Your letters made a difference: Paris Carriger is free

By James Carroll, 02/02/99

More than three years ago, On Dec. 6, 1995, an innocent man came within hours of being executed for a murder he did not commit. Paris Carriger had been on Arizona's death row since 1978. The real murderer, whose false testimony had convicted Carriger, confessed to the crime in 1987. But by then Carriger had exhausted his rights to appeal, and the Arizona courts refused to grant him a new trial. 

Because there were no technical deficiencies in the state case, the federal courts had declined to intervene even as late as Nov. 30, 1995. But as the last days ticked away, more than a thousand letters supporting Carriger's plea for a new trial poured into Arizona, many from readers of this column. At the last moment, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a stay of execution. 

A just-published Supreme Court ruling had enabled that intervention, but the letters from Globe readers, as Carriger's lawyer told me, had helped make ''the judges look at this case differently.'' 

Nearly a year later, Carriger was crushed when the Ninth Circuit panel, despite ''serious doubts,'' reinstated the execution order. Recent, ever-more-stringent court decisions had put the burden on defendants like Carriger, the federal court said, ''to show he is unquestionably innocent. This Carriger has not done.'' How Carriger could have done so without a new trial at which to reconsider evidence universally acknowledged to be ''tainted'' the court did not say. One more time, Carriger's lawyers appealed. 

Yet another year passed. Then, in December 1997, the full nine-judge bench of the Ninth Circuit reversed the panel, ordering a new trial, with the majority saying it was ''certain that no reasonable juror would vote to convict Carriger.'' (Click HERE to read the full Ninth Circuit Opinion and Dissent.)  Arizona, which had tried for so long to kill him, appealed the ruling to the US Supreme Court. Last May, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. In 1984, a State Supreme Court justice had written, ''There was no direct evidence of Carriger's guilt.'' There was only the false testimony of the confessed murderer, who had died in 1991. Nevertheless, the State of Arizona, unable to tolerate Carriger's exoneration or admit its own mistake, charged him again. Then, of course, the state offered a plea-bargain. He could stay in prison for another indeterminate stretch, probably years - or he could plead ''no contest'' to the reinstated murder charge in exchange for a sentence of time already served, which he did. Two weeks ago, on Friday, Jan. 15, Paris Carriger walked out of Maricopa County Jail, a free man. 

''I was wearing a snow white paper bunny suit,'' he told me when we talked on the phone a few days ago. ''No shoes, no socks, no nothing. It's like this jumpsuit made out of paper so thin you can see through it.''

Carriger was supposed to be released days earlier. ''But they had scheduled the execution of another inmate for Wednesday of that week,'' his lawyer, Jay Poltz, told me. In fact, Jess James Giles was executed Jan. 13. ''So they held Paris until Friday. I guess they could see the irony.''

''I had been in prison,'' Carriger told me, ''for 20 years and 300 days.'' Eight paces in one direction - the length of his cell - then back again: It was all the exercise he'd had in years. ''I can't walk very far,'' he told me. ''My back is atrophied. My last six months in county jail, I needed a wheelchair. But I didn't have a wheelchair when they let me go. I came out of that place hanging onto the wall.''

Now Carriger is living with his sister and her family in Oklahoma. He has rejoined American society only to find it obsessed with the way politics has hijacked law. The absurd fallibilities of the US legal system are on display in Washington now, but in Arizona they had nearly killed Carriger. The fallibility of our judges and politicians has never been more dramatically exposed, yet Americans continue to treat these officials as infallible in one last thing - the administration of capital punishment. Electrocution, lethal injection, hanging: It has become a slow-motion massacre. In some cases, it is a slaughter of the innocent. 

When I asked Carriger what he would do next, he answered that he wanted to work against the death penalty. ''Maybe Amnesty International,'' he said. I knew he was thinking of Barbara Sproul, a longtime Amnesty volunteer who had begun as his advocate, then became his friend. Last week Barbara told me of Paris's jubilant phone call to her, how he had suddenly cut it short to go outside when rain started to fall. He had not felt rain on his face in 20 years. 

Finally, I asked Paris if there was anything he wanted to convey to my readers, many of whom have been pulling for him. ''Tell them I am better off than the state wanted me to be,'' he said with a certain flippancy. Then he fell silent before adding quietly, ''Thank you is not an easy word for me to say. But tell them I thank them.''

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 02/02/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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