We opened case log after case log; some on shelves, some piled in columns, askew on the damp floor. In the process, century-old dust resting on the massive books had awoken, making it increasingly difficult to see anything in the room.
When we first began to search the poorly lit space in the catacombs of the ancient building, the court clerk found a reference to what we were looking for. But, in the five hours since that find there had been nothing. It wasn’t here.
He had been trying to track it down for half of his life. And my trip down these pecan-tree-lined roads to this decaying courthouse in southern Georgia had been just as futile as the countless letters he had sent to the court from prison over the last sixteen years.
On my way out of town, I made a left on a road I recognized from the police report. Just beyond a mobile home park was a vacant storefront with a grassy lot of long-abandoned cars at the rear. It was in that field of cars, in this setting of extreme rural poverty, where the incident took place.
I pulled into the parking lot, which was more weeds than asphalt, and turned off the engine.
He had been a very good basketball player but had fallen in with a rough crowd after family problems forced him out of his home. When his mentor and basketball coach left the school, things went downhill quickly. He dropped out, joined a gang, and began selling drugs.
He and his friends were hanging out behind this store on that Friday night. A car pulled up and a drug deal went bad. No one was supposed to die, but the drug-buyer did.
He, sixteen at the time, was charged with murder. He pled guilty and accepted a life sentence. Coaxing him into this guilty plea, his lawyer and the judge told him he would be out in seven years.
When I went to see the now thirty-two-year old inmate for the first time, he told me how he knew he had done wrong. His steady voice began to shake when he described a difficult childhood and a single mother who had died while he was in prison. His eyes became noticeably teary when he spoke about letting his mother down, about his old basketball coach, and about a path not taken. He expressed sympathy and remorse regarding the victim and the victim’s family, and explained how the incident was all an accident. After staring at the ground for a considerable time, he concluded by saying, “Man, I wish I could talk to that kid. He just needed someone to talk to.”
On my drive home, I thought about the letter I would write to him when I got back to the office. I would explain my excursion to the courthouse where he had pled guilty to murder all those years ago. And I would tell him how sixteen years later, there was still no transcript of his guilty plea.
Seven years had come and gone twice, and he still sat in prison desperately searching for the document that proved what the lawyer and judge had said.
Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth. The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems. This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public.