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.”

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The Unspeakable

I was alone amongst the hoard in Guatemala City.  I had somehow become separated from my travel companions.  I could not speak Spanish well enough to communicate with those in the city square.  I looked around for a safe place and spotted the Cathedral of Guatemala City.   The Cathedral was built in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Over the centuries, it had had stood witness to immeasurable suffering and had served as a sanctuary for the oppressed.

What better place to find help?  I entered one of the large doors.  It was dark and dank inside.  All around the sides of the Cathedral were alters lit by rows of candles.  Women and men were kneeling in prayer.  Some faced the stone wall, weeping.   Some alters were dedicated to the thousands missing and murdered in the civil war that had not yet ended.

The suffering was palpable.  I was overwhelmed by the grief of others and moved to tears.  I had never been so aware of the cruelty of humanity.  My biggest fear on my Central American pilgrimage had been getting separated from my group.  Now it had happened, and my plight seemed slight.  I sat for a while.

Eventually, I rose and exited into the light.  I headed in the direction of the house where we were staying and found my way home.  Image

Finishing School

Beginning law school was a shock to my system.  I cried every day my first two weeks and many times after that.  (My current students should be interested in hearing.) The reading was intense; the pressure in class extreme; but the hardest part was trying to fit in.  Duke Law became my finishing school.

Having grown up poor in a small Southern town, I felt like a fish out of water.  Most of my classmates were from families of means.  Many had undergraduate degrees from Ivey League schools.  They had studied, or at least traveled, abroad – something I had never even dared to dream of doing.   They read the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal.  Really, they did.

I had a steep learning curve, but having a sense of mission gives you focus.  I knew that if I were going to accomplish my goal to help “the arc of the moral universe” bend toward justice, I needed to know how to play the law game.

There were so many firsts.  I attended cocktail parties and had lunches with governors.  I flew to New York for a job interview, rode in a taxi and tasted sushi.  I argued cases in mock trials and worked on group policy projects.  I shook hands with US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and stood with Senator Joe Biden in his Washington office as he talked about getting through the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident.  I helped create a student public interest organization.  I even made my first run for public office, a position on a faculty student committee that dealt with career services.   I won.  And I read the NY Times and listened to NPR.

For my first summer, I was fortunate to clerk for N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Charles Becton.  For my second summer, I interned at Ferguson and Stein, a civil rights law firm in Chapel Hill.  During my third year, I took a very part-time internship with the North Carolina Resource Center, an organization that defended inmates on death row in post-conviction proceedings.   Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was building a network of friends in the right places.

I added a second life theme song: Faith by George Michael

Choices of the Heart

I always wanted to be brave, but I lacked the confidence.  Mama and I moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I was often the new kid on the block.  I was shy and awkward, almost always the tallest girl in the class and the one with the thickest glasses.   If that were not enough to make me a target of class bullies, my hair was “stringy,” as Grandmama called it, and my unstylish hair went well with my unstylish outfits made by her.

It was my sense of mission that gave me courage, or at least the courage to hope that I would be courageous if the need arose.  A transformative moment was when I watched a TV movie in 1983 called “Choices of the Heart.”   The movie was about Jean Donovan, an American lay missionary who at the age of 27 was raped and murdered, with three nuns, by a Salvadoran death squad.   Jean had traveled to El Salvador in 1977 to serve the poor.  She stayed for three years despite the increased danger that drove others out of the war-torn country.

I was greatly affected by the dedication and courage of Jean Donovan to stand by the poor in the face of torture and death.  I wondered if I would have stayed.  Would I have even gone?

In seminary, my favorite classes were those about social justice, race and religion, and liberation theology.  I dreamed of having the opportunity to serve the poor in Central America or in some inner city.  I wondered if all the great social movements were over, and I had missed them.