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Returning to the events leading up to Walter’s conviction, Stevenson describes the investigators’ next move after Myers failed to identify Walter. Stevenson remarks that public pressure was continuing to build on Sherriff Tate, District Attorney Investigator Larry Ikner, and ABI Investigator Simon Benson. Following an officer’s prompting, Myers claimed that Walter had raped him. The police arrested and jailed Walter in June of 1987 on sodomy charges (under anti-homosexuality laws) and questioned him about the murder of Ronda Morrison. In response to Walter’s bewilderment, Tate repeatedly called him a “nigger” and threatened to “hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile.” This is a reference to the murder by the KKK of a black man in Mobile that occurred after a local jury declared a mistrial in the case of another black man accused of shooting a white policeman.
Even though investigators already know that Myers can’t identify Walter, their urgency to appease the public motivates them to go along with any leads that Myers can provide, no matter how arbitrary or unlikely. Not only do Tate’s threats express his animosity toward Walter because of his race, but Tate also implies that he may be a member of a white supremacist group: by saying he would hang Walter like “we done” to Michael Donald in Mobile, he associates himself with the KKK. From the beginning, the scene is set for racial prejudice and hatred to affect the outcome of Walter’s experience.
Stevenson recounts the story that Ralph Myers gave to police. According to Myers, Walter kidnapped him at a gas station at gunpoint. Walter forced Myers to drive his truck to the Monroe Cleaners because Walter’s arm hurt. At the cleaners, Walter went in and told Myers to wait. Myers went to buy cigarettes and then came back. Walter returned, stating he had killed Ronda Morrison. He dropped Myers back off at the gas station, threatening to kill him if he snitched. With Walter still in jail on sodomy charges and facing public disgust, investigators offered an early release to Bill Hooks, a jailed black man known as a “jailhouse snitch” if he could corroborate Myer’s story by placing Walter’s truck at the cleaners. He accepted and testified that he had seen the truck at the cleaners on the day Ronda was murdered.
Myers’ testimony, in addition to coming from someone Stevenson has depicted as an unreliable source, lacks several key details, including a motive for the murder. Based on available information, it appears that the investigators’ pursue Bill Hooks, not because of any connection to Myers or Walter, but because they know he is a “snitch” who will give them what they need in exchange for a bribe. At this point, all evidence suggests that the investigators know that they are framing an innocent man.
The police indict Walter for the murder of Ronda Morrison to the “joy and relief” of the white community. Sherriff Tate still hasn’t investigated Walter’s background or whereabouts at the time of Ronda’s murder. Black residents are outraged, and several relatives, neighbors and others report that on the day of the murder they saw Walter at his home where he and his family were putting on a fish fry to raise money for the church where his sister is minister. Among Walter’s alibis are Ronda’s uncle, Ernest Welch, a furniture salesman, and a policeman who wrote in his log that he’d purchased lunch from Walter. The police decide to continue their indictment anyway. Myers realizes the gravity of what he has done and tries to rescind his testimony. In response, Tate has Myers and Walter held on death row. Stevenson writes that holding “pretrial detainees” on death row is illegal.
The fact that Sherriff Tate indicts Walter before finding out his alibi implies that Tate doesn’t care whether Walter is truly the murderer or not. Tate’s move to illegally hold the men on death row is an expression of power and intimidation. His use of bribery and punishment to force Myers to testify further supports the idea that Tate is not interested in the truth and cares only about appeasing the public by closing the case. Tate’s prejudice against black people, as previously expressed in his comments to Walter, likely allowed him to dehumanize Walter. Tate’s prejudice likely made it possible to indict Walter on faulty grounds without feeling any pangs of conscience.
Stevenson describes Alabama’s death row at Holman Prison. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1975, the majority of Alabama death row inmates have been black, although when Walter arrived 40% were white. Inmates are held for 23 hours a day in a minimal 5-by-8 cell with a metal door. Nearby is the electric chair, which was painted yellow by inmates in the 1930s and called the “Yellow Mama.” The details of recent executions occupy the conversations of death row inmates. Stevenson includes notes from Russ Canan, an SPDC lawyer whose client, John Evans, had just been executed at Holman. Canan describes Evans’ painful death: he was electrocuted three times before the old, malfunctioning machine finally killed him.
The dismal setting of the death row cells, the nearness of the electric chair, and the detailed knowledge about the deaths of fellow inmates all serve to create an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness for death row inmates. This unhealthy setting shows how the wellbeing of inmates is disregarded, as if they are no longer considered to be among the living. Stevenson’s description of the racial disparity on death row highlights the book’s emphasis on considering how racial inequality affects every stage of the criminal justice system.
Walter believes that soon investigators will realize their mistake and let him go. As time passes, however, he becomes increasingly terrified, anxious, and distressed by his confinement. His family raises money and refinances their possessions to pay for two Selma civil rights attorneys, J.L Chestnut and Bruce Boynton. Monroeville officials disapprove of Walter hiring out-of-county defense, and they consider it evidence that Walter has drug money. The new attorneys fail to get Walter out of Holman. Other death row inmates offer support to Walter and explain to him the rules about pre-trial detention. They encourage him to file his own complaint, but Walter doesn’t because he barely knows how to read and write.
