When David Rose visited Columbus, Georgia, to write a story about capital punishment in the United States, it drew him inexorably into a decade-long battle for justice on behalf of Carlton Gary, a black man on death row, convicted 20 years ago of a series of rape/murders of elderly white women committed some eight years earlier. The handsome, womanising Gary, what would now be called ‘a player’, was an unlikely candidate for such killings, and the ‘violation’ of the title is as much his by the criminal justice system as that of the murder victims.
The setting is pure To Kill a Mockingbird. Columbus is a typical small Southern city, its economy dependent on nearby Fort Benning. Its cultured façade is belied by Phenix City, Alabama, just across the Chattahoochee River, a town whose corruption was the subject of a classic 1950s B movie. Columbus moves with slow southern charm, but it moves in very specific ways, ways still very separate for black and white.
It was even more so in 1978, when Gary’s defence was repeatedly denied funding to pay for expert witnesses or investigative travel. Gary’s conviction hinged on a ‘confession’ obtained by police who ‘forgot’ to leave their tape recorder running. Notes discovered later indicated that incriminating material had been ‘edited’ together with his actual statements. The prosecution withheld evidence that would have cast doubt on Gary’s guilt, if not exonerated him completely. Their forensic experts twisted material that showed his innocence, while district attorneys hid unreliable identifications, and during the trial introduced ‘facts’ they knew were false.
As Gary’s later lawyers began appeals, this malfeasance started to surface. Rose’s own investigations uncovered a trail of fraud and cover-up whose accumulated weight indicts the Georgia justice system and exculpates Gary. But at each stage of the appeals process, the state argued that no single point would have changed the jury’s original verdict, and then, with chilling Catch-22 efficiency, that evidence which might have influenced the jury ought to have been found by his original lawyers. These technicalities meant Gary had no grounds for new hearings.
Rose is generous in attributing much prosecutorial misconduct to over-zealousness rather than to racism, but he is also devastating in detailing how, as Faulkner put it, the past is always present in the South. Amazingly, Gary’s first appeal victory comes from a judge whose uncle ruled against him, and whose grandfather lynched a 12-year-old black boy. Blacks are still far more likely to be executed for killing whites than vice versa, and in America executions remain almost exclusively the province of former Confederate states.
Gary’s appeals continue, and though Rose names and shames Susan Boleyn, the Georgia attorney general more concerned with protecting the prosecution than finding justice, his story does not have a happy ending, apart from the fact that Gary has not yet been executed.
While Rose never loses focus on Gary’s case, he melds the story brilliantly with the bigger historical picture of Southern society. There are a couple of small errors of history or geography, but this book flows like a thriller and hits with the righteous force of a great novel.
None of what Rose discovered would have surprised another Georgian, Martin Luther King. It’s often forgotten that King was assassinated while visiting Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, whose campaign motto was simply ‘I Am a Man’. Michael Honey’s comprehensive study of that strike does not flow like a novel, but it is brilliant in the way it delineates the economic benefits to Southern society of American apartheid. Memphis sanitation workers had no job security, received no pay for bad-weather days when the trucks didn’t roll, and little support from mostly white-organised labour. It is also stirring in portraying the strike leaders, ordinary workers who risked everything to establish their basic rights in the face of arrogant and condescending power. King was drawn to their struggle because he had come to see racism as merely one factor in the oppression of all the lower classes; he had also begun to speak out against the Vietnam war. Memphis was to be a testing ground, of sorts, for a wider ministry.
Memphis’s good ol’ boys liked things the way they were, and they had few scruples about the steps they took to keep it that way. King himself was stopped by an assassin’s bullet; the full story of that killing may never be known, but the losses in the riots it sparked were nothing in comparison with the loss of his arguing for non-violence and co-operation. Yet King’s death also consolidated many whites in support of the strikers, who, in the end, won their battle. But as Rose’s book reminds us so vividly, some battles may have been won, but the war, against entrenched and monied power, against history itself, has not.