Quest for justice can take the longest roads

As I watched 60 Minutes recently, I cried. Real tears.

The story was about the Dallas justice system, under the infamous Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, and how it had incarcerated innocent men -- black and white. Wade, who successfully prosecuted Jack Ruby in the Lee Harvey Oswald case, and who is the Wade in Roe v. Wade , bragged about having never lost a case he personally prosecuted during his three-decade tenure.

Now we know why.

According to the story, the new district attorney, Craig Watkins, who happens to be the first black elected to that office in Texas history, has taken upon himself -- notwithstanding some criticism from those who accuse him of wasting taxpayers' money -- to review the files of the district attorney's office to see whether there were people convicted of crimes they did not commit. Watkins said, "We have a responsibility to go back and right the wrongs of the past and free the innocent."

So far, they have uncovered several cases where the district attorney's office either did not have enough evidence to prosecute or had evidence that would have favored defendants had it been given to defense attorneys working the cases. One of these men spoke profoundly on his painful 27-year incarceration. Watkins said, "The job of the district attorney is to seek justice, and when justice has failed, then we have to fix it."

THE ACTION -- and, in some cases, inaction -- is indefensible. The district attorney's job is not to put people in prison by any means necessary, but rather to ensure that justice is served, as Watkins stated. However, the job is so political that many district attorneys likely do not look for ways to free people, even when the evidence they have is flimsy. The pressure from families, and sometimes the community, to prosecute makes prosecutors choose to err on the side of the victim rather than the defendant. How many would protest the conviction of an alleged rapist or alleged murderer? Few indeed.

With this attitude -- along with family and public sentiment for the victim, and the power of the district attorney's office -- it is no wonder that many innocent people have gone to prison. Some have gone plea-bargaining, though innocent, for fear of being given longer sentences for a crime they did not commit, but were overwhelmed by the power of the district attorney's office. And many more will go there in the future, until we get people in district attorney offices who see their job as one that serves the interest of all citizens -- even those who are being prosecuted. After all, a man is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, isn't he?

Back to my crying. Why did this case touch me in such an intimate and profound way?

IN 1973, I almost got prosecuted for a crime I did not commit. It was a murder case involving a lovely, vibrant young lady who was a friend of mine, employed at Paine College as an Upward Bound teacher at the time of her murder. Her name was Carol Denise Greggs. She was 23. My being a close friend of Carol's made me a prime suspect. I could understand that. That did not worry me. I knew I was innocent. I was questioned several times by the investigator-in-charge, Bennie Broome. Bill Anderson was sheriff.

My first interrogation was at the scene of the crime which had taken place at Carol's apartment on Ruby Drive. That interrogation took place right next to the uncovered, decaying body. The smell was almost unbearable. I had found Carol naked, lying in bed early that Sunday morning, June of 1973. From the beginning I had concerns about how the case would be treated, since I was unpopular with the sheriff's department at the time.

In 1969, I had been falsely arrested but let go after a short committal hearing in Judge Oliver Mixon's office. The arresting officers did not have evidence to support the arrest. Subsequently, I sued the two arresting deputies. The case was later thrown out because of a technicality. "Foots" Atkins was sheriff at the time; Bill Anderson was his chief deputy.

Later in 1970 on my local radio talk show, at a station owned by James Brown, I talked about the suspicious murder of 16-year-old Charles Oatman while he was an inmate in the county jail. This was May 10, 1970. One day later, a riot broke out as a result of the killing. The city suffered irrevocable harm, in reputation, property damage and lives (six in all), not to speak of the many who had to be treated for injuries at local hospitals.

MY SECOND and last interrogation came from Investigator Broome while I was in the hospital. There was a coroner's inquest that said that Carol died from strangulation. That was the last official word I got on the murder. But I still had a lot of questions that nobody seem to want to answer, especially in the sheriff's office. In fact, for the past 35 years I have not been able to get anyone interested enough in the case to reopen it. I met with the sheriff's office in the latter part of the 1990s, but got no cooperation. other than being able to talk briefly to two of then-Sheriff Charlie Webster's top officers, who promised to follow up with an interview with me. That never took place. The Augusta Chronicle had done an article on the case. That's about all that I can say has been done.

Around this same time, I paid a visit to Carol's family in south Georgia -- my first time meeting them. Since then, the mother has passed away, not knowing who killed her daughter. Carol's father died soon after the murder. A nephew told me that he just could not take it, losing his daughter to a murderer who seemed to have gotten away.

The man in the 60 Minutes story, James Woodard, had just been released for a rape and murder he did not commit. Woodard had been accused of raping and killing his girlfriend. And he said some profound things. He had gone before the parole board 12 times and was turned down 12 times. The board finally told him that since he was not willing to admit his guilt, there was practically no chance that he would get out on parole. Mr. Pelley asked why wouldn't he admit guilt and get out, if that was the only thing standing in the way of his freedom. He said simply because he was not guilty. He went on to say that when it came to truth vs. freedom, he chose truth, if that meant remaining in jail. A man has to stand for something, he said.

THAT'S WHY I cried. I could have easily been in that man's situation had it not been for Richmond County District Attorney Richard Allen, whom I did not know personally. He was willing to say no to an overzealous investigator who was bent on putting Grady Abrams in jail, at all costs. And all of it, I believe, had its roots in the several run-ins I had had with the law -- and the unpopular political positions I had taken in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Broome later told me that he had tried to charge me with murder but was told by Mr. Allen, after he had looked at the evidence presented against me, that Broome did not have enough to go before a grand jury. Broome told me that that angered him profusely, and he did no further investigation in the case. In my opinion, because of his get-Grady Abrams-at-any-cost attitude, the murderer of Carol Greggs has gone free for 35 years.

As a result, although not in jail, I am still suffering for a murder I did not commit. This is a burden I should not have to bear. Having suspicion hanging over my head for 35 years is not easy, yet much easier than being in jail, for sure. Every day of my life I pray that God will reveal the murderer of Carol Denise Greggs and set me free.

Meanwhile, my faith remains strong. I believe God answers prayers; and in spite of the inaction of those we trust to protect us and see to it that justice is served, this murder, I strongly believe, will be solved one day.

(The writer is a retired labor relations manager from Bechtel Savannah River Inc.)

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