Last week when I was walking my dog Clara, I ran into a neighbor I hadn't met who asked what I did for a living.
When I told her I was executive editor of The Paducah Sun, she said she no longer subscribed to the paper and got her news from television and the Internet.
"Sorry, but I don't see newspapers making much of a difference any more," she said.
"Then I would recommend a book that came out last year," I replied. "It's titled Manifest Injustice. It might change your mind."
The book is written by Barry Siegel, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and a Pulitzer Prize winner. It tells the extraordinary story of William Macumber, who was wrongly convicted in 1975 of killing a young couple parked on a "lovers' lane" outside Phoenix, Ariz., and the legal effort that won his release after he spent 37 years in prison.
The book also provides a striking example of the vital difference a newspaper can make. The prologue explains how a newspaper column was the catalyst for the legal campaign that led to Macumber's freedom. The fact that a newspaper article had such an impact is noteworthy, and to me it is doubly so because I wrote it.
The trial evidence against Macumber was hardly rock-solid. The father of three young boys, he had no known motive and no criminal record. More importantly, another man, Ernesto Valenzuela, had confessed to the double murder.
That confession, however, came with a catch. Valenzuela gave it to his lawyer, and under the rules of lawyer-client confidentiality, the lawyer was duty-bound to keep it secret. Any chance Valenzuela would release the lawyer of his obligation ended when Valenzuela died in prison before Macumber's trial.
Macumber's attorney sought to admit the confession, but the judge said lawyer-client privilege survives the death of the client and ruled it inadmissible. That decision was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld it on a 3-2 vote.
My 1998 column was about a U.S. Supreme Court case that raised a similar question of lawyer-client privilege regarding conversations of former White House counsel Vincent Foster with his lawyer. (Foster committed suicide in 1993, giving rise to multiple conspiracy theories and litigation.)
I agreed with the American Bar Association's view that confidentiality generally should not expire with a client's death. If clients' secrets can be disclosed after death, people will be less likely to tell the whole truth to their lawyers.
But I also wrote there should be a balancing of interests. Some circumstances should warrant an exception, and Macumber's case clearly was one.
When Macumber read the column in The Arizona Republic in his prison cell, he had already served 24 years. His appeals had gone nowhere. He had been sentenced to life without parole and expected to die behind bars.
The article, however, gave him a glimmer of hope. He sent the column and a letter the next day to his closest friend and cousin, Jackie Kelley.
Kelley, the book says, "read and reread the newspaper piece" and then sent it with an impassioned letter to Thomas O'Toole, the lawyer to whom Valenzuela had confessed.
O'Toole was then a well-respected Superior Court judge in Phoenix. He absolutely believed Valenzuela's confession was truthful and had sought to testify in Macumber's trial. Valenzuela "had details about the crime that were known only to police," O'Toole recalled.
O'Toole had been troubled to see Macumber convicted 24 years before. When he read Kelley's letter and the article, the book says "he couldn't let it go again. This time he had to push harder."
Judge O'Toole contacted Larry Hammond, a prominent Phoenix lawyer who had recently created the Arizona Justice Project to work on behalf of people wrongly accused. He implored Hammond, "If there is any case you should take, it's this one."
Hammond, the star of this book, agreed. His tenacity, coupled with the help of other lawyers and law students, ultimately prevailed. Two years ago, a judge granted Macumber his release at the age of 77.
After reading the book, I called Macumber, who is living with his son in Aurora, Colo. He emotionally expressed his gratitude for all the dogged work done for him. And he explained why a newspaper article prompted him to write the letter that started the ball rolling.
"I remember thinking someone has taken an interest in me," he said. "This was the first positive thing that had happened in my case in many years."
I also spoke with Siegel, the book's author. He called the article "the precipitating event that set in motion the crusade on behalf of Bill Macumber. Here is a perfect example of the great value of journalism and its power to do unanticipated good."
A newspaper can do many things - report fresh and useful information, give order to the cascade of current events, hold public officials accountable and dig out the truth beneath the surface of stories. And every once in a while, as Bill Macumber will tell you, it can even help change a life.
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