A Murder Trial Gone Wrong: The Cruel Story of one Man's Destroyed Life

Human Rights

In 1986, Carlton Gary, a black man, was convicted of the 1979 rape and strangulation murders of seven elderly white women in the small but prosperous (for some) town of Columbus, Ga. Some of these women had ties to an exclusive group of wealthy and influential white families called The Big Eddy Club. Since then, Gary has been sitting on death row. He now waits for his final appeal.

Those initial crimes were horrific. But, the criminal justice system failings that followed were equally deplorable: Forced to produce and convict a killer, a frustrated and increasingly embarrassed set of local law enforcers, detectives and prosecutors subjugated crucial defense funds and evidence. Also eviscerated was the "due process" clause of the 14th Amendment that states, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

With elegant prose and striking narrative, award-winning journalist David Rose investigates the deprivation of that due process and recounts the human and systemic toll of this crime within a crime in his book "The Big Eddy Club: The Stocking Stranglings and Southern Justice." The book is a vivid and thoroughly captivating exploration of the American criminal justice system. It is also impossible to put down.

"The Big Eddy Club" is as much about Gary's clash with the Southern justice system as it is a condemnation of the system's racial and economic bias -- a particularly cruel reality when it's not merely one's liberty, but one's life, at risk.

Early in the book, British citizen Rose, points out that, unlike America, his country abolished the death penalty, as did the rest of Europe. And what started as a piece for the British newspaper the Observer on why parts of America still find the death penalty so attractive became a decade-long investigation of the stocking strangler case and the American criminal justice system.

Rose doesn't come out and say whether he believes Gary is innocent or guilty, but he lets a conglomeration of suppressed information, faulty investigative methods, and the actions of seemingly biased law officials tell its own story. Rose presents a glimpse into the heart of the American capital punishment that is profoundly enraging and disturbing.

Against a backdrop of post-Civil War Southern history and with poetic language and intricate details, Rose has penned a book as compelling as any John Grisham novel or his nonfiction work "An Innocent Man," with the haunting imagery of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." Carlton Gary is by no means presented as a pillar of virtue. But, it's about time we held our justice system to a higher virtue than Rose's gripping book reveals.

Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Rose over coffee in New York City and ask him questions about his amazing work and dedication to it:

Nomi Prins: You mention in "The Big Eddy Club" that everyone asks you whether you believe Carlton Gary is innocent or guilty, and you don't answer them directly. Why?

David Rose: I look at the matter in terms of different question, and that is, was Gary given a fair trial? The answer to that is no.

Were there times during this decade of investigation that you wanted to just say, I can't do this anymore? What made you keep going?

After 9/11 nobody seemed interested in these issues. I know in England they didn't like the death penalty -- but what mattered to me was getting America to see this, particularly the people in Columbus, Ga. They had to know. So the timing of publication is extraordinary. As we speak, it is more fortuitous; Judge Land must decide whether to allow a new trial. Since the book was written, Judge Land has already granted an evidentiary hearing on Feb. 14, 2007. I think the bite cast (taken at one of the crime scenes) and its comparison to Gary, excludes him to certainty beyond a reasonable doubt. The bite cast taken from the victim showed small and crooked teeth. Gary's are straight and always have been. He used to be a model; his smile was part of his attractiveness. They compared the original bite cast and Gary's impression last summer -- there were significant differences between the two. The state hasn't challenge the evidence, but they have said it's too late. The defense has argued that if you consider the bite cast and other evidence, Gary should get a new trial. The prosecution is arguing that the defense didn't exercise due diligence at the time of the original trial in pressing the bite cast issue (though, at the time of trial, defense counsel was not granted the funds to conduct an independent examination. The state's trying to say that if the prosecution was lying, the defense should have commented at the time.

Will this new trial happen in your opinion?

I couldn't say, but now even if the judge doesn't go for it, and as a Land, it would be an amazing act of courage on his part if he did, Gary's got his best chance now. The judge could decide this week, or month. Now, Gary has two good lawyers and more federal funding. Now he's well represented and in a good place.

How has it been received in Columbus -- what was it like going back there after having published "The Big Eddy Club"?

I knew I had to face Columbus, Ga., tell them why I wrote the book, and hope they would listen. During my first evening there, 250 people showed up at a reading I did at the public library. They showed respect. Enthusiasm. Then, at the Barnes and Noble in Columbus, they had to give out tickets; there were so many people in line. Before that reading, I had been warned that there might be people there who would harass me, but they kept their mouths shut. The audience was very fair. Maybe that will be enough to show the judge that he won't suffer in the public opinion arena if he decides to grant a new trial. Maybe, it will encourage him to do the right thing.

