Some of you have asked questions about what it is like to do death penalty work. Here is an example.
James Mayfield was in a hell of a jam when I was appointed to represent him by Magistrate Judge John Weinberg of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. He was accused along with two others with the murders of a father and his three children on the Army base at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, WA. The father was a civilian married to a woman in the Army. They had been living on the base with their three children when she was ordered to Korea for a six-month tour. He remained behind in their house on the base with the children. The murders happened while she was in Korea.
James was a private in the Army stationed at Fort Lewis. He was a polite and beautiful young African American man from a deeply religious Southern Baptist family in Beaumont, TX. He had never been in trouble with the law before. I remember his dark eyes pooled with tears and his soft and long slender fingers when I shook his hand for the last time.
His two codefendants were civilian blood brothers from Los Angeles. They were gang members and they had moved to Tacoma to sell crack cocaine. This was during the early nineties when the LA gangs started expanding their drug distribution operations into other cities to open up new markets.
Several months after they arrived in Tacoma, officers from the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department served a search warrant at their apartment seizing crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia, guns, and a substantial amount of cash. They arrested the brothers and booked them into the Pierce County Jail. Under Washington law at the time, the brothers were released 72 hours after they were booked into jail because no formal charges had yet been filed.
The brothers correctly surmised that one of their customers must have turned informant, probably after purchasing crack at their apartment. Unfortunately for the man, who was one of their customers, and his three children, the brothers concluded that he was the snitch.
I never found out how James, who was a regular church-goer at the time, hooked up with the two gangsters, but he did, and when they decided to pay the snitch a visit, they contacted James and asked him to help them get onto the base and locate the snitch’s house.
The crime scene was horrific and the bloodiest by far that I had ever seen. I will spare you the details other than to say that the brothers confessed to tying up the father in the living room and murdering each child one at a time in front of him with machetes. Then they finished him off. The feds had jurisdiction since the murders happened on the military base.
The brothers were mistaken about the father. He was not the snitch.
The case had death penalty written all over it, except no one in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and none of the federal judges in the district was pro death penalty. The Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the case was willing to drop the death penalty, but only if all three defendants were willing to plead guilty to all four murders.
The two brothers did not need to be persuaded to take the deal, but James balked and dug in his heels. He had no defense, but he could not bring himself to admit that he had committed such an awful crime and no amount of pleading on my part changed his mind. He had decided to go to his death proclaiming his innocence, rather than admit what he did and spend the rest of his life in prison. He did not care about the consequences of his decision on the brothers.
That left it to me to figure out a solution to save three lives, my conscience, and the consciences of the federal prosecutor and the United States District Court Judge to whom the case had been assigned.
With an extremely heavy heart, I boarded a flight to Houston by way of Minneapolis and when I arrived in Houston on Easter Sunday, I rented a car and drove to Beaumont to meet with James’s extended family.
I arrived about mid-afternoon after the family returned from church and finished their traditional Easter dinner. There were expecting me when I rang the doorbell. I was greeted by more than a dozen somber people still dressed in their Easter finery. I remember a sea of black faces young and old filled with tears, an occasional sob, and grace, incredible grace such as I had never seen before as I pulled out the investigation reports, crime scene and autopsy photographs, and the autopsy reports. The photographs of the toddler were the worst and as I finished my presentation of the evidence against James, I felt worse than I have ever felt before or since.
I convinced a loving family that their golden child had willingly participated in butchering four innocent people and he would be murdered for what he had done, unless they persuaded him to choose life over death. When I asked them, if they would be willing to help, their answers were unanimous.
Two weeks later James Mayfield and the two brothers pled guilty to four homicides and were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
For the last time, I shook hands with the beautiful young man with soft long slender fingers whose life incomprehensibly went off the rails one night during a murderous rampage with those hands that neither he nor anyone else will likely ever understand.
My heart was empty and cold as he turned and walked away.
My God! What have I become? I wondered.