A New Direction for the New Year

I cannot believe that I have not written here since July!  You know how it is.  You get busy.  For me, it was a new school year in a new location.  But being busy is never the whole story, right? 

I think I stopped, in part, because I did not want to go where the story was taking me next.   Not that the next chapter would have involved anything as traumatic as an execution, but it did involve the beginning of a relationship full of conflicting emotions and stress.  (I was just about to knock on the door of the wife of my first client to be executed, Zane Hill, see https://cadcocknc.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/beaverdam-loop-road/.)  It also involved dealing with the difficult subject of domestic violence. 

So, with the New Year, I have decided to head off into another direction.  I am reminded of the name of this blog:  struggling to breathe.  Sometimes life’s events can make it hard to breathe:  often metaphorically but sometimes in actuality.   And when it happens, you may – like me –have to hold your breath until the constricting pressure from the thought, the tide or the air lets up.   I am thankful for clean air and the ability to breathe deeply.  Happy New Year!

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Beaverdam Loop Road

The most stressful part of investigating a death penalty case for a defense attorney is talking with the family members of the murder victim.  Needless to say, many survivors of murder are not expecting to be contacted by the killer’s attorney – especially years after the trial — and many are not happy when they are contacted.   But when the family members of the victim are also the family members of your client, you have no choice.  If you want to be a diligent and effective advocate, you have to reach out to your client’s family.

We had one reason for hope of victim family cooperation in Zane’s case:  he and his wife Frannie had reconciled.   After an initial period of shock and anger, and after Zane had been tried and sentenced to death, Frannie began making the four hour trek once a month to Central Prison to visit the man who had killed her son.  According to Zane, she had forgiven him and she would help us.  See post at https://cadcocknc.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/meeting-my-first-death-row-client/

This news was good, but it wasn’t news I could count on.  Frannie still lived in the same small house in which Zane had shot and killed her son — on Beaverdam Loop Road, set far back in a holler.    Zane had given me a long list of his friends to contact, many of whom lived on Beaverdam Loop Road.   There was only one way in and out of the holler and that was by Beaverdam Road, a long winding country road through beautiful farmland.   We had to take all precautions to protect our investigation, in case Frannie would not speak with us or, worse, tell others not to speak with us.  Thus, my plan was to talk to as many friends that we could, and before any of the Hills found out we were in the holler.

Zane had given me many addresses of his family and friends, which was helpful.  In the early 1990s, there was no internet you could use to find people.  Without an address, the resources were the phonebook and good old fashion gumshoeing. If you couldn’t get an address, you could often find someone who could tell you how to find person you sought.  Directions given often were descriptive in nature: “Go over two hills, turn right at the tree with a big split in it, then go past the red barn and just past the pasture with the big black cow, you will see the trailer on the left.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Zane’s neighbors.  These people may have once been Zane’s friends but would they still think of him that way?   Or would they want to have nothing to do with their friend-turned-murderer?  After all, Frannie still lived among them.  Would they be willing to help Zane without her okay?   So, our first trip into the holler was not preceded by any phone calls.  We just showed up, hoping people were home.

Stealing my nerves, my investigator and I began knocking on doors.  To my great relief, Zane’s friends — young and old, male and female alike — were welcoming and eager to help.   They accepted that Zane had shot his son, Randy, a man they all liked.  He was the “good” son, the one that caused no trouble.   But, person after person believed that Zane would not have shot Randy if he had been in his right mind. Yes, they knew about the reported history of domestic violence but most minimized it.   More than one neighbor explained, “Frannie could give it as good as she got it.”

Family Secrets (Part II)

Zane’s father, Curtis, was by everyone’s account mean and cruel.  His meanness did not come out of a bottle, as one might expect from a mountain man.  Curtis did not drink alcohol.  He was just plain mean.

Zane and his mother lived in constant fear of Curtis.  Curtis would get angry at them for anything or for nothing at all.  When he was mad at Zane, which was most every day, Curtis would yell at him, call him stupid and tell him he was a bastard.

Curtis would beat the living daylights out of Zane.  Curtis would beat him with his fist or whatever he happened to have in his hand at the time.  Zane was forced to milk the cows before school.  If he did not “do it right” or – heaven forbid – he spilled some of the milk, Curtis would beat Zane.  Once, when Zane was about seven years old, he broke his arm.  Curtis beat Zane for breaking his arm.

