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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Meeting my first death row client

A man in a read jumpsuit appeared outside the door on the other side of the viewing window.  His movements suggested that the guard was removing handcuffs.  When the door swung open, Zane shuffled in and took a seat.  He was just a couple of feet away but the concrete wall with the plexiglas window kept us from physical contact.   Zane did not look the death row type.  He looked like a “normal” old man, older than the 57 years he had behind him.  The hard life of the mountains and the hard drinking were apparent.

Henderson explained our purpose, and Zane seemed pleased that someone was paying attention to his case.  I explained how I would be developing the facts of his case, in support of his court appointed attorneys.  We had to move fast given the deadlines set by the Court.   He was ok with my plan, but he wanted me to know one thing: “I can’t do a life sentence.”

Hmmm.  “So, you would rather be executed than do a life sentence?” I asked.   He slowly nodded and explained the hellacious prison conditions that were draining him of life.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Zane said, referring to his son.  “Randy was a good kid . . . but he pulled a gun on me.”  Zane continued to tell us his perspective of what happened that fateful night, which was consistent with his trial testimony.  He believed that he shot his son in self-defense and that he did not shoot at his wife.  Rather, the gun went off accidentally when he went out the door.

Zane was polite, looking down much of the time, glancing up occasionally as if to check to see if we were still there.  The D.A. offered a plea deal to second degree murder, but Zane believed even then that he couldn’t do the time.  Had he taken the offer he would be eligible for parole in 7-10 years.  But Zane was a stubborn man.  His clouded memories of the shooting convinced him that he shot in self-defense, and he hated being locked up.  He was very fearful of police and of guards.

Zane had no trusted attorney to walk him through the deal.  He hired one of the best lawyers in town when first arrested, the lawyer who had done previous work for him, but Zane ran out of money very quickly.  So, he was assigned court-appointed attorneys, who he didn’t know and who had very little capital experience.

I asked about his wife.  “Are you and Frannie still married?  “Yea,” he answered.  “She visits me every month.”  Really?   This news was encouraging.   The mother of the victim regularly visits her son’s killer.  One of the hardest aspects of a death case for defense lawyers is dealing with the surviving victims.  In domestic cases, the killer’s family and the victim’s family are one and the same.  This reality complicates the work of the legal team who relies upon a client’s family for help in building a case for life.

Zane assured me that Frannie would help me.  I had my doubts, but told him I would contact her.

Violence Against Women

My interest in women’s issues deepened in seminary.  Giving voice to women and their needs was a cause that resonated with me.  I was born into a world surrounded by women: Mama, Grandmama and Aunt Mable, who was my Grandmama’s sister and my anointed Godmother.   My Dad wasn’t there; he was stationed in England with the Air Force at the time.  He and I did not meet until I was a year old, a fact that probably explains why he never really took to me.   He and Mama separated when I was four.

In seminary, my service gravitated towards helping women and children. I spent one summer volunteering at a battered women’s safe house in southwest Atlanta, a poor, primarily African-American community.  Seven hours from my husband, with no car, I lived in the house and was on duty 24/7 most days of the week.

Most, but not all, of the women who came to the house were African-American, and most had children in tow.  Upon their arrival, we would show them around the house and make them comfortable.  The house would be their home until they made arrangements to go somewhere else safe.

I had never before listened to victims of violence.  My service stints in college were to happy places – conference centers, summer camp, even the World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN.  I had interned once as a hospital chaplain, which was not the happiest place on earth, but the only fallout from violence I saw there was a vial of gallstones an old man proudly showed me.

Living in the safe-house, I quickly came to appreciate just how vulnerable women of limited means trapped in a patriarchal world of limited expectations are.  I feared for them and their children, who were hungry for positive attention but didn’t always know how to obtain it appropriately.  One night, one of the little girls in the house set a couch on fire.  I stood in disbelief staring at the blackened and charred bedroom as I learned that setting fires was a habit of hers.

When I returned to seminary, I began volunteering at the local rape crisis center.   I was on-call just a few nights a month.  If called, I was required to rush to the hospital to meet a rape victim and accompany her through the process.  Or, if lucky, the call would be from a victim who was having a hard time coping and just wanted to talk.

A couple of times my phone rang in the middle of the night – a woman had been raped.  Now, I have always been really good in a crisis, particularly when focused on helping someone else through it.  However, on these nights, I felt like a firefighter running into a burning building.  A woman has been raped, now you woman rush out into the dark night, get into your car and drive to the hospital parking garage, get out of your car and go into the hospital.  I had to fight the instinct to double check the locks on the doors and go back to bed where it was safe.