Death row is a nightmare for serial killers and ax murderers. For an innocent man, it’s a life of mental torture that the human spirit is not equipped to survive.
This book was a hard one for me to get into at first. I’m a pretty decent speed reader and yet after an entire week, I wasn’t even past 100 pages. For a John Grisham novel, that was surprising. There was a hook in the very beginning, but it wasn’t enough to get me gripped. This evening I forced myself to take advantage of the solitude in the apartment and just read. I still found it trying at bits, but then I hit a stride on page 167 and from that point there was no turning back. Grisham had me gripped, but this time it wasn’t with the amazing way he portrayed characters or even the twists and turns of his plots. This book had me gripped because there was nothing revolutionary about it. It just made me question.
This is the story of Donte Drumm. Or is it Travis Boyette? Perhaps it’s the story of Keith Shroeder. Maybe it’s all about Robbie Flak, or Nicole Yarber. Do you catch my drift? There was no one main character or protagonist or even antagonist. But it reminds us of a powerful and important fact of life. This is the story of a young man who was imprisoned and placed on death row for a murder he never committed. His ‘confession’ was beaten out of him during an 18 hour tête-à-tête with the police. Despite the lack of evidence, shaky testimonials, and clear confusion in the case, Donte Drumm finds himself strapped to a gurney-bed with lethal tubes in his veins as his mother, siblings, and lawyer watch on. On his other side, unseen, is the family of the girl that he was accused of raping and murdering. This is despite the fact that a man named Travis Boyette has come onto the scene with a clear and irrefutable statement that he was Nicole Yarber’s real murderer.
Surely it’s a clear cut case from then on right? Unstrap poor Donte and let him go home. Let the government bow down and apologize for trapping him in a steel cage for 9 years on pure assumptions and bias. Everybody can go home happy. But is that ever the case?
This book made me wonder about many things. As a graduate with a Criminal Justice BA degree, we are required to learn about constitutional rights, the death penalty, theories of recidivism, and more. One fact that was drilled into our heads over and over was that the justice system is not infallible. More often than not, there is no clear answer. It’s not about justice prevailing and more about justice doing the best it can under the circumstances. That is only if the people involved are being honest and true to their jobs, their oaths, and themselves.
Through every project and exam I had to remember that even the lowest of criminals are allowed their constitutional rights. I could never figure out how I truly felt about the death penalty. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye, but I don’t know how I’d react if it were a close friend or family member or even myself that had been raped or murdered. As for recidivism, there were so many good arguments made about how juvenile justice systems do work. And then I read this excerpt from the book: “The juvenile justice system does nothing but cultivate career criminals. Society wants to lock us up and throw away the key, but society is too stupid to realize that we’ll eventually get out. And when we get out, it ain’t pretty. Take me. I’d like to think I wasn’t a hopeless case when I went in at thirteen. But give me two years of nothing but violence, hate, beatings, abuse, then society’s got a problem when I walk out at fifteen. Prisons are hate factories Pastor…”. This book made me question all the things I knew and ponder even further on all the things I didn’t. It made me half grateful that I walked away from a career in this field to one in publishing. The other half of me wanted to be a part of the mess and to fix it. Can anyone really fix it?
Aristotle had it wrong; nobody that walks into law school walks out with the idea that the law is reason free from passion. Passion plays a vital role in the legal system. In this case, human passion is at it’s finest. A greedy passion that certain governors, judges, and detectives hold for their cushy jobs. A passionate hatred of a white mother towards a black man who has been accused of raping and murdering her daughter. A passionate plea from a lawyer to every court and authority to free his innocent client. A minister’s passionate determination to reveal the truth, despite breaking the law along the way. Lastly, a passionate cry from a man strapped down by leather manacles “I am an innocent man! I’ve been persecuted for nine years by the State of Texas for a crime I didn’t do! I never touched Nicole Yarber and I don’t know who killed her….To Detective Drew Kerber, Paul Koffee, Judge Grale, all those bigots on the jury, all those blind mice on the appeals courts, and to Governor Newton, your day of judgment is coming. When they find the real killer, I’ll be there to haunt you….Goodbye, Momma. Love you.”
Note: I was going to end my post there and I even shared the links on my Facebook page and Twitter. But I couldn’t sit comfortably without sharing a more personal thought that was pounding through my brain and heart while reading. Last year, I was distantly subjected to a horrifying case of a girl from my school going missing. It has been almost 9 months and there is no sight or sound or any scrap of news of her. While I didn’t know her, I feel for her and her family every day and think of the case rather often, for a stranger. It’s because of this exposure that I thought quite a lot about Nicole Yarber, the character in the book who never appears except for descriptions and a brief account of when she was last scene. When the discussion turns to what happened to her, it is told from the point of view of Travis Boyette who seems both disturbed and removed from what he has done. The focus lies mainly on how sick he is and how Donte Drumm is suffering intensely for someone else’s horrifying sins. I thought a bit more about Nicole Yarber. My heart aches for all the women and their families who have been tormented by not only similar but downright identical circumstances. It’s a barbaric and incomprehensible way to disappear or die. I hope against hope daily that the girl I knew of will be found one day and that her body and memory will be put to rest peacefully if she has suffered death. The rest of the book made me think about the person(s) who abducted her. Were they what Travis Boyette claims to be–a product of the justice system? Did society turn them into monsters? It’s no excuse, but it’s a terrifying thought. Lastly, if the wrong person does get accused, like Donte Drumm, and if they do get sentenced to death–isn’t that just another murder? If they don’t have the right to take our lives, do we have the right to take theirs? If we take another innocent life, are we condemned to the same punishment of death? There you have it ladies and gentlemen. The justice system. A churning and occasionally unfathomable concept. Made by men to condemn or exonerate other men.