My alarm woke me at 6 a.m. I went out for a run, showered, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and had some breakfast. It was a day like any other, except today I was going to watch someone die.
I make my living as a private investigator, skip tracing and some divorce work, like any detective outside of television. I also do some investigating for local law firms, checking out witnesses, following up on alibis, that sort of thing.
Two months ago, the secretary for William Reader of Packard, Reader, and Everhart called my office number at nine a.m. My office number is my cell phone since I don’t have a regular phone. I don’t have an office either.
“Hello, you have reached the office of Vincent Diamond. Mr. Diamond is away from the phone right now but…“
Cut it out, Vince. I know you’re there,” Martha interrupted.
Martha Braun had been Bill Reader’s secretary since before he started using me, and knew most of my crap.
“Hi, Martha. Are you calling me about that two grand you guys owe me?”
“We don’t owe you any money, Vince; you still owe us two hours work from the Burdett case. Bill wants you in his office ASAFP. He’s got a pro bono case he needs some help on in a hurry.”
“Sorry, I don’t speak Latin. Does that mean my normal fee?”
“Yeah, yeah, just get down here. I have more important things to do than banter with you,” she hung up.
Martha likes me pretty well, but P, R, and E is a prestigous law firm in Decatur and she doesn’t have much time to waste on a freelancer like me.
It was a sunny, late October day, so I hopped on my motorcycle and drove the five miles from my home in Little Five Points to Bill’s office on the square in Decatur, a medium-size city on the outskirts of Atlanta. I parked outside the courthouse and cut across the square to his building. I took the stairs up and was in Bill’s waiting room by 9:30. After a short wait, Martha showed me in.
“Thanks for coming in,” Bill said as I took a chair.
“Hi Bill, what’s up?”
“We’ve taken on a pro bono death penalty appeal. The guy’s on death row at Atlanta for murder and is scheduled for the lethal injection in 60 days unless we can turn it around. He’s been on death row for seven years while the appeals have gone from one firm to another. He was found guilty of murdering a prostitute outside a hotel on Stewart Avenue. The accused, Lonnie Quail, claimed he had an alibi, but it didn’t hold up in court, and he still insists he’s innocent.”
“Don’t they all?”
“True, but irrelevant. We’ve got one last run at the Eleventh Circuit Court here, followed by the Supreme Court. If that doesn’t work, we’re left with pleading with the Governor for clemency. I need you to investigate his original lawyer and some of the witnesses. We need to find some level of incompetence or a witness that committed perjury.”
“What about the murder itself or the alibi. Wouldn’t it be easier to find another suspect or shore up his alibi?”
“No. At this point, it doesn’t matter if he actually committed the crime or not. He…”
“Doesn’t matter if he’s innocent?”
“According to the law, he received a fair trial and was found guilty by the jury. Proving he’s innocent now may not be enough to overturn that. Our best bet is to prove he didn’t get a fair trial in the first place.”
After going over the direction Bill needed me to take along with a list of witnesses and the defense lawyer’s name, I left with a thick folder and a retainer check. I don’t do pro bono.
My first stop was the office of Clinton Bolan, esq. He had a seedy office in a bad part of town off Lakewood Freeway on the south side. He talked to me around a meatball sub dripping tomato sauce on his cheap suit.
“You’re here about the Quail case? Well, you’re about the ninth person in the last five years, and I’ll tell you the same thing I told them. He’s guilty as hell and no lawyer in the world could have gotten a different verdict.”
“How did he come to be charged to begin with?”
“He fit the description of a man seen fleeing the parking lot right after the murder. He was picked up walking down Sylvan Road about four o’clock the next morning. A witness picked him out of a line up and that was it.”
“Wasn’t there something about an alibi?”