Walter’s efforts to maintain hope and his denial of the gravity of the situation evokes the familiar experience of a bad situation from which one hopes to wake up, as if from a nightmare. These descriptions of Walter’s emotional stages serve to personalize Walter and evoke a sense of empathy. The failure of Walter’s lawyers to have his illegal detention on death row reversed shows either their incompetence or lack of effort, which contrasts with the knowledge and support offered by his fellow inmates.
In another section of Holman death row, Ralph Myers has a psychological breakdown on the night that inmate Wayne Ritter is executed. Myers is overwhelmed by sound of inmates clanging their cups against the walls in protest, as well as the stench of burning flesh, which reminds Myers of his own childhood burning incident. The next day he calls Sheriff Tate, offering to move ahead with his testimony. Tate personally moves Myers to another prison on the same day, filing no paperwork with the prison. District Attorney Ted Pearson is soon to retire, and Stevenson speculates that Pearson sees Walter’s upcoming prosecution as the chance to “leave office with a victory.”
Despite the damage that Myers has caused Walter, Stevenson humanizes Myers by describing the psychological distress he endures. Tate’s actions of personally moving Myers to and from death row without filing any paperwork illustrate the unchecked power he has in the local criminal justice system. The local system’s lack of accountability allows Tate to wield his power arbitrarily. Stevenson implies that Pearson’s actions will be personally and politically motivated.
Stevenson recounts the long history of southern courts deliberately excluding black jurors from serving, despite several federal laws that prevent racially-based exclusion. After the Supreme Court held underrepresentation of minorities on juries to be unconstitutional in the 1970’s, minority exclusion persisted through a system of using preemptory strikes in jury selection. Although the prejudiced use of preemptory strikes is illegal, it is difficult to prove that the practice is occurring. When Chestnut and Boynton filed the standard motion to have Walter’s case moved to avoid local bias, they were surprised when Ted Pearson supported their request and even more surprised when Judge Key approved it. Key moved Walter’s case to Baldwin County, the only nearby county with a majority white population. Stevenson contends that Pearson and Key had likely collaborated to send Walter’s case to Baldwin in order to secure an all-white jury. Even though Walter had heard from other inmates about the racial biases of all-white juries, he tried not to despair.
Despite the passage of laws to prevent racially discriminatory jury exclusion, Stevenson shows how the practice has nevertheless been normalized. The accepted local use of legal loopholes demonstrates the importance of community norms and belief systems in determining how federal laws are applied on a local level. Pearson and Judge Key both seem aware that they are more likely to win a guilty conviction for Walter with an all-white jury. Within the norms of their local circle, they find it morally acceptable to manipulate the racial makeup of the jury. This suggests that they haven’t internalized the anti-racist values behind federal laws and instead they persist in holding their own racist views..
Walter’s February trial is postponed until August after the key witness, Myers, again refuses to testify. Tate transfers Myers back to death row, where his mental health issues resurface. He is sent to a state mental hospital for a month and then returned back to death row. Stevenson writes that the state hospital had almost never found any patients psychologically unfit to testify, despite this being a key part of their institutional responsibility. Stevenson writes that Myers sees no other way out of the “situation he has created,” and he agrees to testify against Walter.
Stevenson shows the effectiveness of Tate’s efforts to psychologically manipulate Myers. By describing the failure of the state mental hospital to realize Myers’ unfitness to testify and showing the abuses Sherriff Tate uses in forcing Myers’ testimony, Stevenson prevents Myers from becoming the villain and instead draws attention to the corruption and inadequacy of the state.
At Walter’s trial, Ted Pearson uses preemptory strikes to eliminate all but one of the black jurors. Myers gives his testimony. He adds that he went into Monroeville Cleaners and saw Walter standing over Ronda’s body, and that an unnamed gray-haired man organized the murder and ordered Walter to shoot Myers, but that he had no more bullets. Bill Hooks testifies that he saw Walter’s modified “low-rider” truck at the Cleaners. Walter whispers to his lawyers that his truck wasn’t modified until months after, but they don’t pursue that detail. Walter senses that everyone is in a hurry. A white man Walter has never met, Joe Hightower, also testifies that he saw Walter’s truck. The defense calls only three witnesses from the many people present at the fish fry. Ronda’s uncle Ernest Welch, the “furniture man” testifies that the fish fry was on a different day because he wouldn’t have come by on the day his niece died. The jury pronounces Walter guilty. Walter returns to death row, hopeless and shocked that they believed Myers’ story.
Stevenson’s previous statements about the use of legal loopholes to exclude black jurors proves to be applicable in Walter’s case, where Pearson does everything possible to secure a nearly all-white jury. Myer’s testimony now includes even more contradictions, such as the detail about having gone into the cleaners. Neither Walter’s defense lawyers not the judge pursue the identity of the missing crime organizer. This important omission supports Walter’s sense that everyone is in a hurry to finish the trial. The fact that the defense lawyers also choose not to pursue Walter’s information about the truck or to call more witnesses to the stand demonstrates their failure to match the effort and willpower of the prosecution.