One Day

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Writing
Tags: , , ,

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. I also do some investigating for a local law firm.

Two months ago, William Reader’s secretary called my office number at nine. My office number is my cell phone since I don’t have a regular phone — or an office. “Hello, you have reached the office of Vincent Diamond …”

“Cut it out, Vince. I know you’re there,” Martha interrupted. Martha Braun had been Bill’s secretary since forever and knew 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?”

“Just get down here. I have more important things to do than banter with you,” she hung up.

Martha likes me pretty well, but Packard, Reader, and Everhart is a prestigious law firm in Decatur and she doesn’t have much time to waste on a freelancer like me.

It was a sunny, October day, so drove my motorcycle the five miles from home in Little Five Points to Bill’s office in Decatur, on the outskirts of Atlanta. I outside the courthouse and cut across the square his building. After a short wait, Martha showed me in. “Hi Bill, what’s up?” I said.

“We’ve got a death penalty appeal. The guy’s on death row for murder and is scheduled for the lethal injection in 60 days unless we can stop it. He’s been there for seven years while the appeals have gone from one firm to another. He was found guilty of murdering a prostitute on Stewart Avenue. The accused, Lonnie Quail, claimed an alibi, but it didn’t hold up, and he still insists he’s innocent.”

“Don’t they all?”

“True, but irrelevant. We’ve got one run at the Eleventh Court here, then the Supreme Court. If that doesn’t work, we’re left with the Governor and clemency. I need you to investigate his original lawyer and witnesses. We need to find incompetence or a witness that committed perjury.”

“What about the alibi? Wouldn’t it be easier to find another suspect or prove his alibi?”

“No. At this point, it doesn’t matter if he actually committed the crime or not. He…”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“Per the law, he received a fair trial and was found guilty. Proving he’s innocent now won’t be enough. Our best bet is to prove he didn’t get a fair trial in the first place.”

My first stop was the lawyer, Clinton Bolan. He had a seedy office 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 the ninth person five years, and I’ll tell you the same thing I told them. He’s guilty and no lawyer coulda showed different.”

“Why was he charged to begin with?”

“He fit the description of a man fleeing the parking lot after the murder. He was picked up walking down Sylvan Road the next morning. Witness picked him out of a line up and that was it.”

“What about his alibi?”

“H says he’s with his brother, but the DA gets him on the stand and shoots him full of holes. Jury didn’t buy it, and now he’s on death row. All the lawyers send somebody like you here trying to make an incompetence case. Well, I ain’t Johnny Cochran, but I got my share of assholes off, and I didn’t stand no chance with this clown.”

“Did you cross the brother?”

“Course, but the damage was done.

“What did Lonnie say about his alibi after that?”

“Clammed up and wouldn’t say nothing, but ‘I didn’t do it’. I tell him, that ain’t doing us no good. He just stares at the wall and shakes his head.”

Something about the alibi bothered me and I decided to check into it.

Lonnie’s brother, Rodney still lived his parent’s house on the west side. I parked out front and walked up the drive to the wide front porch. The front door was open, but the screen door was shut. I knocked and a man emerged from the kitchen in the back. He looked to be in his thirties with a belly extending over his work pants.

“Can I help you?” he said.

“Rodney Quail?”

“Yeah, I’m Rodney.

“My name’s Vince Diamond and I’m working on your brother’s case.”

“Come in, but I don’t know what I can tell you.”

“Nice house,” I said, “Have you always lived here?”

“Cept for when I stayed with my girl. We broke up after Lonnie went to jail, and I lived here ever since.”

 “How can I help? I would like to see him get off, but there ain’t much I can tell you.”

“What about the alibi? You testified he was with you? Was that true?”

Rodney looked at the floor shaking his head. “He begged me to help him. Came to me and swore he ain’t killed nobody. Said he was with somebody, but they couldn’t help and he needed me to. He’s my brother. We got together and came up with a story. But that DA tore me a new one. I tried; I just couldn’t help.”

“Did he ever say who he was with that night?”

“No. Wouldn’t say. Said he couldn’t. I figure it was a woman. He always getting in trouble with ladies, but I couldn’t shake him.”

When I left, I called Bill and told him I wanted to see Lonnie. He said he’d arrange it and put me on the list

I had been there before, so I knew the drill and got through quickly. Since Lonnie was on death row, the procedure was a little different. We sat across a from Lonnie.

“Who you and what you want?”

 “My name’s Vincent and I’m working for your lawyer. I need to ask you some questions”

“I done answered all them questions a hunnert times. Ain’t done no good.”

“Your lawyers are trying to come up with a good reason to get your execution stayed, and we need help.”

“I got nothing better to do. I just don’t know what I can do.”

“I talked to your brother, and he told me about your alibi.”

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.”

“Tell me who you were with and let me try and help you.”

He just stared and shook his head again. I thought he wasn’t going to say anything else. Finally, he said, “He’s my brother, man.”

“Lonnie, look …”

“No, damn it, I mean… shit” He didn’t say anything else for a minute. “I was with my brother’s woman.”

“Your brother’s girlfriend?” I asked. “The one he broke up with after you got arrested?

“Yeah. We been seeing each other for a while, sneaking off when Rodney was working. She came to see me after I got locked up; I was in county then. She said she was going to break it off with him. She wouldn’t come see me neither, but begged me not to tell Rodney. I didn’t care what she wanted, but I couldn’t hurt my brother.”

“What’s her name? 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.”

“It’s all we have”

He stared at the glass. Finally, he raised his eyes and met mine with a jailhouse stare. “You listen to me. I been here seven years, and I made peace with myself. I know I’m going to die, and I’m okay. But I ain’t going to hurt him to save myself. I ain’t going to do it.”

I stared back. After a couple of minutes, I could tell that door was shut. He hadn’t changed his mind after years on death row, and he wasn’t going to change it now. I finally nodded my head.

We talked a little more, but I didn’t get anything useful. I left there, got on my motorcycle, and went for a ride. I found my respect for him growing in equal proportion to my certainty that we weren’t going to be able to save him.

I got to my loft over an old movie theatre, and checked my voice mail – seven messages from Bill. I didn’t have anything I wanted to say to him yet. Partly because I didn’t know how much I was going to tell him.

The next morning, I went to see Bill to file my report.

“What were you able to find out yesterday?”

“Not much,” I said, and proceeded to give him a run down of the day.

“How about Lonnie? Why did you go see him? Find anything new there?”

I hesitated a few seconds and said, “I just wanted to meet the man, get a feel for him. I needed to hear his side of things.”

“Anything we can use?”

 “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, go down the list of prosecution witnesses, and hit each of them. Make them go through their story or anything they remember. Keep going back to the lawyer, and interview Lonnie if 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 about it. We have to prove that he did not receive a fair trial. If we fail to do that, Lonnie is going to die.

The next weeks flew. I had to find all the witnesses. After each witness, I would go back and see Bolan. Every few days, I would go out to the Pen and visit Lonnie. I would talk to him about witnesses, and the trial. The one thing we never talked about again was his alibi.

The closer it got, the less hope I had for Lonnie. With two weeks left, 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?” I asked. We both knew what I meant.

He stared at me for a bit. “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?

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