When did you last see Carlton Gary?

I saw him last fall, over a year ago. But the prison guards really screwed around with me. It was October. A really hot day. They had me sit there for two hours, no shade, nothing to drink. When I finally got into the prison, it was after 3 p.m. (visitations end at 4 p.m.). Gary had just had hemorrhoid surgery. He was moving slowly. There was barely enough time to get to his cell. He was very disappointed.

Was that kind of hostile treatment indicative of other visits you made to Gary over the course of the seven years you were investigating this case?

At one of my past prison visits, a guard came out and told me, "Gary doesn't want to see you." I said, "I'm sure he does, can you just check?" Then, this man towered in front of me, nose to nose and said, "I think you should go now." It turns out Gary was never even notified of my visit.

How did you deal with that kind of intimidation throughout your visits?

Coping with intimidation was not a problem. I'd spent time investigating stories in prisons in the U.K. Smuggling out Gary's semen was a bit nerve-wracking, though. I went in with all the appropriate materials. As I'm leaving, I'm trying to look as calm as possible. My heart's beating. I'm exiting through all eight security checks, thinking what if they caught me. But I finally made it to my car, got on the Interstate and drove off.

And, as you mention in your book, Assistant Attorney General Susan Boleyn decided not to allow this new evidence, despite the fact that the sample you took would have indicated an inconclusive match to the original sample taken from the crime scene?

For 20 years, Susan Boleyn (who represented the state) has done nothing but try to put men to death. She's a part of a group referred to as the "death squad." Her argument, as with other pieces of evidences, was that even if the serology conclusively proved that someone else raped the victims, Carlton Gary would still be guilty of murder. It's a hard situation. Under current laws, once the state rejects evidence, the federal courts can't readdress it. This is because of Bill Clinton's Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. That act is the single most unjust measure enacted in the field of death penalty evidence in the United States.

Why this obsession to suppress new evidence that could lead to exoneration?

It goes to the top of the system. Chief Justice Roberts in the Supreme Court, for example, has shown himself to be unwilling to accept the fact that the system has convicted innocent people. They tie themselves into mutual knots to justify wrong convictions here. The court of appeals in the U.K., though not perfect, is not that bad. The procedural restrictions are much less restrictive. There, under a clause of "if justice requires," it is easier to introduce new evidence that could point toward a different decision. Here, it is much harder, particularly because of that 1996 act.

What did you find to be the most overwhelming reason for the continued existence of the death penalty in America?

The most significant fact is regional. Although other states like California have death rows, they don't have as many executions, yet 80 percent of all executions take place in the former Confederacy, Texas being far ahead of the rest. There's at a deep level, this sense of the death penalty as a way of dealing with issues of race in the South being played out. There, the death penalty serves the same functions as lynching once did. It supposedly helps give the community in which the murder took place a sense of "closure." Plus, in a kind of white supremacist mentality, an egregious crime must invoke an egregious form of punishment. The death penalty has been one of a set of accommodations for the South since the Civil War. The federal government ignored the Jim Crow segregations rulings as did the Supreme Court. It's as if it has decided that the region is too tricky -- one should let them do what they want.

One of the major requests from original defense counsel, Bud Siemon, was for more funding with which to engage in appropriate investigations of his own, a request that was repeatedly denied by the judge. Can you discuss how that impacted this case, and more generally, similar cases?

If you're a poor defendant, black or white, charged with a capital crime, justice is like a closing steel trap. They (the prosecuting side) just don't go away. In the U.K., the prosecutors looked at new evidence in the case of the Guildford Four, experienced a sense of horror and decided to let them go. Here, judges and district attorneys are elected or appointed. Some are partisan and concerned about keeping their positions, hence the conflict of interest between the individual in front of them versus the collective that votes for them, particularly in the South. Yet, the overall cost of death penalty appeal, the average legal costs from conviction to execution is approximately $2.5 million.

Do you think American will ever abolish the death penalty?

The due process and evidentiary clause in America went backwards with the Clinton Act, but there's been some progress on the evolving standards of decency component of the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court amended the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded. One justice even cited a Human Rights Watch report on mentally retarded prisoners at the time. It's encouraging that international human rights opinions are finding their way into the U.S. criminal justice system. Also, there's growing concern over the use of the method of death by lethal injection, based on questions of whether it causes pain. There's a greater degree of humanity in play, even though procedural restrictions are still overly restrictive. Thirty-eight states have the death penalty. But, New York has effectively abolished it (the New York death statute was declared unconstitutional in 2004), and states like New Jersey are leading towards abolishing it, so there's hope.

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