Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Lawyer's Story of Himself and the Innocent Guy He Helped Get Off Death Row

I nearly tossed the book aside at the first sentence.

Wait, I'll get back to that.

Instead, start with this.  Alfred Dewayne Brown did not shoot and kill (actually he neither shot nor killed) Charles Clark, a police officer during a robbery of the ACE Cash Express on South Loop in Houston in April 2003.  He wasn't even there.  Which didn't stop them from trying him for the killing and putting him on death row.

It was the usual stuff.  Eyewitness IDs that weren't worth much.  A witness coerced by the cops and the prosecutors into telling them what they wanted to hear rather than what she knew to be true. Crucial evidence corroborating Brown's story (and giving the lie to the lie the cops and prosecutors coerced) discovered and then hidden by the cops and prosecutors.  And then discovered largely by chance by diligent post-trial investigation.

And it was the unusual stuff.  A reporter who sunk her teeth into the case.  A later prosecutor who acknowledged the significance of the evidence. A trial court judge who accepted evidence of innocence and figured it mattered.  The Court of Criminal Appeals that finally, finally, after sitting on the case for nearly a year and a half, granted a new trial.  

And a prosecutor who then dismissed the charges.  

Cool.  Great stuff.  Good for Brown.  Good for Texas not killing another innocent guy.

It's a feel-good story.  Good for Brian W. Stolarz who worked on Brown's case for several years, cared deeply for Brown, and now has a book about it.  The one I nearly tossed aside at the first sentence.  

I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone-cold innocent the moment I met him.
As it happens, of course, Stolarz was right.  But despite his "more than functional 'bullshit meter'" that makes his gut more reliable than a polygraph (so he says), he knew no such thing.  He may have believed it with all his heart.  But that ain't the same as knowledge.  And if he's either lying or delusional on the first page. . . .

Of course, he also claims to have essentially proved Brown innocent, though in fact it was other lawyers, after he was off the case, who turned up the crucial evidence and then used it to free Brown.
As I said, the story of how Brown got railroad onto death row for a crime he had nothing to do with and then, with diligent lawyering and more than a soupçon of luck, got off the row and then freed is pretty good.  

Told well, it'd make a terrific long-form magazine article in, say, Texas Monthly.  As one of perhaps several examples showing the numerous ways wrongful convictions happen, it could be part of a terrific book.

As part of Stolarz's solipsistic . . . .

OK, maybe I'm not being altogether fair.  Not altogether.  

The book isn't just about Brown's case.  It's also about Stolarz and how he's just so devoted to Brown's case that . . . .  

Look, there's good stuff in the book.  But, well, I kept wanting to toss it aside.  Really, I kept wanting to throw it at the wall.

Stolarz is opposed to the death penalty.  He's a Catholic, and that informs his opposition.  He says that if we're going to have it, we should do all sorts of things (yes, he details some) to reduce the likelihood that we'll kill innocent folks.  

He's particularly appalled that Antonin Scalia did not think the Constitution prohibited the execution of an innocent person who had all the process due.  And Scalia claimed to be a Catholic!  As if he should have shared Stolarz's understanding of Catholic doctrine and that understanding should have controlled his understanding of the Constitution.  (Not that I think Scalia was right, you understand. But there is no such thing as a proper Catholic interpretation of the Constitution.  It ain't a religious document.) 

Hell, even the subtitle's dishonest.  That "Race against Time" suggesting that execution was imminent.  It wasn't.  The years Stolarz worked on the case, and on through the granting of a new trial, they were all in the Texas courts.  This wasn't the heroic, last-minute work you hear about.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court asked Alabama to hold off the execution of Tommy Arthur for two hours so the Justices could decide whether to issue a stay.  (They did.)  Now that's last minute work.  Getting that stay was a race against time (or something, the metaphor doesn't really make much sense).  

Brown? His case hadn't entered the federal system.  He had at least a couple more years of litigation before he had a serious execution date.  

There's just too much wrong.  Stolarz gets facts wrong.* He gets the law wrong.**  He wrongly says that if he hadn't agreed to take the case up Brown would have been executed.*** 

I imagine Brian Stolarz is a nice guy.  I'd like to think that he'd have worked as hard for Brown and cared as deeply about what happened to him if his spidey sense had told him that Brown was guilty as sin.  I'd like to think that.  I really would like to.

I really wanted to like Grace and Justice on Death Row.   I really did want to.

*Dr. Quijano, who testified that Duane Buck was likely to commit future acts of criminal violence because he was black, was not a prosecution witness in that case.  He was a defense witness.

**When they meet with the prosecutor to set out evidence Brown was innocent, he wondered if she would "take the step of letting Dewayne go" or if they'd have to go to court. No need to wonder.  The prosecutor has no magic wand that can undo convictions.  Only courts can do that.

***He doesn't claim to have single-handedly saved the day.  It's just that without him . . . .

* * * *

Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing me a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard that attorneys never get a strong sense of the innocence or guilt of a client, and thinking about it I expect that's true. As for Stolarz and his infallible fertilizer meter, the general public will buy right into it. I don't. I don't think you (Gamso) do either. Case in point, have you ever met a con man you didn't like? Yeah, neither have I. Years ago I uncovered solid evidence of a case of fraud against the manager of a place I worked. I got the whole business turned over to the local prosecutor, who subsequently discovered the alleged perpetrator was wanted for six counts of fraud in Texas. The prosecutor remarked that, "I spent several hours talking to this guy, and at the end of that time I couldn't believe he'd done anything wrong - and I deal with people like him every day. He's good."

    Having hard evidence, they charged him with fraud, tried and convicted him, sentenced the perpetrator to several years in the slammer, then extradited him to Texas.

    So the deal is that it's a good story, but it's based on a true story rather than being a true story.

    Thanks for the review.