“Yeah, he says he was with his brother the whole time, but the DA got the brother on the stand and shoots the story full of holes. The jury didn’t buy it, and now he’s on death row. All the appeal lawyers have sent someone like you in here to try to drum up an incompetence case. Well, I’m no Johnny Cochran, but I have a good record, and I’m telling you, I didn’t stand a chance with this defendant.”
“Did you get the brother on redirect?”
“Yes, but the damage was done.”
“What did Lonnie say about his alibi after that?”
“Nothing. He shut up and wouldn’t say anything, except ‘I didn’t do it’. I told him, that wasn’t going to help; we have to fix this or you are going to be found guilty. He just stared at the wall and shook his head.”
I spent a while longer with Bolan going over the trial notes. I sure as hell wouldn’t want him at my table if I got in a jam, but I couldn’t find anything glaring he might have done that would create grounds for appeal. I’d have to let Bill run with that one.
I was supposed to leave the alibi alone and work on the prosecution witnesses, but I couldn’t just drop it. Something about the alibi didn’t ring true, and I needed to know what. Innocent or guilty may not matter to the Appellate Courts, but it mattered to me. Besides, I rarely did what I was supposed to do anyway.
Lonnie’s brother, Rodney still lived in what was their parent’s house off Bankhead highway on the west side of Atlanta. This was on an old wide residential lane flanked by massive oak trees and houses built early in the last century. I parked my bike out front and walked up the broken concrete drive to the steps leading up to a wide front porch running the width of the house.
The front door was open, but the screen door was shut and latched. Cooking smells escaped through the screen, and I realized it was past lunch and I hadn’t eaten since early morning. I knocked on the screen and a black man emerged from the kitchen in the back wiping his hands on a towel. He looked to be in his thirties with a large belly extending over his work pants.
“Can I help you?” he said as he reached the front room.
“Yeah, I’m Rodney, what you want?”
“My name’s Vince Diamond and I’m working on the appeals case for your brother.”
“Well, come on in, but I don’t know what I can tell you I ain’t told them other folks,” he said as he unlatched the screen.
We walked into a large living room with an old bricked up fireplace in the corner. What looked like a bedroom was off to the side. Behind the living rooms was an open space into a dining room, and the kitchen behind that. The walls and ceiling were cracked plaster and the floors were hardwood that looked, and probably were, a hundred years old.
“Nice house,” I said, “it looks solid. Have you always lived here?”
“Cept for a couple of years when I stayed with my girl. We broke up after Lonnie went to jail, and I lived here ever since.”
He sat on a sofa under the front window and I took an old high back chair across from it.
“How can I help you? I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. I sure would like to see him get off, but there ain’t much I can tell you.”
“What about the alibi. During the trial, you testified he was with you at the time of the murder, but on cross, they tore your story apart. Was he with you or not?”
Rodney looked at the floor for a minute shaking his head. “He begged me to help him out. Came to me and swore he ain’t killed nobody. Said he was with somebody, but they couldn’t help him and he needed me to stand up for him. He’s my brother; what was I supposed to do? We got together and came up with a story. Practiced it real good too. But when that district attorney got a hold of it, he just tore me a new one. I tried; I just couldn’t do him no good.”
“Did he ever say who he was with that night?”
“No. Wouldn’t tell me. Wouldn’t tell nobody. Said he couldn’t say. I figure it got to be some woman. He always getting in trouble with the ladies, but I couldn’t shake it out of him.”
When I left there, I called up Bill and told him I wanted to get in to see Lonnie. He said he’d arrange it and would have me on the list by the time I got over there. The Atlanta Pen was about ten miles to the east through some of the rougher parts of Atlanta.
I parked my bike in the visitor’s lot outside the prison that once housed Al Capone. It’s a massive structure built out of concrete and surrounded by high chain link fences topped by razor wire. It was, as all such structures are, foreboding. Even though it was a few miles from downtown, very few locals had ever seen it. If you weren’t going there, you didn’t go there.
