Reversible Errors

A Novel

Scott Turow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

APRIL 20, 2001

Attorney and Client




THE CLIENT, like most clients, said he was innocent. He was scheduled to die in thirty-three days.
Arthur Raven, his lawyer, was determined not to worry. After all, Arthur reasoned, he was not even a volunteer. Instead, he’d been drafted by the federal appellate court to ensure that after ten years of litigation, no sound arguments remained to save Rommy Gandolph’s life. Worrying was not part of the job.
He was worried anyway.
“I’m sorry?” asked Pamela Towns, his young associate, from the passenger’s seat. A gurgle of anguish had escaped Arthur as he had come, once again, face-to-face with himself.
“Nothing,” said Arthur. “I just hate being the designated loser.”
“Then we shouldn’t lose.” Pamela, with rosy good looks fit for TV news, flashed a bright coast-to-coast grin.
They were far from the city now, doing eighty on cruise control in Arthur’s new German sedan. In these parts, the road was so flat and straight, he did not even have to touch the wheel. The prairie farmlands raced by, corn stubble and loam, silent and eternal in the wan light of morning. They had left Center City at seven to beat the traffic. Arthur hoped to hold a brief introductory meeting with their new client, Rommy Gandolph, at the state penitentiary at Rudyard and to be back at his desk by two o’clock—or three, if he decided to risk asking Pamela to lunch. He remained intensely conscious of the young woman nearby, of the tawny hair falling softly on her shoulders, and of the hand that crept to her thigh every several miles to retract the hiking of her tartan skirt.
Eager as he was to please her, Arthur could offer little hope for the case.
“At this stage,” he said, “under the law, the only thing that could possibly amount to reversible error would be new evidence of actual innocence. And we’re not going to find that.”
“How do you know?” asked Pamela.
“How do I know? Because the man confessed to everybody but the Daily Planet.” Ten years ago, Gandolph had copped to the police, then gave a handwritten statement to the prosecutor, Muriel Wynn, and finally repeated his admissions on videotape. On each occasion, he had acknowledged he was the person who’d shot two men and a woman and left them in a restaurant food locker in a case still referred to, in the tempered words of the press, as ‘the Fourth of July Massacre.’
“Well, he kept saying on the phone he’s innocent,” said Pamela. “It’s possible, isn’t it?”
For Arthur, who had been a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney before coming to work seven years ago at O’Grady, Steinberg, Marconi and Horgan, there was no possibility of that at all. But Pamela, at twenty-five or twenty-six, had just started practice. Saving an innocent client was the sort of adventure she’d imagined in law school, riding like Joan of Arc toward radiant Justice. Instead, she’d settled for a big law firm and $120,000 a year. But why not have everything? Well, you couldn’t blame people for their fantasies. God knows, Arthur Raven realized that.
“Listen to what I found in Rommy’s probation records,” said Pamela. “On July 5, 1991, he was sentenced to time served for a violation of probation. The murders were early on July 4th. So ‘time served’ would mean he was in jail, wouldn’t it?”
“It would mean he was in jail at some point. Not necessarily on July 4th. Does his rap sheet show he was in jail on July 4th?”
“No. But it’s something to investigate, isn’t it?”
It would have been something to investigate a decade ago, when the records to prove it was nonsense still existed. Yet even at that, the federal appeals court was likely to grant Gandolph a brief stay of execution, during which Arthur and Pamela would be obliged to scramble in dogged—and futile—pursuit of this phantom theory.
Rankled by the prospect of more wasted time, Arthur nudged the cruise control wand a bit higher and felt some dim satisfaction in the big auto’s response. He had purchased the car two months ago as a trophy of sorts after he became a full partner in his law firm. It was one of the few luxuries he’d ever permitted himself, but he had barely turned the key when he began to feel he was disrespecting the memory of his father, who had recently passed, a loving man, but one whose eccentricities had included a cramped frugality.
“And listen to this,” Pamela was saying. She had withdrawn Rommy Gandolph’s rap sheet from the thick folder on her lap and read out the entries. Gandolph was a thief and a fence. He’d had half a dozen convictions—burglary, theft, possession of stolen property several times. “But nothing with a gun,” said Pamela. “No violence. No female victims. How does he suddenly become a rapist and a murderer?”