Curtis would often beat Zane as a matter of routine when Zane came home from school.  To avoid Curtis and the abuse, Zane would plow the fields until late into the night, sometimes as late as two or three in the morning.  When Zane was about ten, he started spending his time over at his neighbor Hoile’s house to avoid Curtis.  Zane would stay in his room a lot when he was younger.  If he was not in his room he would be over at Hoile’s.

Curtis would do other things just to be mean to Zane.  When Zane was very young he had a pet dog which he loved.  Curtis killed the dog and made sure that Zane knew it.  Curtis never offered an explanation to Zane for why he killed his dog.  But then, Curtis seemed to have no misgivings about hurting animals.  He was known to regularly beat cows with sticks, once beating a cow with a hoe in the head killing it.   Curtis even beat his blind horse.  He would get mad at the horse because it did not know where it was going.

Curtis was also known to wield a knife.  Curtis once cut the throat of Albert Whitaker, who had been dating his daughter, Margaret.  Albert made a comment about Margaret going out with other men.  The next thing Albert knew, he was in the hospital, with a gapping slit in his throat.  Curtis even tried to cut Zane with a knife, but Zane escaped.

Despite the reprehensible nature of Curtis’ treatment of his only son, it paled in comparison to the brutality Curtis heaped upon his wife, Selma.  There was physical abuse.  Selma’s sister Mary and her son Zane both recalled seeing the bruises, black eyes, and welts on Selma’s body from Curtis’ beatings.  Curtis used to jerk Selma out of bed in the middle of the night for various reasons such as to go look for Zane or to milk the cows.  Curtis beat Selma once with a switch to try and get her to milk a cow that would kick people in the head when anyone tried to milk it.  Selma’s back was always hurting her.  She even had to go to the hospital a couple of times because of her back.  Eventually Selma had to have her kidney removed, apparently caused by Curtis’s abuse.

There was also psychological abuse.  Curtis was always yelling at Selma, often calling her crazy.   But the worst came at bedtime.  Curtis would twist his shirt up like a rope and keep it by his bedside.  He would tell Selma to go to sleep but not expect to wake up, because he was going to strangle her in her sleep.   Alternatively, he would threaten to hang Selma.  Once he was caught with Selma up on a ramp in the barn with a rope around her neck.  Someone entered the barn and he desisted.

Mary was very protective of her sister Selma.  Mary told me that Selma was the quiet one and that she was the fighting one.  When Mary came around, Curtis would behave himself.

Neither Zane nor Selma talked to others much about Curtis’ abuse.  Selma was afraid of Curtis and never told of Curtis’ abuse until after he died.  Some family members saw the abuse firsthand.  After Curtis’ death, Selma told a few close friends of the abuse.  When the abuse was occurring, the young Zane told Hoile about some of what was happening.  As an adult, Zane rarely talked about Curtis.

When I asked Zane why he didn’t talk about the abuse, he said he was ashamed.  “I knew that other kids weren’t treated like that by their fathers, so I didn’t want anyone to know.”   Now I knew why he didn’t tell his defense attorneys at trial . . . and why I had to get the details from his family.  Old secrets are hard to break.

Family Secrets

Like Aunt Elsie, Zane’s Aunt Mary was very receiving of Pat and me.  She was as sharp as a tack and, on several occasions, opened up her home, which unlike her sister’s was quite normal.   Selma had confided in Mary all those years ago, and now Mary passed along the tragic tale of Curtis’ cruelty to his family.   Adding to this tale was Curtis’ old buddy Hoile.  Hoile owned a dairy farm across the road from where the Hills’ raised their children.   Though Elsie, Mary, and Hoile were all eager to help Zane, no one had ever asked for their help.  As a result, Pat and I were able to gather crucial mitigating evidence that Zane’s jury never heard.

Zane was one of three children born to Curtis and Selma Hill, who were tenant farmers.  They were extremely poor, owning very few personal possessions.  Yet, poverty was not what ground Selma and her children down.  It was the almost constant psychological and physical abuse heaped upon them by Curtis.

Monroe was the first born of Curtis and Selma, arriving on May 19, 1928.  He lived less than two years, dying on March 25, 1930.  Monroe died of Pellagra, which is a disease associated with malnutrition.  It was the Great Depression, but Monroe suffered from more than just being hungry.   Selma revealed to her sisters that Curtis could not stand Monroe’s crying, and would threaten to beat Monroe.  One story stood out:  once when the baby was crying, Curtis took his son by the heels and swung him in the air.   Monroe’s short life was a secret kept from Zane until he was twelve years old.

