I rarely, if ever, feel guilty for the scum I put in prison. Maybe having prosecuted three hundred or more criminals has made me cynical, having heard every possible, yet implausible, defense. I felt sorry for Ronald Williams. He was going to die Friday and I had good reason to believe there was nothing I could do about it. That was until Terri decided to recant her statement.
Two days ago, she arrived like a college girl wandering the dormitory, barefoot, wearing nothing but a very long T-shirt that grabbed her knees when she sat. She was at home in this place, the interview room at the county jail. Her hair, a mass of copper brown, a shinny new penny, loosely pulled behind her ears. Along her arms, her skin was tattooed with flowers and small daggers drawn in deep blue ink. Others, on her legs, right up to her mid-thigh, were harder for a polite person to look at. She pulled a cigarette, lit and dragged it, then began to talk.
"Ronnie's going home tomorrow, right?" she asked. I thought the question might be overly optimistic
"Looks that way." I said
"Glad to hear that, he deserves another chance," said Terri, "Everyone is happy for him."
In less than twelve hours, Ron would be released. By now, the street knew it. Dateline NBC had sent Alexandra Pelosi, one of the best TV producers in the business, to Albany. The buzzing was even louder in the jail. Ron had been brought back from the state facility to the county jail in anticipation of his release.
Terri passed Ron in the hall of the jail a few minutes before she agreed to meet me here, scurrying past him to the room. He’d been dressed in the old striped pajamas that make a jail prisoner visible for miles, a big lug, a lumpy former athlete, his hair gone white. He didn't notice Terri slipping past him. And Terri never said a word to him. In fact, she ducked her head when she saw him coming.
For a woman who sounded happy to hear that her fellow prisoner was going home, it might have seemed odd. Then again, Terri and Ron had history.
Fifteen years earlier Terri wrote $800 in bad checks. In jail, she claimed to have heard Ron confess to a rape and murder. After offering this news to the authorities, I asked her to testify against him at trial. She was treated to probation. She was the key witness. Twelve years later they crossed paths in the hallway, their lives once again going in opposite directions. This time, Ron, now proven innocent, was going home. Terri, the snitch who’d sent him to death row, was heading back to prison.
No wonder she had ducked her head passing him in the hallway. No doubt she was glad that Ron was going home, she wasn’t a monster, just a woman cashing a “get out of jail free” card. And he wouldn't be in the prison to chase her down.
I sat there, inhaling the smoke, thinking about my role in sending an innocent man to death row. The DNA later proving that Ron was not the man now made me feel dumb. At the time I knew he’d had done it. Of course I always knew they’d done it.
She was a full-time criminal who never served a full-time sentence. No sooner would she arrive in jail than she would size up the population, like squeezing tomatoes for the juiciest one, deciding whom I’d most like to hear about. She testified against at least a dozen inmates, claiming that they’d offered details of crimes they’d committed. In one thirty-day period, she gave me evidence in three murder cases and one burglary. It’s unlikely that the archbishop heard as many confessions. I was dumb, but I’m wising up quick.
“You have to realize when you’ve been played, John” the dark cigarette cloud loomed over us both, blocking the little light coming from the fixture. I saw she was smiling and I wanted to slap her.
“Terri, I’m not sure you fully understand. See, I’m through making deals.” She laughed, as I’d expected.
“You’re done when I say you’re done. It’s clear who’s in charge.” I almost said something obvious like, ‘you’re the one in jail’ instead I said,
“What do you want Terri?”
“I have a feeling that you’re responsible for the situation Ronnie’s in. You made a case with no evidence, and a rigged confession, and a racist jury. I’m sure you want that publicized.”
“Please, there’s a dozen cases like it, all end in conviction. I sent many a man to prison wrongly, with your help of course” she took another drag “Tell me something, had I not recanted, what would you have done to get Ronnie off death row?” I paused too long to give a credible answer. “I want a deal, this time’s for keeps.”
“I can’t give you a deal Terri.”
She stood, snubbed out her cigarette, and called for the guard. “The next person I’m testifying against is you. You’ve got a week.”
The implicit threat was clear. She left it open for me to think of all of the horrible consequences that would ensue.
After work, I tried my best not to think about the meeting, but. The stress of the day made my movements sluggish, I was sleep deprived, and I had not eaten since breakfast. Even after all of that I felt Ronald Williams had followed me home. Not physically following me, but he was in my thoughts. What hell he went through! I thought of the three hundred other people I sent to prison. Some of them might be a Ronald Williams as well.