I had been here once or twice on other cases, so I knew the drill and got through security with a minimum delay. Since Lonnie was on death row, the visitation procedure was a little different than I was used to. We sat across a Plexiglas divider with holes drilled in it. Since I wasn’t his lawyer, and this wasn’t privileged, guards were posted on both sides of the divider. I wasn’t sure why I was being guarded.
“Who you and what you won’t?”
A fair question. I wasn’t sure myself. “My name’s Vincent and I’m working for your lawyer. I need to ask you a few questions”
“Man, I done answered all them questions a hunnert times. Ain’t done no good so far.”
“Well, Lonnie, we’re running out of time. Your lawyers are trying to come up with a good reason to get your execution commuted or stayed, and we need some information.”
“Hey, I got nothing better to do. I just don’t know what else I can tell you.”
“I talked to your brother, and…”
“How’s Rodney? How come he ain’t come to see me?”
“Rodney’s fine. I don’t know why he hasn’t visited. He told me about your alibi and you not wanting to tell anybody who you were with at the time of the murder.”
“I was with Rodney! I done told them that.”
“Lonnie, Rodney already told me you two cooked up that story. He also told me you were with somebody else, but wouldn’t say who.”
Lonnie just stared at the glass like he was looking at his own reflection, or looking through me. “I ain’t got nothing to say on that then.”
“Your lawyer hired me to try and find some reason to appeal your death sentence. If I don’t come up with something soon, and I mean like now, you are going to die in 60 days. You have to help yourself here, Lonnie. Tell me who you were with and let me try and help you.”
He just stared and shook his head again. A tear started forming in one eye. I thought he wasn’t going to say anything else. Finally, in a voice almost too low for me to hear through the holes, he said, “He’s my brother, man.”
“Lonnie, look, we know you weren’t with your brother, so just…”
“No, damn it, I mean… shit” He didn’t say anything else for a couple of minutes, but I could tell he was ready to talk. “I was with my brother’s woman.”
“Your brother’s girlfriend?” I asked. “The one he said he broke up with after you got arrested? That’s your alibi?”
“Yeah. We been seeing each other for a while then, sneaking off when Rodney was working at the plant. She came to see me right after I got locked up; I was still in county then. She said she couldn’t stand to be around him no more after what happened. Said she was going to come up with some reason to break it off with him. She wouldn’t come see no more neither, but she begged me not to tell Rodney. Shoot, I didn’t care what that ho wanted, but I couldn’t hurt my brother that way. I couldn’t say what happened.”
“What’s her name, Lonnie? We’ve got to get her to come forward.”
“NO! I ain’t going to do that to my brother. We been best friends since he was born. It’d kill him if he found out I was stepping out with his girl.”
“It’s all we have to try and save your life, Lonnie. You have to give her up.”
He sat again and stared at the glass. Finally, he raised his eyes and met mine with a jailhouse stare. “You listen to me, mister detective. I been in here five years now, and I done made peace with myself. I know I’m going to die soon, and I’m cool with that. But I ain’t going to step on my brother to save myself. I ain’t going to do it. Them lawyers working for me, they got to do what I say. I done checked up on that. They can’t go after her and that’s all I got to say on it. You tell them I ‘preciate all they done for me, and if they can get me off some other way, that be fine. But we ain’t going to go that way.”
I stared right back. I’ve been intimidated by the best and he wasn’t going to now. After a couple of minutes of this pissing contest, I could tell that door was closed and bolted. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have to. He hadn’t changed his mind after five years on death row, and he wasn’t going to change it now just because Vince Diamond was sitting across the divider from him. I finally nodded my head, and his eyes softened a bit. The sadness that I had first seen creeping back in.
We talked a little more about that night and the trial, but I didn’t get anything useful out of it. I left there and got on my motorcycle. I’ve had that bike now for about ten years, and besides a long run, there are few better ways to clear your mind. Since I was on that side of town, I continued out east of the city, dodging the interstates until I was well out into the country. I wandered aimlessly for several hours trying to come to grips with a man that would rather die than hurt his brother. I found my respect for him growing in equal proportion to my certainty that we weren’t going to be able to save him.
