story. Don’t shape it to support a certain outcome. We’ll talk more about all of this later. For now, why don’t we get started?” Z gestured to the stack of brown files climbing the wall behind her. “These are just a few cases you can look at. We have another roomful down the hall.”
“Do we start anywhere in particular?” I said. “Or just dig in?”
“This seminar is all about instinct, Mr. Joyce. And who has it. In fact, our very first case relied on little more than a hunch. Have any of you heard this?”
We all shook our heads. Z seemed pleased.
“Our first case involved a man named Charles Granger. He was convicted of shooting a man dead over a drug deal and sentenced to die by the state of Indiana. In the spring of 1999, we read through the file in this very classroom. None of us bought it. No one was sure why,
but the facts just didn’t hang together. So we ordered up Granger’s trial transcripts and began to work the case. We eventually zeroed in on the state’s eyewitness. At first, she was scared to talk to us. We sent her some letters from Granger. Then we sent her a calendar with Granger’s scheduled execution date circled. She wound up recanting her testimony, and the whole thing came apart. Charles Granger spent fifteen years on death row. At one point, he was forty--eight hours from being killed. And we saved his life. This seminar has saved eight other lives since then. And gotten at least that many released from decades of prison time for crimes they didn’t commit. This will be the best work you’ll ever do. It will also be the most demanding. And a lot of it will depend on you trusting your gut.”
Z rattled the ice in her Coke and sucked on the straw until she hit bottom. Then she threw the cup in the vicinity of a barrel. “You’ve been chosen for this seminar because you’re the best. At least that’s what they tell me. I’ve won three Pulitzer Prizes in my career, so I know talent. And from where I sit, the screening committee for this course gets it right a little more than half the time. Which means at least one of you doesn’t belong. But we’ll see. Now, I’d like to head down the hall for a walk--through of our filing system.”
Z stood. Sarah and I got up with her.
“I’ve already got a case.” Jake Havens was still slouched in his chair, eyes fastened on the floor. “Name’s James Harrison. Fourteen years ago, he was convicted of killing a ten--year--old kid in Chicago.”
Z smiled so I could see her eyeteeth. “Mr. Havens. Nice of you to check in. We tend not to focus as much on cases in Illinois since the state abolished its death penalty.”
Havens looked up. “What happened to ‘trusting your instinct’?”
“I didn’t say we couldn’t take a look at an Illinois case. Just that, all things being equal, it might not be a priority.”
“But all things aren’t equal.”
“I’m not following you.”
“First of all, Harrison’s dead. Fourteen months in prison and they found him stuck in the neck with a shank.” Havens climbed to his feet and moved down the aisle until he stood on the other side of Sarah. He pulled a thick file from a tattered backpack and thunked it down in front of him. “This is everything I could find. Mostly newspaper clippings. And the original police report.”
Z ignored the paperwork. “Why would we look into a case where the convicted man is deceased?”
“Does the fact that he’s dead make him any less innocent?”
Z licked her lips. First day and the prof was pissed. Great.
“Mr. Havens, let’s take this up after class . . .”
Havens pulled a wrinkled gray envelope out of his pack and laid it beside the file.
“You have something else for us?” Z’s voice rose with her eyebrows.
“It’s a letter, ma’am.”
“I can see that.”
“I received it four days ago.”
“In the mail?”
“There’s no stamp,” Sarah said, tilting her head to get a closer look.
“It was tucked under the front door of my apartment.”
“When, Mr. Havens?”
“I told you. Four days ago.”
Z nodded. “Go ahead.”
I could feel the shift in the room. Z was no longer the teacher. And Jake Havens, no longer just a student.
“I woke up and it was sitting in my hallway. So I opened it.”
“Who else has handled it?”
“And what do you think is in there?”
“I know what’s in there. It’s a note from the killer. The real killer.”
Z walked to the back of the classroom and closed the door. She returned with a box of latex gloves. We each took a pair and snapped them on. I couldn’t take my eyes off the envelope. Z’s cloak--and--dagger only made things better. She picked up the envelope and studied it. There was no address, just jake havens printed in block letters of black ink.
“Was it sealed, Mr. Havens?”
Jake shook his head. Z didn’t seem surprised. She opened the envelope and eased out its contents—-a single sheet of paper filled with more block lettering. Z pressed the page flat on the table and we all read.
98--2425 . . . i kilt the boy.
“There’s something else.” Havens reached into his pack again, this time pulling out a small piece of cloth. He placed it down beside the letter. My hand picked it up before the rest of me realized what I’d done. It was a ragged cut. The fabric, white with a black stripe running through it.
“Looks like it’s from a shirt,” I said.
“It was in with the note,” Havens said. “I think it’s got blood on it.”
Sarah had taken the piece of cloth from me. Now, she let it slip from her fingers.
“My guess,” Havens continued, “is that it was cut from the shirt the victim was wearing.”
“How do you know what the victim was wearing?” Z said.
Havens placed a hand on the file. “Case number 98--2425. The victim’s name was Skylar Wingate. According to the cops, he was wearing a black--and--white cotton shirt. Seems to match what we’ve got here.”
Z sighed like she’d heard it all before. “You’re leaving out a few facts, Mr. Havens.”
“You remember the case?” I said.
“It was a pretty big deal in its day.”
“What did he leave out?” Sarah said.
“As I recall,” Z said, “they did DNA testing on blood found on the jeans James Harrison was wearing when he was arrested. Came back as a perfect match to the victim.”
Sarah and I turned our gaze back to Havens.
“The DNA testing was done postconviction,” Havens said. “Harrison demanded and paid for it himself.”
“What does that matter?” Sarah said.
“Why does a guy who’s filing an appeal pay for DNA testing that’s going to remove all doubt of his guilt?” Havens said.
“Desperation,” Z said. “Do enough of these stories, and you’ll learn all about it.”
I picked up the piece of torn fabric. “Would they still have the shirt in evidence?”
“If this guy was killed in prison,” Sarah said, “why would they keep anything?”
We all turned again to Z, who seemed to think long and hard for a moment. She scribbled something on a legal pad and pushed it over to Havens. “The Cook County Clerk’s Office takes custody of trial transcripts and physical evidence once a case is closed. Transcripts and related trial documents are stored off--site, in a permanent records center. Actual physical evidence is kept in the county’s warehouse. I’ve given you both addresses and a couple of names. I doubt there’s anything left, but if there is, they’ll have it.”
“Will they let us in?” Havens said. “I mean if we just tell them we’re from Medill?”
“Not likely. I’ll make a call this afternoon and e--mail you if I get an okay. Assuming I do, you guys go down there and see what you can dig up on the shirt. Show me something substantive next time we meet, something that gives us a way around the DNA match . . . or we move on. Fair enough?”
We looked at one another and nodded. Z tucked the torn piece of shirt into the gray envelope and pinched it between her fingers. “Meanwhile, this stays with me. Now, does anyone else have anything they want to share? A Christmas card from John Wayne Gacy? Richard Speck’s bra and panties? No? Good. If it’s all right with Mr. Havens, I’d appreciate ten minutes of your precious time to talk about the five hundred or so other cases we’re working here at Medill.”