I was late for work the next morning. I slept little, having tossed and turned all night thinking about Ron. While sitting at my desk I pulled his file. His case was open before the office had indexed all of the cases in the computer. Something about the blue file folder begged me to open it. Instead I sat there too afraid to see what was inside. There was a good chance that there would be a telling detail that would make me regret ever having taken the case. He was just a few days from being killed. I owed him one last look.
Ronald Williams Worked for Donna Everett in her home. He was the handyman who performed everything from fixing the air conditioner to installing a new bath fixture when the old one broke. Donna was the widow of a wealthy businessman who’d died so long ago it’d seemed to Ron that she’d always lived alone. He told me in the first interview that he’d respected her independence. I took it to mean that she’d never treated Ron as inferior to her. It was unusual to see a white woman born before the twentieth century, raised in Jim Crow, and blessed with great wealth not hold a few feelings of superiority. Donna was special in that regard, and I new it then as I do now. Ron worked for Ms. Everett for more than ten years and never sensed any condescension.
When Donna was found raped and murdered in her home it was reasonable for the police to suspect Ron. It was clear to me that he understood this and cooperated fully. He was innocent. It was there if I’d been looking. I thought it could have been an act, but now, I placed my hand to my head and shook it slowly, cursing myself silently.
“Hindsight is twenty-twenty.”
Speechless, I jerked my head to find the source of the voice. Before me stood a man aged many times beyond his years. A once star athlete, now with white hair starkly contrasted against wrinkled dark skin, an ample girth, and a husky voice, that if were not so gentle would be downright menacing.
“Ron…” I made to stand, he said,
“Don’t bother yourself there. I won’t be taking much time.” He’d every right to take as much time as he wished. He sat in the chair opposite my desk.” I wanted to speak with you.”
At once, I felt vulnerable and relieved. Relieved because the only way I’d ever come to terms was to talk to Ron. Knowing I’d never have the courage to approach him, I felt a large burden had been lifted. Also, I felt that the man sitting in front of me had the means, motive, and opportunity to kill me if he so wished. And why wouldn’t he?
“I’ve been meaning to apologize to you, Mr. Williams. I cannot express how much I wish for your forgiveness, and yet I understand why you have no reason to give it.” He looked down revealing the beginnings of a black crown of skin on the top of his head. From this angle his hair resembled a halo.
“I do forgive you, Mr. Moore. Not because I’m a forgiving man, but because you’re not the one who did this.”
“Terri wouldn’t have been—”
“No, I don’t blame Terri. She was looking out for her own hide.” He laughed “Heck I don’t even blame the twelve folk that convicted me.”
“Sometimes you have to think about these things hard before you starts to blame folks.” He paused and said “I’d say I had plenty time to think about this.” I shook my head thinking he’d come here to kill me, and instead he’s looking for the same thing. “I’d say it’s everybody’s fault really. My own self might be included for good measure.” He looked right at me and said, “I think it’s ‘cause we can’t see the light for the darkness. Sinners and saints don’t look too different.”
“I failed you Mr. Williams.” He looked sincere when he said,
“My name is Ronnie.” I would have asked him to call me John, but I thought it was too much to ask of him.
“Ronnie, I failed you so bad.” I felt a tear coming and blinked it back. “I’m supposed to look at you as an innocent man, it never even crossed my mind that you might have been.”
“How could you think me innocent and prosecute me?”
“I’m supposed to find the truth, not just convict you. I didn’t look for the truth.”
“Didn’t cross the minds of those white folks that sat in judgment of me.” He was referencing my picking of an all white jury.
“I never considered myself a racist, but I’d played into it. At the time, I hoped they were bigots. It made your conviction all that more assured. Sir, you have every right to be angry with me. Why come here?”
“I was an innocent man surrounded by innocent men. I’m still innocent, just everyone here’s guilty. You don’t have to be guilty none. You do what’s right, you ain’t guilty no more.”
We shook hands. As he left I felt a connection with him. I knew then, as I know now, that it was turning point in my life. From that moment on nothing was going to be like it was before. I closed the open file on my desk and pulled up Terri’s file on the computer. She didn’t want to be guilty. That’s why she recanted, but it wasn’t enough. Though recommending a harsh sentence would compel Terri to talk to Ms. Pelosi, thus threatening my job, I knew she had to face the consequences. And soon, so would I