Margaret was born not long after Monroe’s death, but she did not suffer the same fate.  No one ever saw Curtis yell at Margaret or physically abuse her.  Some said she was spoiled, while others wondered if she suffered a different kind of abuse.  Margaret escaped her family by joining the military and never looked back.  She settled in Hawaii.

Zane was born on May 9, 1936.   He remembers first hearing his mother cry when he was five or six years old.  Zane began to realize his father was hurting his mother.  From then on, Zane would hear his mother cry most every night.

The young Zane and Margaret were described as opposites.  Zane was viewed as easy going, friendly, and slow to lose his temper.  Margaret, on the other hand, was viewed as spoiled and short tempered.  Zane made friends easily and was generally liked by other kids.  Such was not the case with Margaret.

Margaret and Zane were prone to fight.  With Margaret being five years older, she tended to get the upper hand.  However, Zane remembered Margaret always standing up for him whenever he fought with others.   He also remembered that Margaret, even when present, never stood up to Curtis when he abused him or Selma.   Zane didn’t blame Margaret though.

We tried to locate Margaret but made it only as far as one of her daughters, Susan.  “Mom’s dead,” Susan told me on the phone.  Zane and his aunts all believed she still lived in Hawaii.  “Mom told us not to notify her family of her death.”   No, this request did not seem odd to Susan who explained that whenever she would ask her mother about her childhood, Margaret would respond with “It’s none of your business.”  No, Susan did not know about her uncle being on death row.  Margaret told her long ago that Zane had been killed in an accident when his truck rolled over into a ditch.

My First Thoughts on the Death Penalty

In memory of Will Campbell . . . .

Struggling to Breathe

I didn’t think much about the death penalty before college.  I grew up a Fundamentalist Baptist.  I don’t remember a sermon on the death penalty but certainly knew that plenty of church folk were for it.   Something about “thou shall not kill” and “the wages of sin is death.”    Though even as a child, I wasn’t sure how you got around the circular problem of killing a killer is still killing.

I didn’t think much about the death penalty in college either.  As I came to better appreciate God’s grace and Jesus’ ministry to the poor and dispossessed, I knew I was against it, but my concern was more on the millions of people who needed the basics in life to survive.  Only a few persons were executed each year.  The greater need was of those dying due to the lack of food, shelter and safety from domestic violence.

I…

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What’s a holler?

No, I didn’t spell it wrong.   Though you can spell it “hollow,” those of us from Appalachia pronounce and spell it “holler.”   Technically, it is a “small valley between mountains.”   But we never really think of it technically.

It didn’t take me long to conclude that I was the right person to be investigating a murder case in the hollers of Western North Carolina.   Not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of my common heritage with the people of the region.   While I am not a mountain woman myself, I am not far removed.  (more at https://mysites.charlottelaw.edu/personal/cadcock/Personal%20Documents/Blog%20entries.docx).   In addition, I spent my early adult years deep in Appalachia, getting my schooling at Carson Newman College (recently turned University — http://www.cn.edu/ ).   That is where I met my first husband, who was from “them thar hills” down the road in Kingsport, TN.  We were married 10 years.

My common heritage with Zane, his friends and family was not just geographic in nature, though; it was also socio-economic.   Who would have thought that living in trailers in the country as a child would come in handy as a lawyer in my 30s?  Also, though sad to say, it didn’t hurt that I was white.   It was rare to cross paths with a black person in the hollers but not rare to pass a confederate flag.

So, I was comfortable with driving – though never by myself — the winding, sometimes dirt, back roads into the mountains and down into the hollers.  My most colorful visit was with one of Zane’s aunts, Elsie.  She was a sister of Zane’s mother, Selma.  Selma was living with the Hills at the time of the shooting but had passed away since Zane’s trial.   So, we got most of our information about Zane’s childhood from Elsie, Mary (Selma’s other sister), and Frannie (Zane’s wife).   All three were strong mountain women, but Elsie won the “best in show” prize.

The year was 1994 but it could have been 1894.   Elsie lived in a holler known as Big Sandy Mush.  As one website even describes it today,

Though less than fifteen miles from Asheville, the historic farming community of Big Sandy Mush seems a hundred years away in time. It’s completely ringed by mountains that have protected it from unkind progress. There is no commercial development in Sandy Mush-not even a gas station-and life goes on here at a gentler pace. http://www.randallglen.com/bsmandsh.php.

