Stevenson describes the situation preceding Walter’s Rule 32 hearing. Stevenson suggests that District Attorney Tom Chapman seriously reconsider his position before the trial. Chapman instead moves forward with hiring Assistant Attorney General Don Valeska, a man known for being tough on “bad guys,” to argue in defense of Walter’s conviction. Stevenson writes that the presiding judge, Thomas B. Norton, Jr., quickly tired of the conflicts between EJI and the State during pretrial hearings. EJI had insisted that the State check several times that they’d provided all available files. Stevenson asked the judge to reserve a week for the hearing. The judges argued that the original trial had last only a day and a half, and settled on reserving three days. EJI has a new paralegal, Brenda Lewis, an African-American former police officer who resigned after seeing countless “abuses of power.” Brenda prepares and “calm[s]” all of the witnesses for Walter’s case.
Stevenson’s offer to Chapman suggests that he believes Chapman is capable of changing his mind, given enough evidence, and that he sees him as less personally or politically tied to the original conviction. Chapman’s selection of Don Valeska to defend the State implies that he still accepts the popular view of Walter as a “bad guy” and that he is influenced by the political importance of appearing tough on crime. EJI’s repeated requests for all the state files, their request for as much time as possible in court, and their involvement of so many staff members suggest their intent to reclaim for Walter the resources and time he was denied during his trial.
Before the hearing, Stevenson and Michael spend days planning how they will present all the evidence in the allotted time. Ralph has begun calling EJI regularly with long tales of police and State corruption, and Michael is especially concerned about his tendency toward elaborate stories. Michael reminds Ralph several times of the importance of telling the truth in court. The morning of the trial, they walk into the Baldwin County courtroom wearing their best suits. Stevenson writes that, as a “bearded black man,” he takes special care with his appearance for the “sake” of his clients. Stevenson is surprised to find the courtroom full of familiar faces from Walter’s family and community. He notices that Chapman and Valeska appear disgruntled by their presence.
Ralph’s frequent calls to EJI to talk about corruption suggest his need to maintain their attention by continuing to provide them the kind of information that they have given him attention for in the past. Stevenson’s description of the time he and Michael spent preparing and their efforts to dress their best serve to highlight the climactic nature of this moment for them. Stevenson references his own experience of racial bias by describing his need to dress well because he is a “bearded black man.”
The hearing begins. Stevenson recounts the story Myers gave during Walter’s trial. He highlights that the State never searched for the white man Myers described as the crime organizer. Stevenson claims the State knows the man isn’t real. He calls Myers to the stand and asks if his testimony against Walter was true. Stevenson holds his breath. Ralph replies: “Not at all.” Stevenson rephrases the question several times and then takes Myers through each of his original statements. With “absolute sincerity,” Myers states that his accusations were all lies and that he was forced to testify. Judge Norton, who’d appeared bored during the opening statements, is now paying close attention. Walter’s eyes begin to tear up. Myers maintains his resolution during the cross-examination, resentfully refuting Valeska’s suggestion that he is now being coerced. The courtroom hums with excitement. As Myers exits, Stevenson sees him “look apologetically at Walter.”
Stevenson suggests his own anxiety by writing that he held his breath after he asked Myers his first question. Stevenson builds the suspense and climax of this scene by carefully narrating his own opening statements and each question and answer he posed to Walter. He adds to this by portraying the emotions of everyone in the room: his own anxiety, the judge’s change from boredom to keen interest, Myer’s coolness and resolution, Walter’s tears, and the excitement of the courtroom. Myers’ reaction to the prosecution’s suggestions of coercion reinforce the idea that Myers sees this as a moment of redemption and that he won’t let anyone take that away from him.
Stevenson next calls to the stand Clay Kast, Walter’s white mechanic. Kast states that he has records to prove that Walter’s truck was modified to be a “low-rider” six months after Ronda’s murder, calling into question the original testimonies of Bill Hooks and Joe Hightower against Walter. A white Monroeville police officer, Woodrow Ikner, testifies next. He states that he was asked by the trial prosecutor to lie about where he found Morrison’s body in the Cleaner’s in order to corroborate Myer’s testimony. Stevenson keeps an eye on Judge Norton, who appears anxious and attentive, particularly during Ikner’s testimony, Stevenson speculates that Norton may not have expected all of the witnesses to be white and have no “loyalties” to Walter. That night, Michael and Stevenson consider whether Chapman will switch sides given how well the hearing is going for Walter.
