May 21, 2013 9:41:03 AM
For a couple of decades we have seen people freed from prison because long after they were legally convicted, and maybe even awaiting execution, DNA evidence is produced that shows incontrovertibly that the convicted person could have had nothing to do with the crime. There are even organizations that have as their sole purpose freeing prisoners because of DNA tests. Most crimes, though, do not involve the perpetrator leaving any DNA to analyze, and the justice system is just as liable to be faulty in such cases. Innocents convicted and without DNA to review are almost completely out of luck; the prisons are full of people claiming to be innocent, but some of those claims are true and yet nothing can be done about them. That was almost the case for Bill Macumber, who is the subject of Manifest Injustice: The True Story of a Convicted Murderer and the Lawyers Who Fought for His Freedom (Henry Holt) by Barry Siegel. Siegel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and an author of several books on legal stories, takes on a twisted legal tale that went on for decades; Macumber spent almost forty years in prison. It is an engrossing story with plenty of intriguing characters, and plenty of dead ends and unsolved, perplexing questions. The narrative has periods of hope, and then hope dashed, that ensure a reader's attention until the final resolution.
In the Arizona desert near Scottsdale on a warm night in 1962 a young couple was brutally murdered on a lovers' lane. The crime was inexplicable; the victims had been a happy engaged pair whom no one could have disliked. There was a seventeen-year-old witness on the scene. She told a matron at her home for troubled girls about the murders, and then she told police authorities. A man she knew only as Ernie had shot the couple. She was able to go to the crime scene and give details that had not been made public. Later she recanted. However, Ernest Valenzuela, a burglar, murderer, and rapist who enjoyed killing for the sake of it told psychiatrists and defense lawyers involved in his other cases that he had committed the murders. He was not charged with them, and he himself was murdered while in prison in 1973. His confessions about the Scottsdale double killings were covered as privileged attorney-client and doctor-patient revelations, and those privileges extended even after his death.
The Scottsdale murders remained unsolved, but ten years later, a woman who worked at the sheriff's department stated that her estranged husband, Bill Macumber, had confessed to her that he had done them. Macumber would have otherwise been the most unlikely of suspects. He and his wife may have had conflicts, but he was a model father, a military veteran, a concerned citizen who had worked as a volunteer to support law enforcement, and a fellow whom everyone, his wife excepted, regarded as just a good guy. He had never had even a traffic ticket. His wife said, however, that Macumber had come home in blood-stained clothes on the night of the murders, and she didn't think anything of it until over a decade later he told her he had been the murderer. The authorities took this accusation seriously, and Macumber was indicted.
There was dubious ballistics evidence about ejector marks on the casings at the scene connecting them to Bill's gun. There was a palm print on the victims' car that seemed to fit Macumber, but it was not impossible that he had touched the car in his work at his gas station. The way the county took evidence at the time of the crime seemed incompetent, and the chain of custody for the evidence during the subsequent twelve years was laughable. It was conceivable, for instance, that someone who wanted to doctor the evidence to frame Macumber could have done so, and that his wife did have such motive and such access. Most significant would have been Valenzuela's confessions, and Macumber's lawyers tried to have the reports of the confession entered into evidence, only to confront a tangle of conflicting opinion about whether such evidence would violate privileged communication, however posthumously.
There was a trial in 1975 and a re-trial in 1977, and Macumber was convicted both times. Two counts of second-degree murder got him a sentence of life in prison without parole. Macumber had been a model citizen until the accusations came, and became a model prisoner. He became a member of the Jaycees, and a leader of the group within the prison and even outside it. He was eventually allowed to travel outside the prison, even without supervision, in order to get to meetings and to do errands connected with his prison work, such as organizing the prison rodeo. He established self-help programs for the prisoners. This did not all happen quickly; Macumber remained in jail for decades, never having any infractions. He had the respect of guards, wardens, and prisoners, all of whom had trouble understanding why he was there. This is among the strangest aspects of this book; if you believe the accusations and the convictions, then Macumber was a nice guy all his life, had one murderous night, he continued to be a nice guy until he was charged, and he continued to be a nice guy after being convicted and spending decades in prison.
Macumber was estranged from his wife, who arranged for alienation from his sons, his great heartbreak through this story. He was eventually reunited to one of them. His other family members and friends supported him, especially a cousin who called his case to the attention of the Arizona Justice Project, an idealistic bunch of lawyers who are dedicated to reversing wrong decisions. Unlike other such organizations, it does not insist on DNA being the foundation for reversal. The efforts of this team, the successes and reversals, are gripping. They had to dig through the flawed evidence and faded documents from decades before, they had to try to find witnesses, some of whom were no longer alive, and they had to try to get a new judicial review for a case which prosecutors were satisfied to keep in the status quo. An end run around the legal system by means of the Arizona state clemency board is frustrated by Macumber himself. Early releases due to clemency had always been based on the admission of guilt and the regret of the prisoner, but Macumber refused, even for administrative purposes, to confess to the murders or to apologize for them.
Siegel's narrative is well organized, making an extraordinarily tangled legal case clear. There is a scene in a clemency hearing room so full of tension and optimism that almost everyone in the room was in tears, and readers themselves might well need to keep a tissue handy. That scene is not the climax of the book but just another success to be turned around in the next chapter. Macumber through it all remained optimistic as the years went by and his health deteriorated, saying that witnessing the love and dedication from his family and his indefatigable legal team "makes me unquestionably the most fortunate of all men." That he could retain such feelings after the mistakes described here is amazing. Readers will wind up admiring him and those who helped him, but will be left wondering about the effectiveness of our adversarial legal system.