Though I would typically call the family members of a client ahead of a home visit, Elsie had no phone.  So, my investigator, Pat, and I headed off for Big Sandy Mush, not sure if we could find Elsie or, if we did, whether she would speak with us.

Elsie lived at the end of a long winding dirt road in a wooden shack next to the local school bus turn-around, which was the landmark that people would give us to find her.  What we found there was an old small cabin surrounded by dirt, chickens, and firewood.  Not far from the cabin was a well, situated near a babbling brook.

“Well, this is quaint,” I said to Pat as we got out of our non-descript rental car and approached the cabin.   An elderly woman in a housedress emerged.   “We are looking for Elsie.”  I announced.  “What you want?” the woman responded suspiciously.  I explained that we represented her nephew Zane on appeal and wanted to talk to her about him.  The look on Elsie’s face shifted from concern to relief.  “Of course,” she said, “I would do anything for Zane.”

Elsie welcomed us into the cabin, which seemed to consist of two rooms, only one of which Elsie occupied.   It was dark inside, lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.  There was very little room to move around as Elsie’s possessions – clothes, blankets, books, medicine, and just stuff – were piled up all around the walls.   The room included a pot-belly stove which served both as a heater and a cooking surface, a few hard chairs and a big pile of blankets, which appeared to be Elsie’s bed.   We chose to sit on the chairs, from which we could see through the cracks in the walls.

Elsie was a delight.  She had nothing but good things to say about Zane.  “Poor boy.  He never had a chance.”   Describing Zane’s childhood, Elsie provided insight into a world in which women rarely found a good man.   Women who survived either had run off their scoundrel of a husband or were lucky enough for their husband to disappear on his own.    Those that didn’t, like Selma, suffered greatly, as did their children.

Elsie’s husband was long gone, and she had been on her own for decades in her little cabin on the brook.   Her children visited and tried to get her to move out, but she would not.   Despite her 80 some years, she had rarely seen a doctor.  She showed us her leg as evidence of just how little she needed doctors.    She had sores on it but they had been worse.  “I just pulled the skin off the sores and fed it to the chickens,” she said proudly.

Getting to know Zane Hill

Zane Hill was the first death row inmate I ever met.  (More on the first visit at https://mysites.charlottelaw.edu/personal/cadcock/Personal%20Documents/Blog%20entries.docx)  He was a wife abuser, but this fact was never an obstacle to our relationship.  For one thing, he didn’t kill his wife.  He shot his adult son, who also had a gun.  For another, Zane was a grandfather and looked older than the 57 years he had behind him.  Finally, he was drinking and taking drugs the day of the crime.  So, he was “not in his right mind” when he shot his son and shot at his wife.   Perhaps I was rationalizing, but Zane was not your typical death row inmate, if there was such a thing. 

The hard life of the mountains and the hard drinking had taken their toll on Zane both physically and mentally.   He had many ailments and clearly was not the brightest bulb in the pack.    I was never apprehensive about meeting with Zane.   Indeed, he kind of reminded me of my grandfather – not because of his violence but because he was a mountain man.  

The Center recruited a couple of private lawyers to represent Zane in post-conviction proceedings:  Harold Bender and Robert Stephens, both of Charlotte, NC.  They were experienced attorneys but neither had litigated a post-conviction case.  In fact, Bob had never litigated a criminal case.   I stayed on the legal team to lead the investigation and be the capital post-conviction “expert.”   I don’t think Bob and Harold knew this was my first such case as well.  What mattered was that I was an attorney at the death penalty resource center.    Though I was a novice, the stakes were too high to act as one. 

The Zane that I came to know was kind, funny and humble, and that was his reputation — at least when he was sober — in the holler from which he came.   I never knew the man who would binge drink for weeks at a time and become violent to those he loved most.  That’s when he became like his father and, sadly, like many men in the holler.   

The trial lawyers had done little investigation into Zane’s family and medical history, something that is critical to presenting an adequate defense in a capital case, particularly of someone who unquestionably did the killing such as Zane.   Therefore, I was determined to leave no stone unturned in developing the story of Zane Hill.  

Zane was born in Buncombe County North Carolina where he lived his entire life until his son’s shooting.   With the help of law students and an investigator, I spent months combing the hollers of western North Carolina talking to anyone who would talk to me about Zane and talk they did.  I came to know Zane better than he knew himself.  I uncovered a compelling story for life, a story never presented to the jury.