Odell Barnes Jr.

L'association Lutte Pour la Justice (LPJ) a été créée en 1999 pour soutenir Odell Barnes Jr., jeune afro-américain condamné à mort en 1991 à Huntsville (Texas) pour un crime qu'il n'avait pas commis et exécuté le 1er mars 2000 à l'aube de ses 32 ans. En sa mémoire et à sa demande, l'association se consacre à la lutte pour l'abolition de la peine de mort aux Etats-Unis et en particulier au Texas. (voir article "Livre "La machine à tuer" de Colette Berthès en libre accès" )

dimanche 5 janvier 2020

What does it take to become a death-row detective?

https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2019/12/21/what-does-it-take-to-become-a-death-row-detective

IN 1944 Raymond Chandler described the ideal character of a fictional private eye as a man comfortable on mean streets, but “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” He is:
…a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man.
To meet a real-life version of Chandler’s private eye, drive 40 miles (60km) north from Houston to Conroe, a fast-growing Texan city strung along either side of Interstate 45. Settle into a booth at Taqueria Jalisco, a Mexican breakfast joint in a low-slung strip-mall. It is summer, early morning, and already feels hot. A battered Nissan pulls up; a thickset man steps out. He wears black boots, pressed silver-grey trousers and a blue, short-sleeved shirt. A Rolex glints on one muscular arm. He carries himself with a slight swagger. Heads turn as he makes for his usual seat.
Richard Reyna is handsome. He has an open, convivial face behind gold-rimmed glasses. He appears young for someone who just drove his grandson to college—and he wants to keep it that way. He neither smokes nor drinks. His hair has the slick, uniform blackness that comes only from a bottle. He doesn’t want his age published. Is he vain? He chuckles. Clients expect a youthful man in his line of work.
Mr Reyna stands out among the 90,000 inhabitants of Conroe. He also stands out among America’s private eyes—who also happen to number about 90,000. Mr Reyna has a speciality. He is a death-row sleuth.
He is hired, usually, as a late dice roll by the condemned, after their trial “went wrong” at state courts and as federal appeals and eventual lethal injection loom. His paymasters tend to be defence lawyers, the federal public defender, or European donors eager to expose America’s misuse of its death penalty.
The Taqueria is his favourite spot in a city still divided by race. Not every place would be welcoming: “This is the middle of red-neck country. Lots of Klan, hell yeah.” He calls the café “my rat-hole”, pressing his fork into a grease-soaked omelette until a small oily puddle appears. “Usually I go home and think of getting my stomach pumped,” he says. But he spends several hours there, returning early the next day for more eggs and conversation.
On first meeting the detective, some people ask if he is Native American, a question he finds puzzling. He is Hispanic with roots in Mexico. He grew up in a government housing project in Houston’s Second Ward, where migrants flocked as whites fled for the suburbs. His father died “when I was a little bitty guy”; his mother single-handedly raised nine children in a tiny apartment, relying on handouts—rice, cheese, powdered milk—from a nearby hospital. For fun he and friends sniffed lighter fluid from handkerchiefs in back alleys or devised ways to steal from ice-cream vans. “Our idea of the Olympics was how fast we could strip a car,” he says.
Fifty years on, little has changed in the ward, where “macho men all beat their wives before the neighbours.” At reunions there, he finds that his siblings, and some of his old friends, “still don’t understand what I do.” They have preserved a way of walking, instilled in childhood, that he has mostly dropped. “People come in doing that duck walk, wearing pointed shoes, still blaming society for all their woes,” he says. Suddenly he bobs his head and rocks his shoulders in demonstration, a waddle from another time and place.
He has seen tears, heard elaborate lies, and been asked by inmates about how to find peace
He got hooked on crime as a child—in part by roaming the mean streets of the ward, but also by reading true-crime paperbacks. Their tales left him with an abiding urge to unpick a grisly story. “It bothers me that people aren’t interested in the truth.” When his mother called his books “disgusting”, he retorted he was “learning how stupid people are”. He still relishes real-life examples of “dumb” or venal criminals, such as a case he worked on in which a man convicted of rape and double murder was arrested only after turning in his own accomplices in an attempt to scoop a $5,000 reward.
Mr Reyna’s reading habits have not changed. In his office at home a whole wall is hidden by shelves, four rows high, stacked with true-crime books. The rest of the office is crammed with files, souvenirs, newspaper clippings and photos of him with big-hatted Texan Republicans.