Finally, around dark, I found myself riding back through the circus that is Little Five Points back to my home. The area has always attracted a diverse crowd, going back to the beatniks, then the hippies, followed by a mix of new wave, goth, skinheads, bikers, yuppies, and runaways. Add a liberal sprinkling of plain old homeless, and a trip down Euclid Avenue was always a visual trick or treat.
I got to my loft over an old movie theatre, now used for local productions, poetry readings, and the occasional open mike. My ‘office’ was actually one of the two old projection booths, and if I wanted, I could pull back the curtain and watch the madness below.
Tonight, I just didn’t have the heart for it. I checked voice mail on my cell phone – seven messages from Bill Reader. No surprise there. I didn’t have anything I wanted to say to him yet. Partly because I hadn’t followed his directives, and partly because I didn’t know how much I was going to tell him.
I went into the other projection booth, which housed my gym and worked out on the heavy bag until I couldn’t lift my arms anymore. Then I went into the main part of the loft, which doubled as a living room and bedroom. I finished stripping out of my clothes and collapsed on the bed.
The next morning, my head, arms, and back ached, so I decided to forego the motorcycle. I walked down to the street and unlocked one of my other choices of transportation, a 1963 Dodge. It’s a butt-ugly car with a push-button transmission, but it runs, and fits the neighborhood as well as my bike. My other car is a 1990 Mercedes 400E I keep in a parking garage a few blocks away. Both the car and the parking spot were in lieu of payments for services rendered. I usually prefer cash, but will occasionally barter, especially when the alternative appears to be not being paid at all.
First thing, I went to see Bill to file my report. Once a week, I’ll file a written report with as much detail as I can, but I like to give verbal reports more often, especially on a time-sensitive case like this one.
“What were you able to find out yesterday, Vince?”
“Not much,” I said, and proceeded to give him a run down of the conversation with the lawyer and Lonnie’s brother.
“How about Lonnie? Why did you go see him? Find anything new there?”
I hesitated a few seconds longer than I should have and said, “I just wanted to meet the man, get a feel for him. You know I have a pretty good bullshit meter, and I needed to hear his side of things.”
“Well, anything we can use?”
I glanced past him out his window and looked at the old county courthouse across the courtyard. Modern courthouses look like banks or office buildings, but most people, when they think of a courthouse, see something like this. It’s a neo-classic stone edifice with huge marble and terrazzo interiors.
“Vince?” Bill brought me back inside.
“Sorry, I was just going over the interview in my head. No, he didn’t give me anything that we didn’t already know.”
“Well, this isn’t much of a report; you could have handled this over the phone.” I didn’t tell him that I didn’t have any idea what I was going to say, until I said it.
“Okay, here’s what I need you to do,” he continued, “Go down the list of prosecution witnesses, and hit each one of them. Make them go through their story or anything else they remember. Interview them with that famous bullshit meter of yours wide open. Keep going back to the lawyer, and interview Lonnie as you need to. We need to find someone whose testimony we can break. Then we need to prove that the defense or the prosecution knew or should have known about it. We have to prove that he did not, in fact, receive a fair trial. If we fail to do that, Lonnie is going to get the needle.
The next few weeks were a blur of images. First, I had to find all the witnesses. Some, like the first officer on the scene and the medical examiner were easy. Others, such as the ‘eye-witness’ were a little tougher. After each witness, I would go back and talk to Bolan to see if everyone’s memory matched up. As often as I could, I would swing by and talk to Peter Ballenger, the DA. He wasn’t much help, but I had to keep chipping away, hoping to find a crack.
Every few days, I would go out to the Atlanta Pen and visit Lonnie. I would talk to him about the witnesses, and the trial; sometimes we would just talk about what life was like for him inside. He even asked about my life and my job, trying to get a glimpse of the outside world. The one thing we never talked about again was his brother’s girlfriend.