“Practice, practice, practice,” answered Arthur.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Pamela’s full mouth turn briefly downward. He was screwing this up. As always. Arthur did not know exactly what he had done wrong with women to leave him single at the age of thirty-eight. Appearance was one issue, he realized. He’d had the droop and pallor of middle age since his teens. In law school, he’d had a brief, hurtful marriage to Marjya, a Romanian immigrant. After that, for a period he’d seemed to have neither the inclination nor the time to start again. He had given so much to the law—so much fury and passion in every case, so many nights and weekends where he actually felt pleasure in having solitary time to concentrate. And his father’s declining health, and the question of what would become of his sister, Susan, had also been draining preoccupations for years. But now, seeking even the faintest sign that Pamela had some interest in him, he felt humbled by his foolishness. His hopes with her were as unlikely as hers for Gandolph. He felt the need to chasten them both.
“Look,” said Arthur, “our client, Gandolph. ‘Rommy’? Not only did Rommy confess early and often, but when he went to trial, his defense was insanity. Which requires his lawyer to admit Rommy committed the crime. Then we have ten more years of appeals, and post-conviction petitions, and habeas corpus proceedings, with two different sets of new attorneys, and none of them happens to mention that Rommy is the wrong man. Let alone Rommy, who only remembered that he didn’t do it when he was about forty-five days away from getting the needle. Really, Pamela. Do you think he told the lawyers before us he was innocent? Every con knows this game—new lawyers, new story.”
Arthur smiled, attempting to appear worldly-wise, but the truth was he’d never really accommodated himself to criminal defendants’ shenanigans. Since leaving the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Arthur had played defense lawyer infrequently, only when one of the firm’s corporate clients or its bosses was suspected of some financial manipulation. The law he lived most days as a civil litigator was a tidier, happier law, where both sides fudged and the issues raised were minuscule matters of economic policy. His years as a prosecutor seemed to be a time when he’d been assigned each day to clean out a flooded basement where coliform bacteria and sewer stink rotted almost everything. Someone had said that power corrupted. But the saying applied equally to evil. Evil corrupted. A single twisted act, some piece of gross psychopathology that went beyond the boundaries of what almost anybody else could envision—a father who tossed his infant out a tenth-floor window; a former student who forced lye down the throat of a teacher; or someone like Arthur’s new client who not only killed but then sodomized one of the corpses—the backflow from such acts polluted everyone who came near. Cops. Prosecutors. Defense lawyers. Judges. No one in the face of these horrors reacted with the dispassion the law supposed. There was a single lesson: things fall apart. Arthur had harbored no desire to return to that realm where chaos was always imminent.
In another fifteen minutes they had arrived there. Rudyard was a small town like many others in the Middle West, its core a few dark buildings, still smudged with coal soot, and several tin hangars with corrugated plastic roofs that housed various farm services. At the outskirts, a kind of mini-suburbanization was under way, with strip malls and tract homes, the result of the economic security afforded by an unusual anchor industry—the prison.
When they turned a corner on a movie-set neighborhood of maple trees and small frame houses, the facility suddenly loomed at the end of the block, like a horror-flick monster jumping out of a closet, a half-mile continuum of randomly connected yellow-brick buildings, notable for the narrowness of the few windows. Those structures in turn surrounded an old stone edifice stout enough to have survived from the Middle Ages. Toward the perimeter lay not only a ten-foot brick wall, but a graveled moat of projecting stainless steel spikes, and beyond that a boundary of cyclone fencing supporting five-foot spirals of razor wire, brilliant in the sun.
In the prison guardhouse, they signed in, then were directed to a worn bench for the long wait while Rommy was brought down. In the interval, Arthur reviewed Rommy’s letter, which had arrived via various intermediate hands at the Court of Appeals. It was composed in a hodgepodge scrawl, with multicolored markings and other features too irregular even to be called childish. Just looking at the letter, you knew that Rommy Gandolph was both desperate and crazy.

Dear Judge,
I am on DEATH ROW for a CRiMe I never CoMmitted. They Say I hAve had all my AppeeLs, and it’s all com out against me EVEN so I AM INNOCENT. the lawrs who had file my PC Over in the STate says they CaN’t represnt me now, on account of Fed laWs. what can I do? the day that I get my execution is sposed to be May 23!!!!. i can’t have a stay or nothin unless I have a habeus going, but I don’t have a Lawr do I. What can I do? can’t Somebody over there Help me? I’m going to be killed, and I never hurt no one, not in this case or any other time that I rember RighT noW. HELP ME. I DIDN’T KILL NO ONE ever!!!!!