Stevenson emphasizes the importance that race plays in the court’s perception of witness credibility. It appears that EJI may have strategically chosen to begin their trial with white witnesses who had no intimate connection to Walter in order to appeal to the court’s bias toward taking white voices more seriously. Further, their choice to call to the stand a law enforcement officer established their credibility with the local community. This choice allowed them to begin the trial with a clear suggestion of political corruption on the part of the State, while also appearing to have some of law enforcement on their side
The next morning, Stevenson finds Walter’s supporters waiting outside of the courtroom because they aren’t being allowed in. A deputy sheriff tries to block Stevenson, too. When he tells him he is the defense lawyer, the deputy “checks” before letting him pass. Inside, the courtroom is now armed with a metal detector, police dogs, and is already half full of white people. Stevenson complains to Judge Norton, who says that Walter’s supporters should have arrived earlier. The judge dismisses Stevenson’s claim that the supporters arrived on time. Stevenson informs Walter’s community that the courtroom will now open to them, but there isn’t enough room for everyone. Two black ministers calmly organize to prioritize entry for Walter’s family and important community members, including Mrs. Williams, a dignified and elegant older woman. She reminds Stevenson of women in his life who were graceful and dedicated despite hardship. Mrs. Williams leaves the courtroom in tears when she sees the police dogs.
The racial difference between the white people who were allowed in and the black people, including Stevenson, who were blocked from entering, suggests that the court intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. The police dogs and the metal detector further suggest efforts to intimidate black community members, who are more likely to have negative associations with law enforcement. Norton’s insinuation that Walter’s supporters didn’t arrive on time illustrates how intentional discrimination can be cloaked in blame for individual mistakes or behavior. Mrs. Williams represents grace in the face of oppression, something Stevenson has seen in other black women during his life.
Stevenson writes that the second day of proceedings go well, even after the morning’s ominous beginning. He calls on several state doctors who saw Myers for psychiatric care at the state hospital. They all testify that Myers repeatedly told them that he was being held on death row as punishment for refusing to continue his testimony against Walter. Stevenson comments that the hospital’s records of Myer’s recantation of his statement should have been given to Walter’s lawyers before the trial in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling regarding disclosure of helpful evidence. Stevenson writes that the State’s supporters and the Morrison family, who had spent so long blaming Walter, now appeared uncertain. As the day passed, these supporters began to leave and Walter’s supporters filed in. In the parking lot, Stevenson hugs Mrs. Williams, who explains that she was beat by police and attacked by police dogs during the Voting Rights protests of 1965 in Selma.
Stevenson continues to focus on witnesses who can undermine the original testimonies presented against Walter, with a particular focus on showing how information was withheld and manipulated in order to secure Walter’s prosecution. Stevenson demonstrates an understanding of the emotions of the Morrison family, who Stevenson suggests found some comfort in the closure offered by Walter’s conviction. Mrs. Williams reveals her personal experience of racial violence, illustrating the insidious symbolic meaning of police dogs: their presence is a display of power on the part of the State and law enforcement against the black community.
On the third morning of the hearing, Stevenson sees Mrs. William’s daughter in the courtroom. She tells him that Mrs. Williams stayed up in her room all night praying, and that in the morning she called the minister to let him know she was ready. They see Mrs. Williams entering, dressed impeccably. She “sways” through the metal detector and past the dog, repeating: “I ain’t afraid of no dog.” When she sits, she proclaims, “I’m here!” Stevenson greets her, but she repeats it again. Judge Norton enters. After he sits, Stevenson notices everyone grows quiet and looks behind him. He turns around and sees Mrs. Williams still standing. With her chin up, she says yet again, loudly: “I’m here!” and then sits. Stevenson realizes her meaning: that despite the efforts of oppressors, and despite being old, poor and black, she is there because she has a “vision of justice” that calls her to be there.
Stevenson illustrates the importance of black visibility in spaces where intentional efforts have been made to keep black people out. For Mrs. Williams, even though she isn’t a key witness, Stevenson suggests that her presence carries symbolic meaning. The eagerness of Walter’s supporters to get Mrs. Williams into the courtroom shows that Mrs. Williams is an important elder in the community. Mrs. Williams’ dignity and resilience despite her experiences of violence symbolize the perseverance of the local black community despite continued oppression.
During the final day of the hearing, Stevenson calls on several witnesses who had been incarcerated with Myers who testify that Myers told them that his accusations were false. EJI “save[s] the most powerful evidence for last”: the police tapes they obtained through their Rule 32 petition. The tapes reveal Myers’ repeated attempts to recant his testimony while Ikner, Tate and Benson coerce him to continue. Stevenson finishes by calling on Walter’s trial lawyers, Boynton and Chestnut. Surprisingly, the prosecution offers no rebuttal. They must now await the judge’s ruling. Tired but hopeful, Stevenson and Michael say their goodbyes. On their way home, they stop at a familiar beach. Despite the beauty of the warmth, Stevenson can’t shake the feeling that there are sharks in the water. He and Michael discuss the constant opposition they have faced throughout Walter’s trial, including threats on their lives, and they express their inability to believe that their opponents will finally rest.
EJI’s discovery of the police tapes, which they were only able to obtain through their Rule 32 petition after completing several other judicial proceedings, illustrates the effectiveness of their continued advocacy. This suggests the importance of resistance and perseverance. It also further reinforces Stevenson’s argument that the State hid important evidence. The prosecution’s inability to form a rebuttal suggests the compelling nature of the evidence EJI presented. Stevenson’s feeling that there are “sharks in the water” represents his and Michael’s sense that opposing forces haven’t given up and may still surprise them with further resistance or danger.