As he serves eclairs and pours tea into fine china cups, he is clearly pleased to be settled in a neat bungalow with a white fence and a large garden, shared with his wife Peggy, two cats and a dog. However, he still keeps in touch with his past. The witnesses he deals with are mostly poor. They are more at ease when they see his 1990 Nissan Stanza with 280,000 miles on the clock and observe his shadow of a duck walk.
How did he escape? “You have to want to get out. To realise there’s some more to life.” He enlisted, got posted to West Germany as others fought in Vietnam, and then became an army photographer. Discharged, he met a Hispanic sheriff at a Houston barbecue who needed help identifying corpses. That meant long hours in a morgue, often at night, taking fingerprints and photographs. He has hated photography since.
In the sheriff’s office he picked up skills, such as when he attended an advanced FBI course in how to manage and photograph a crime scene. A few years later he transferred to Conroe. However, like Chandler’s lonely, proud figure, he says he bridled against authority. “Conroe has a barrage of crimes. They chase some small stuff. But the real shit is white-collar corruption.” He talks of politicians and officials who illegally cut themselves profitable property deals, and speaks repeatedly of how the powerful get away with awful deeds. In a late-afternoon drive around Conroe, he points out housing blocks in Little Mexico, a poor Hispanic area, where he and other officers broke up a child-abuse ring. He tells of unearthing a labour camp where illegal migrants made creosote in dire conditions. The owner, “a real prick”, he says, had been untouchable because of big donations to politicians.
In the early 1980s he got what seemed to be his big break. Fired from the sheriff’s office for supposedly leaking stories to a newspaper, he was hired in 1984 by a private eye to look into a notorious capital case in Louisiana. Jimmy Wingo, a jail escapee, had been convicted of murdering a couple in their home on Christmas Eve. Wingo’s brief trial rested on a witness who later recanted. Mr Reyna dug up ample proof, he says, of a crooked cop and flawed prosecution. Nonetheless, after three years Wingo was killed in the electric chair. “It was awful, I cried. I knew he was innocent, it got to me,” says Mr Reyna. “Why do everything the right way if it’s going to end like this? I had the evidence. It should have worked. It proved Wingo had no shit to do with this.” Afterwards he spoke several times to Wingo’s mother. “I didn’t want to carry on.”
After the disappointment of that case started to become less acute, he realised that he had found meaningful work; indeed, that he had a calling. Now it is “what I’ll do until I drop dead.” By his reckoning, in 33 years he has helped win outright freedom for seven death-row prisoners and assisted many more in commuting death sentences. He has spent decades visiting death row, largely in Texas, mostly in the squat grey buildings in Livingston, a short drive from Conroe. He speaks to inmates as they wait for death, often up to the night before they are killed, though if they ask him to be there when they are killed he declines. He has seen tears, heard elaborate lies, and been asked by inmates about how to find peace. He has also seen how individuals respond when hope expires. Some refuse to leave their cells and must be dragged away to die.
At the same time as Mr Reyna was working on the case that nearly broke him, he also took on the one that he considers his biggest success. Clarence Brandley was a black janitor wrongly convicted of raping and strangling a white teenager in a Conroe school. His case was prejudiced from the start: through false testimony from racist witnesses, destruction of exculpatory evidence by police and collaboration between prosecutors and judges. In 1981 an all-white jury sentenced him to death.
Mr Reyna, recruited by the defence team in 1985, eventually found two white janitors who had been present when the murder happened. Neither of the white janitors was prosecuted, but by speaking to them separately, Mr Reyna got each to accuse the other one. He cajoled each to offer up intimate details of the crime. One of the men had admitted to the killing to his girl-friend, after coming home with blood on his shoes, though he later retracted his confession.
Both witnesses, on video, said Brandley was not involved. He had come within just days of two scheduled execution dates, in 1985 and 1987. It took until December 1989 for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to overturn the conviction. On Mr Reyna’s office wall is a framed front page of the Houston Chronicle from 1990. It bears a large photo of Brandley and the detective marching together from prison. The publicity led to plenty of work.