The United States Court of Appeals had entered an order treating Rommy Gandolph’s correspondence as a successive petition for relief under the federal habeas corpus statute and appointing a lawyer for him—Arthur. Judges often waved their magic wand at random to turn some unwilling toad—a fully occupied lawyer—into a pro bono prince, with a demanding new nonpaying client whom the rules of court required he accept. Some might read the appointment as a compliment, the court asking a respected former state prosecutor to apply the legal equivalent of last rites. But it was an onerous addition to an already overburdened life.
Eventually Rommy’s name was called. Pamela and Arthur were patted down in the holding area, and then the first of many electronic bolts was shot and a door of bulletproof glass and iron crossbars clanked irrevocably behind them, as they followed a guard. It had been many years since Arthur had been inside the joint, but Rudyard in its own way was timeless. Not the procedures. The procedures, as he remembered them, seemed to change every few days. The authorities —the state legislature, the governor, the prison administration—were forever trying to improve discipline, to stop the in-flow of contraband, to control the gangs, to keep the inmates, veteran scammers, from scamming. There was always a new form to fill out, a new place to stow money, keys, cell phones—all the big-house forbiddens. Always another gate to get through, a new search procedure.
But the mood, the air, the people—they were eternal. The paint was fresh; the floors gleamed. No matter. They could scrub it as clean as they cared to. With so many people confined in such close quarters, with an open privy in every cell, the atmosphere was tainted with the smell of human waste and some larger effluvium, which on first breath vaguely sickened Arthur, much as it had years ago.
Down a low brick corridor they approached a door of green metal plating. On it was stenciled one word: ‘Condemned.’ Inside they were steered to the attorney’s room, which was not really one room but two, a space no more than five feet wide divided by a wall, which yielded halfway up to an arrangement like a teller’s drive-through window—a pane of glass, with a metal trough beneath to allow papers to pass. Although it violated every principle of attorney-client confidentiality, the correctional system had won the right to keep a guard posted in the corner on the prisoner’s side.
Behind the window was Rommy Gandolph, a brown-skinned wraith with a head of wild hair, swallowed in the loose folds of the yellow jumpsuit worn solely by inmates who’d been sentenced to death. His arms were shackled and thus he was required to reach with both hands for the phone that would allow him to converse with his lawyers. On their side, Arthur picked up the lone handset and held it between Pamela and himself while they introduced themselves.
“You-all the first real lawyers I had,” Rommy said. “Rest was state defenders. Think maybe I got a chance now I got real lawyers.” Rommy leaned close to the pane to explain his predicament. “I’m the next Yellow Man takin the walk, you know that? Everybody lookin at me already. Like somethin oughta be different cause I’m gone be dead so soon.”
Pamela bent at once toward the document passage and spoke encouraging words. They were going to get a stay of execution today, she promised.
“Yeah,” said Rommy, “cause I’m innocent, man. I ain kill’t nobody. I want that DMA test, man, see if I got any.” DNA, always the first thought these days, held no hope for Rommy because the state had never claimed he had left at the scene any identifiable genetic evidence —blood, semen, hair, tissue scrapings, even saliva.
Without warning, Gandolph sighted Pamela down the length of an extended finger.
“You pretty as you sounded on the phone,” he told her. “Think me and you oughta get married.”
Briefly arising, Pamela’s smile suddenly passed into eclipse, as it appeared to grow on her that Rommy was deadly earnest.
“Man gotta get married ’fore he die, right?” Rommy asked. “Ain that a good idea?”
Great, Arthur thought. Competition.
“You’n me get hitched up,” Rommy told her, “I can get a conjugal.”
Judging from her rigid posture, this was not part of Pamela’s vision of valiant representation. Arthur, who’d had no idea how to commence this interview, quickly picked up Judge Gillian Sullivan’s judgment and commitment order from 1992 that sentenced Rommy to death, and began reading it out loud.
“Auga-what? Who now?” asked Rommy Gandolph.
“Augustus Leonidis,” said Arthur.
“Am I knowin him?” asked Rommy. The lids twitched over his closed eyes as he made an effort to place the name.
“He’s one of the three,” said Arthur quietly.
“What three?”
“The three the state says you killed.” Confessed to killing, Arthur thought. But no need to put too fine a point on it at present.
