The surprisingly high-pitched voice at the other end of the line belonged to outlaw biker Billy "Mudman" Simon, and it was coming from the pay phone in Huntsville Prison's death row. Mudman was there waiting for the lethal injection that would put him to death for murdering his teenage girlfriend nineteen years earlier.
Mudman is no saint. He admits to all manner of misdemeanors and an occasional felony during his run in the Houston chapter of the Diablos. But killing Carmina Velasquez, he says, wasn't one of them.
"Carmina was a great woman," the Mudman told me the first time I interviewed him. "One of my best friends in this miserable world. But I was never in love with her. So why would I kill her?"
His letters, trial transcripts, and records of repeated failed attempts to win a new trial were dropped on my desk three days after I started working for the firm. After two weeks decoding every wildly misspelled word, contorted phrase, and hundreds of footnotes painstakingly transcribed in tiny block letters that looked as if they had come from the unsteady hand of a grade-schooler, I was convinced he was telling the truth.
And I liked him. He was smart and funny, and he didn't feel sorry for himself, despite a truckload of reasons why he should. Ninety percent of the convicts on death row were as good as screwed the day they were born, and Mudman, with his deranged junkie parents, was no different.
Nevertheless, he had no enthusiasm for blaming them for what had happened.
"They did their best, like everyone else," he said the one time I mentioned them. "Their best sucked, but let 'em rest in peace."
Rick Exley, my supervisor on the project, couldn't have cared less about Mudman's character or my rookie intuition. What mattered to him was that there were no witnesses to Velasquez's murder and that the Mudman had been convicted completely on the basis of blood and hair samples from the crime scene. That all happened before the forensic breakthrough of DNA testing. It meant we had a reasonable chance to be granted our request that blood and hair samples be taken to confirm that they matched the DNA of the physical evidence held in a vault somewhere in Lubbock.
"I'd hate to get your hopes up for nothing, but if the state lets us test, we could get a stay of execution."
"Don't ever worry about getting my hopes up for nothing, Jack. Where I'm at, insane hope is welcome anytime. Bring 'em on."
I was trying not to get too excited myself. I knew this pro bono project, with the pompous name of "the Innocence Quest," was primarily a PR stunt and that Nelson, Goodwin and Mickel didn't build forty-eight stories in midtown by looking out for the innocent poor on death row.
Still, when the Mudman was cut off after his allotted fifteen minutes, my hands were shaking.
I WAS STILL MARVELING at how well the Mudman was bearing up when Pauline Grabowski, one of Nelson, Goodwin's top investigators, stuck her head in my office. To introduce the new recruits to the unique resources of the firm, Grabowski had been assigned to Mudman's case and had spent the past two weeks sussing out things in East Texas.
Grabowski, who was renowned for her resourcefulness and was said to have made as much as a junior partner, carried her reputation lightly. Somehow she'd carved out a niche for herself in this male bastion without being overtly aggressive. She was low-key but straightforward. Although attractive in a captain-of-the-soccer-team way, she did nothing to draw attention to it. She wore no makeup or jewelry, except for earrings, pulled her dark brown hair back in a hasty ponytail, and seemed to wear the same tailored blue suit every day. Actually, I liked her looks just fine.
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