In the fall of 1988, women living in Chattanooga waited in fear and anticipation as law enforcement sought to apprehend those responsible for wreaking criminal havoc throughout the area. A string of rapes and the murder of my roommate in our home, appeared to be related, but leads were few and the cases were far from being solved.
Meanwhile, folks in Monroeville, Alabama, were still reeling from the senseless murder of their hometown sweetheart 2 years earlier. The accused had been promptly identified, tried, convicted, and he now occupied a cell on death row, but Ronda Morrison's death still didn't make sense, and the conviction of Walter McMillian was being appealed on every side.
In his book, Circumstantial Evidence, investigative reporter, Pete Earley, meticulously recounts the principle events and characters in this real-life drama, demonstrating how very difficult and muddied the task of uncovering truth can be. Human frailty begets forgetfulness, carelessness, bias, assumptions, and false trust, which, in turn, lead to mistakes and missteps that further mask the truth. Human depravity begets lying, revenge, hatred, and outright wickedness that intentionally buries the truth under a mountain of irretrievable lies, which, when believed, can result in a profound miscarriage of justice.
I found Earley's research and reconstruction of this story both riveting and highly disturbing. Even now, it seems impossible to know with certainty what happened to that young lady. But...seeing how the desperate need to solve a crime for the community's sake, coupled with human frailty and depravity, can lead to grave errors, brought old fears home to me.
Though Harold Wayne Nichols was tried and convicted for the death of my roommate, and waits out his days on death row, I can't help but remember every appeal that has been made on his behalf in the past 20 years: he was bribed for his confession, his alibis were not investigated, his confession was coached to match the evidence, evidence was constructed to fit Nichol's story, etc. Nearly all of these same circumstances existed in the Monroeville case, and seem to have been proven in the process of appeals (leading to the release of the accused). I have always assumed the goodwill and truthfulness of the investigators, prosecutors, and judges in the Nichol's trial - and I am not necessarily calling them into question now - but I can't help but be slightly unnerved by how easily the authorities in the Alabama case were self-deceived and actually believed they had the right man...they were blinded by the tragedy of Ronda's death, their own prejudices, and the need to bring about a resolution. I can't help but ask, "Could it be...?"
However, I do not allow myself to meditate on those questions because they quickly give rise to a fear that is biological and irrational. What I mean is, I actually begin to physically feel the fear as much as I did just after the murder (intense fear manifests itself in a very biological way that can not be described, only experienced), and the subsequent idea that the real perpetrator might still be at large has the potential to send me into a state of mental and emotional panic.
So...I pray. I pray that truth has prevailed, that God's justice really is being done and if it isn't, that it will be brought to light...and then I discipline my mind away from the questions to a place of rest.
All of that is a really convoluted way of recommending this book! Not only does Earley make this investigative report read like a mystery novel, he provides insight into human nature, community and systems. Well worth your time.