“Mmm,” said Rommy. “Don’t think I knowed him.” Rommy shook his head, as if he’d missed a social call. Gandolph was nearing forty. He had a yellowish tinge to his eyes, and, by all appearances, the blood of the Americas in his veins. In contemporary parlance, he was ‘black,’ but there looked to be white and Indian and Hispanic in him as well. His hair was gnarled and uncut, and he was missing several teeth, but he wasn’t ugly. Craziness just seemed to have eaten the center out of him. Looking at Rommy’s eyes zag about like frenzied bugs near a light, Arthur held little doubt why his prior lawyers had focused on a psychiatric defense. As people commonly used the word ‘crazy,’ Rommy Gandolph without question was. Yet not crazy enough. Sociopathic. Borderline personality disorder, maybe even flat-out schizoid. But not thoroughly lost in the wilderness, not so entirely without a compass that he did not know wrong from right, which was what the law required for a defense.
“I’m not the kind to kill no one,” Rommy offered, as an afterthought.
“Well, you’ve been convicted of killing three people—Augustus Leonidis, Paul Judson, and Luisa Remardi. They say you shot them and left them in a food locker.” The state also said he’d sodomized Luisa after her death, although Rommy, most likely from shame, had refused to acknowledge that part. Judge Sullivan, however, who’d heard the case on her own, without a jury, had found him guilty on that count as well.
“I don’t know nothin ’bout that,” said Rommy. He looked askance then, as if that remark would close the subject. Arthur, whose sister, Susan, was even crazier than Rommy, tapped the glass to make sure Rommy’s gaze came back to him. With people like Rommy, like Susan, you sometimes had to hold their eye to get through.
“Whose handwriting is this?” Arthur asked mildly and pushed Rommy’s written confession under the glass. The guard jumped from his chair and demanded to see each page, front and back, to ensure nothing was concealed. Rommy studied the document for quite some time.
“What you think about stocks?” he asked then. “You ever own stock? What’s that like anyway?”
After a considerable interval, Pamela started to explain how the exchanges operated.
“No, I mean sayin you own stock. How’s that feel and all? Man, I ever get outta here, I wanna buy me some stocks. Then I’m gone get all that stuff on the TV. ‘Up a quarter.’ ‘Down Jones.’ I’m gone know what they-all on about.”
Pamela continued trying to outline the mechanisms of corporate ownership, and Rommy nodded diligently after every sentence, but was soon visibly astray. Arthur pointed again to the sheet Rommy held.
“The state says you wrote that.”
Rommy’s inky eyes briefly fell. “Tha’s what I was thinkin,” he said. “Lookin at it and all, I’d kind of said it was mine.”
“Well, that paper says you killed these three people.”
Rommy eventually leafed back to the first page.
“This here,” he said, “this don’t seem to make no sense to me.”
“It’s not true?”
“Man, that was so long ago. When was it this here happened?” Arthur told him and Rommy sat back. “I been in that long? What-all year has it got to anyway?”
“Did you write this confession for the police?” Arthur asked.
“Knowed I wrote somethin back there in that precinct. Ain nobody told me it was for court.” There was, of course, a signed Miranda warning in the file, acknowledging that any statement Rommy made could be used against him in just that way. “And I ain heard nothin ’bout gettin the needle,” he said. “Tha’s for damn sure. They was a cop tellin me a lot of stuff I wrote down. But I don’t recollect writin nothin like all of that. I ain kill’t nobody.”
“And why did you write down what the cop was saying?” Arthur asked.
“Cause I, like, dirtied myself.” One of the more controversial pieces of proof in the case was that Rommy had literally shit in his pants when the detective in charge of the case, Larry Starczek, had started to question him. At trial, the prosecution had been allowed to introduce Rommy’s soiled briefs as evidence of a consciousness of guilt. That, in turn, became one of the prominent issues in Rommy’s many appeals, which no court had managed to address without a snickering undertone.
Arthur asked if Larry, the detective, had beaten Rommy, denied him food or drink, or an attorney. Though rarely directly responsive, Rommy seemed to be claiming none of that—only that he’d written an elaborate admission of guilt that was completely untrue.
“Do you happen to remember where you were on July 3rd, 1991?” Pamela asked. Rommy’s eyes enlarged with hopeless incomprehension, and she explained they were wondering if he was in jail.
“I ain done no serious time ’fore this here,” answered Rommy, who clearly thought his character was at issue.
“No,” said Arthur. “Could you have been inside when these murders happened?”
“Somebody sayin that?” Rommy hunched forward confidentially, awaiting a cue. As the idea settled, he managed a laugh. “That’d be a good one.” It was all news to him, although he claimed in those days he was regularly rousted by the police, providing some faint support for Pamela.
Rommy really had nothing to offer in his own behalf, yet as they conversed, he denied every element of the state’s case. The officers who’d arrested him said they had found a necklace belonging to the female victim, Luisa Remardi, in Gandolph’s pocket. That, too, he said, was a lie.
