I didn’t remember who started the talk: I or the convict, but by the time the plane was over Wyoming we were deep into a searing indictment of the American justice system.
Billy James Mallard was doing time for the brutal murder of an altar boy who had caught him sawing the copper pipes off the church’s organ. The jury was easily swayed by the overwhelming evidence against Mallard: the camera footage from outside the church, his DNA on the crime scene, the boy’s blood on one of the stolen pipes. But five years into his life sentence Billy James Mallard still maintained his innocence.
“I was framed,” he told me. “That pipe was not sawn off by me. I went for the big ones. This one hadn’t enough copper in it to buy you a decent supper.”
“Surely that’s what your lawyer told the jury?”
“My lawyer was a bored pipsqueak with one week to kill before he started defending bankers.”
“But it is still your word against all that evidence.”
“I guess. But I finally found me a real lawyer in Seattle. That’s why I asked to be transferred.”
“A judge won’t just re-open a case. You’d need …”
“Fresh evidence. I know.”
It wasn’t until the plane had landed and I handed him over to a local prison guard, that he showed me how strong a case he and his lawyer really had.
As he stepped into the police car, he winked me goodbye.
On his eyelid was a tattoo of a police badge: NYPD 15931.
The badge of a rookie cop who had done a colleague an ill-advised favour five years ago by planting a piece of evidence in some murder suspect’s house.
It would be a long trip back to New York.
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