Trouble is his business

Some of it was controversial. In 1995 he was hired by the defence team of Timothy McVeigh, a terrorist who killed 168 people by blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City that year. It was not a successful collaboration. Mr Reyna clashed with the lawyers, angry that they would not focus on how other far-right figures—such as extremists he tracked to the Arizona desert—conspired with McVeigh. The lawyers fired the detective after a row about an alleged confession by McVeigh to the detective.
Currently he is working on five cases. One involves Cesar Fierro, convicted of murdering a taxi driver in Texas in 1979. Mr Fierro, who is Mexican, has been on death row for 39 years, most of that time in solitary confinement. By tracing informers, on either side of the border, Mr Reyna has tracked down a “kid, in a washeteria” over in Juarez. The kid, then a teenager, was reportedly present at the murder and bragged about it. Mr Reyna also traced the gun used. He hopes Mr Fierro could be cleared of the charges any day now.
Much of his skill can seem small-bore, old-fashioned in retelling. He stakes out homes, offices or bars for days at a time. He shuns technology and online sleuthing. “I have no Facebook page. I almost never respond to texts. I have a flip phone. I’m happy being old school,” he says. Nor does he advertise. Once he had business cards made. He left them in a drawer.
Steady demand for his services suggests his old-school methods work. Any case begins with poring over police and autopsy reports, witness statements and other trial papers—these are stacked in manila folders on his office floor, on shelves and between the memorabilia. He looks for inconsistencies. Then he talks to the condemned man (or occasionally the condemned woman) and their wider family.
Trudging through paperwork can expose dubious details missed by hasty defence lawyers. One case involved fabricated bar receipts which put an individual near the scene of a murder where he supposedly drank, alone, $3,000-worth of beer in one evening. Then there was the time a district attorney had scribbled on a legal report that “Texas Rangers lied to me to get me to file charges.”
Most common, he claims, are clues implying that prosecutors illegally withheld evidence that might have helped the defence. “Prosecutors, including federal ones, don’t give two shits about it.” Some witnesses’ testimony in court also proves very different from their initial reports to police. “I find people, their statements, are all horseshit,” he says. Getting such witnesses to talk is vital. He knows to knock on doors between 5pm and 7pm, soon after work ends. Like a salesman, he looks to see if twitching curtains prove someone is at home, and places a foot in a doorway once ajar.
Typically he is active years after the crime happened. To loosen tongues, he begins with reminiscence: if a witness has moved from the area, he breaks the ice by bringing printed photos of their old home, or of a loved bar. Such gestures can kindle gratitude, maybe even trust. He tries to get people to laugh; many relax when persuaded to share a meal. To the poor—and most of those in the orbit of death-penalty cases are very poor—he talks about his own past (he first removes his Rolex). In the summer months he offers ice-cold beer from a cool box in his car.
“I like to make people think they’re smarter than me, they tend to loosen up a lot,” he explains. He listens to check if a witness’s vocabulary differs from their written statement, potentially a sign that the police worked up a false record. He tells informants early what he knows “so it limits the bullshit and lies they tell”. Witnesses don’t usually like owning up to false testimony. But he finds most, eventually, grow eager to talk, to admit their misdeed. “It’s been eating them a long time.” He has no badge or uniform, and even his occasional threat to get a subpoena to force someone to talk is empty. Rather he must win them over through charm.
His ultimate appeal, though, is moral. “I try to put the witness in the shoes of the accused. I ask, ‘Can you allow somebody to die, if you could do something about it?’” He says, “If you can live with yourself after [the condemned] is killed, you’re stronger than I am.” Tears often flow when witnesses give up long-held secrets.
Why does he do it? Mr Reyna needs the fees, typically several thousand dollars for 100 hours of sleuthing. There is his wish to see truth exposed. Principles play a role, too: he is not dead against capital punishment, but hates how it is applied. “If you have to kill a guy, execute a guy, you better be goddamn sure,” he says. The process leading to execution cannot be trusted, he thinks, because prosecutors and judges worry about being seen as tough enough to get re-elected. He believes too few care about the truth, especially when it concerns the poor, dark-skinned and badly represented.

The long goodbye

Mr Reyna is also wary of some campaigners against the death penalty. He thinks they romanticise the condemned. Brandley was unusual, he says, as truly innocent. Most of those who are wrongly sentenced to die are, nonetheless, not angels. “There are some very bad people, even if they didn’t kill,” he says. “Often people are not all that innocent. Maybe you were present when your buddy killed someone.”
In time his sleuthing may not be needed. Fully 65% of Texans still favour the death penalty, compared with 54% of all Americans. Texas carried out eight of all the 20 executions in America between January and November 2019. But rates are dwindling. Courts in the Lone Star state handed down only two death sentences in the same period. Such hesitation is at least in part because reinvestigations have shown up so many serious flaws.
Mr Reyna will not retire. More than he loves the fees, or even justice, he loves the work itself: “I love it. The challenge. The battle of the wits. I want to find the answers to things.” Blunt-spoken, stubborn, he refuses requests to lecture on his methods and remarkable list of cases. He wonders if the end might come when somebody, angry at his snooping, one day pulls a trigger. “People often said they would kill me, but I never took anything as credible,” he scoffs. More likely, “I’ll drop dead one day with my files in my arms.”
Mr Reyna, no reader of fiction, claims never to have heard of Raymond Chandler. Chandler would have recognised him on sight.

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