“Them po-lice had that thing already. Ain no way it was on me when I got brought down for this.”
Eventually, Arthur handed the phone to Pamela for further questions. Rommy provided his own eccentric version of the sad social history revealed by his file. He was born out of wedlock; his mother, who was fourteen, drank throughout the pregnancy. She could not care for the boy and sent him to his paternal grandparents in DuSable, fundamentalists who somehow found punishment the meaningful part of religion. Rommy was not necessarily defiant, but strange. He was diagnosed as retarded, lagged in school. And began misbehaving. He had stolen from a young age. He had gotten into drugs. He had fallen in with other no-accounts. Rudyard was full of Rommys, white and black and brown.
When they’d been together more than an hour, Arthur rose, promising that Pamela and he would do their best.
“When you-all come back, you bring your wedding dress, okay?” Rommy said to Pamela. “They’s a priest here, he’ll do a good job.”
As Rommy also stood, the guard again snapped to his feet, taking hold of the chain that circled Rommy’s waist and ran to both his manacles and leg irons. Through the glass, they could hear Rommy prattling. These was real lawyers. The girl was gone marry him. They was gone get him outta here cause he was innocent. The guard, who appeared to like Rommy, smiled indulgently and nodded when Rommy asked permission to turn back. Gandolph pressed his shackled hands and their pale palms to the glass, saying loudly enough to be heard through the partition, “I ’preciate you-all comin down here and everything you doin for me, I really do.”
Arthur and Pamela were led out, unspeaking. Back in the free air, Pamela shook her slender shoulders in relief as they walked toward Arthur’s car. Her mind predictably remained on Rommy’s defense.
“Does he seem like a killer?” she asked. “He’s weird. But is that what a killer is like?”
She was good, Arthur thought, a good lawyer. When Pamela had approached him to volunteer for the case, he had assumed she was too new to be of much help. He had accepted because of his reluctance to disappoint anyone, although it had not hurt that she was graceful and unattached. Discovering she was talented had only seemed to sharpen his attraction.
“I’ll tell you one thing I can’t see him as,” said Arthur: “your husband.”
“Wasn’t that something?” Pamela asked, laughing. She was pretty enough to be untouched at some level. Men, Arthur recognized, were often silly around her.
They passed a couple of jokes, and still bantering, Pamela said, “I can’t seem to meet anyone decent lately, but this”—she threw a hand in the direction of the highway, far off—“is a pretty long trip to make every Saturday night.”
She was at the passenger door. The wind frothed her blondish hair, as she laughed lightly again, and Arthur felt his heart knock. Even at thirty-eight, he still believed that somewhere within him was a shadow Arthur, who was taller, leaner, better-looking, a person with a suave voice and a carefree manner who could have parlayed Pamela’s remark about her present dry spell with men into a backhanded invitation to lunch or even a more meaningful social occasion. But brought to that petrifying brink where his fantasies adjoined the actual world, Arthur realized that, as usual, he would not step forward. He feared humiliation, of course, but if he were nonchalant enough she could decline, as she was nearly certain to do, in an equally innocuous fashion. What halted him, instead, was the cold thought that any overture would be, in a word, unfair. Pamela was a subordinate, inevitably anxious about her prospects, and he was a partner. There was no changing the unequal footing or his leverage, no way Arthur Raven could depart from the realm of settled decency where he felt his only comfort with himself. And yet even as he accepted his reasoning, he knew that with women some obstacle of one kind or another always emerged, leaving him confined with the pangs of fruitless longing.
He used the gizmo in his pocket to unlatch Pamela’s door. While she sank into the sedan, he stood in the bitter dust that had been raised in the parking lot. The death of his hopes, no matter how implausible, was always wrenching. But the prairie wind gusted again, this time clearing the air and carrying the smell of freshly turned earth from the fields outside town, an aroma of spring. Love—the sweet amazing possibility of it—struck in his chest like a note of perfect music. Love! He was somehow exhilarated by the chance he had lost. Love! And at that moment he wondered for the first time about Rommy Gandolph. What if he was innocent? That too was an inspiration almost as sweet as love. What if Rommy was innocent!
And then he realized again that Rommy wasn’t. The weight of Arthur’s life fell over him, and the few categories that described him came back to mind. He was a partner. And without love. His father was dead. And Susan was still here. He considered the list, felt again that it added up to far less than he had long hoped for, or, even, was entitled to, then opened the car door to head back to it all.
Copyright © 2002 by Scott Turow