The closer it got, the less hope I had for helping Lonnie Quail. I had long since burned up the retainer and hadn’t asked Bill for any more. Despite Martha’s comment about me owing them hours, Bill and I both knew we frequently went the extra mile for the other, and the balance was kept in a sort of mental ledger. More often than not, the debt was squared with a steak dinner, or a Braves game.
With about two weeks to go, Bill told me they were preparing to go to the Eleventh Circuit with what they had, which wasn’t much. They had to do that pro forma before they could get a date in front of the Supreme Court. One legal clerk was already petitioning the Governor for clemency – the last hope for the condemned.
I went to visit Lonnie one last time. “I won’t be back again. The lawyers are going with what they got. Is there anything else you want to say to me?” I asked. We both knew what I meant.
He stared at me long and hard for a bit. I could see the range of emotions going through his mind, reflected in his eyes. “Just one thing, Vince.” I waited. “They say I can have two people come and watch me go out. All I got’s my brother. Would you bring him? He ain’t got no car.”
I tried to get rid of the lump in my throat, but before I could say anything, he continued.
“I’d like you to be there too. You been a friend. I think you know why.”
I finally croaked out that I would be happy to bring his brother and proud to be there.
For me, the last day of Lonnie Quail’s life passed in a haze. I went through the motions of a normal day, but everything seemed shadowy and distant. At the end of the day, I went home and showered again. I shaved – something I normally only did only once or twice a week. I changed into my best suit, a charcoal grey pinstripe, a comfortable pair of Bruno Magli loafers, and a Hugo Boss dress shirt.
I drove the Dodge over to the parking garage and picked up the Mercedes. I knew it was a dicey proposition driving my 400E through some of the neighborhoods we had to pass through that night, and I wouldn’t get back home until well after midnight. I didn’t much care about all that, Lonnie had earned my respect, and I intended to show it.
I picked up Rodney about ten and we drove to a diner down in the Cabbagetown area of east Atlanta. Neither of us felt much like eating, but we pushed some food around our plates and downed a lot of bad coffee. Around 11:30, we took the last leg of our journey to the Atlanta Pen. There were a couple of groups across the street cordoned off and separated by Atlanta Police. One group protesting the death penalty and holding a candlelight vigil, and the other carrying signs proclaiming victims rights and capital punishment.
I’ve been on both sides of that argument at one time or another and realized that until it became personal, it was just an abstract argument. No one in either group new Lonnie Quail or the murder victim. For them, it was just about being heard and seen giving their opinions. Rodney just stared straight ahead and didn’t see any of this. I had a placard in my window that had been given me and allowed me access to a guarded lot inside the prison.
By ten minutes until midnight, we were seated in a small room, looking at a window with a curtain drawn across the inside. Bill Reader was there along with the DA. A couple of police officers and a county sheriff were also present. A man and woman sat on the other side of the room, holding each other. I assumed they were the parents of the victim – I had never met or interviewed them.
A few minutes later, the curtains parted and we could see Lonnie lying on a table, strapped down. There was already an IV in each arm, the tubes leading out of site into another room. His head turned and his eyes met mine for a moment. He nodded as best he could and I nodded back. He then looked at his brother and never moved his eyes away.
The prison physician stepped forward and swabbed the arm on the other side with a white cotton ball he had dipped in alcohol. He then gave Lonnie an injection that would put him to sleep prior to the actual lethal injection being pushed through one of the IVs. After a few minutes, his eyes blinked a few times then shut forever.
We left the prison half an hour later, and drove to Rodney’s home in silence. When we got to his home, he got out, looked at me once through the window, and turned away. We never spoke again. As I drove home, I thought about the execution. The thing I remember most was the white cotton ball. Why did they care about infection when they’re about to kill a man?