Quest for Justice Defending the Damned
By Richard S. Jaffe
New Horizon Press (2012)
Reviewed by William R. Montross Jr.
When I joined the Southern Center for Human Rights some years ago, I was often confused and sometimes wholly lost in what passed for a criminal justice system in the Deep South. Without fail, my endless requests for guidance were answered with two words: “Call Richard.” Who was this Richard, and why would he entertain my ceaseless phone calls for help?
Richard was, and is, Richard Jaffe. And for the past eight years, he has been my Alabama lifeline. He has now written a book called Quest for Justice. It is a rollicking adventure story and the entertainment value alone is worth the price of admission. Even better, it’s all true. There are corrupt, bribe-taking judges waving guns around the courtroom. There are snitches and faked suicides and bodies planted under trailers. There is the unforgettable testimony of a witness admitting to putting her lover’s semen in the body of the decedent, and when she wasn’t doing that, saving it and “mix[ing] it in a blender when she made milkshakes.” It is a book that any lover of high drama will want to read. It is also a book that many people need to read.
My colleagues will read it for inspiration. Alabama and its sister states in the Death Belt are not the easiest places to practice criminal defense, and especially not capital defense. At times, it feels quite bleak. As lawyers who struggle on a daily basis to find ways to best represent our clients, never mind to sustain the passion and energy to do so over time, reading Richard’s book is like discovering a guidebook when lost in the wilderness. It is proof positive of what one lawyer can achieve with creative, aggressive, and impassioned lawyering. It offers refreshing hope that individually and collectively we can persevere in the civil rights challenge of our generation: justice for poor people accused of crimes. Yet as valuable as this book is for fellow lawyers, it may have its best effect among those who will ultimately decide whether America continues to hold on to the death penalty — the general public.
Many of my family and friends live north of the Mason-Dixon Line. On those occasions when I journey home, I tell people stories about my experiences as a death penalty lawyer in the Deep South. I tell them about listening to a sitting justice of the Alabama Supreme Court argue that the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing the execution of juvenile offenders had no force in that state. I tell them about working on capital appeals in which the trial only lasted two days. I tell them about former co-defendants, both charged with the murder of a law enforcement officer, who ended up in different places: one is rightfully free (because he had Richard Jaffe for his attorney) and the other sits on death row because he lost the lawyer lottery. And universally, the reactions are the same: “No way,” except in language more suitable to an R-rated film. Now, in response, I will just hand them this book.
Because if you think innocent people don’t end up on death row, then read the stories of Bo Cochran, Randall Padgett, and Gary Drinkard — three men who were on Alabama’s death row and are now free after Richard won their retrials. If you don’t think the police ever lie, then read the story about the police accidentally shooting a man, digging the bullet out of his body in the dead of night, and pinning the killing on someone else. If you don’t think race still plays a major role in our criminal justice system, then open the book to just about any chapter.
For some reason, smart, educated, newspaper-reading people still have no clue about what passes for justice in the Deep South, even when the stakes are life and death. Despite study after study that irrefutably demonstrates the invidious role race plays in the capital context, the exonerations that occurred only because journalism students became involved in the cases, and the recent revelations that states were purchasing their execution drugs on the black market, the public still does not understand. Mention the words “exculpatory evidence” or “procedural bars” or “AEDPA” and people’s eyes glaze over. This book seeks to enlighten. People will start the book because the stories are more outrageous than anything the best fiction writer could dream up, but when they finish the book they will have gotten something much better than a great read — the truth.