If you live in or near San Antonio, Texas, you should not pass up the chance on Sept 7 to hear Joan Cheever read from, discuss and sign copies of her book “Back From the Dead: One Woman’s Search for the Men Who Walked off America’s Death Row“. She will be at the Twig Book Shop, 5005 Broadway.

Here is the website for Joan Cheever and her book: “Back From the Dead“.

San Antonio is the white hot center of death penalty interest in Texas right now, because of the Ruben Cantu case. Texas Moratorium Network is working with TSADP to persuade the San Antonio City Council to pass a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions. One of the main reasons why city councils should endorse moratorium resolutions is because local governments can be held liable for wrongful conviction and wrongful death lawsuits. A wrongful death lawsuit could be filed against a local government, for example, when misconduct by members of its police department contribute to an innocent person being convicted (and in the case of Cantu executed).

The city council of Austin settled separate lawsuits with Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger for a total of $14.3 million because misconduct by members of the Austin police department contributed to their wrongful convictions in Austin. They spent 12 years in prison before being exonerated and released in 2001. Travis County also settled a separate lawsuit with Richard Danziger for another $950,000.

Another example from another state: On May 5, 2006, a federal jury in Virginia awarded $2.25 million to Earl Washington Jr. who claimed a police investigator fabricated a rape and murder confession that sent him to death row. In this case, the lawsuit was not settled with a local government, but with the estate of a state police investigator, Curtis Reese Wilmore, who died in 1994. Jurors awarded Washington damages upon finding that Wilmore deliberately fabricated evidence that led to his conviction and death sentence. Washington’s attoney’s will try to get the state of Virginia to pay the damages against Wilmore’s estate, according to the news article.

Cheever revisits history of ’72 death row inmates


Steve Bennett
San Antonio Express-News Book Editor

In the summer of 1972, Joan Cheever was keeping an eye on the Marco Polo players at the San Antonio Country Club pool as a high school lifeguard when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Furman vs. Georgia decision declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. Cheever paid it little mind; she was more concerned with her tan.

Little did she know that some 20years later the decision (reversed in 1976) would practically consume her life.

After a college summer internship with the San Antonio Light, as a reporter assigned often to the “cop shop,” and a law degree from St. Mary’s University, Cheever found her true love: journalism.

As managing editor of the National Law Review, Cheever knows the meaning of a deadline. As a lawyer representing a man on death row for nine years, Cheever knows the meaning of dodging a deadline — she and co-counsel Robert Hirschhorn had San Antonio convicted killer Walter Williams’ execution for the murder of a convenience store clerk postponed four times. But on Oct. 5, 1994, Williams’ luck ran out; he was executed by lethal injection, and Cheever was the only person there for him.

“The experience that changed my life was witnessing an execution,” Cheever says. “I wasn’t prepared for that. I don’t think anybody’s prepared for that.”

That night in Huntsville, and over the next few months, Cheever wondered what would have happened if, like the 589 inmates on death row in 1972 — winners of “America’s death row lottery” — her client’s sentence had been converted to life. More broadly, she wondered, what do convicted killers do with their second chance? Do they kill again?

She set off on a quest for what she has come to call “the class of ’72,” a story she tells in “Back From the Dead” (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95).

“Really what drove me, compelled me to search for the class of ’72 was that I always believed that he (Williams) would get off death row and go into the general prison population,” says the self-described “death penalty junkie.” “And when I stood five feet away and watched the execution, I thought that night the answer to my question as to what he would have done if he’d gotten off death row, that question died with him.

“But in the next couple of years I realized that no, there was a group of people that did have a second chance, not because they were innocent, or DNA, or anything like that, but that they happened to be in the right place at the right time in U.S. history.”

Over a decade of working on the book, Cheever was able to track down more than 100 inmates who walked off death row in 1972.

“What surprised me is that they called me and wanted to talk to me,” she says. “They’d been living anonymous lives until my letter came, and they picked up the phone and talked freely and openly. They put their face on the death penalty, and that’s very, um, brave.”

Among those were Chuck Culhane, a published poet and teacher, and Moreese “Pops” Bickham, a spiritual man who has found solace in his 25 great-grandchildren.

She even found William Henry Furman, whose name is on the historic case.

“It was very difficult to choose who to profile. There were a lot of uplifting and good stories that came out of the class of ’72,” Cheever says.

Of the 322 who got out of jail, only five killed again.

“That’s an incredibly low number, five out of 322,” she says.

One of those was Kenneth McDuff, the Texas serial murderer whom Cheever describes as “evil.”

“McDuff never should have been paroled,” she says. “Two days later, the bodies started piling up.”

McDuff scared her too much to visit him in prison, but there were some scary moments when she broke her rule of never being alone in a room with a convicted killer. What drove her was what drives every journalist, she says.

“You just have to keep digging, keep going,” she says. “Even though there was the fear factor, which I write about in the book, I just felt like I had to keep finding them, I had to keep talking to them. They had a message, and I needed to deliver it.”

Cheever stresses repeatedly that she doesn’t want to downplay victims’ pain and suffering, and that she believes murder is senseless and cruel. It’s tough to keep a dry eye reading her chapter on meeting Walter Williams’ victim’s mother.

But, she adds, “What we need to look at is who’s on death row. We tend to think it’s the worst of the worst, and that’s not who’s on death row. I mean, I thought it was a more exclusive club than it is.

“The people who are on death row, yes, they are murderers, but they are also people of color, people who are poor, didn’t get a good lawyer, a co-defendant, the accomplice — maybe the guy who pulled the trigger got a plea bargain. So it’s not a fair system. It really is good luck, bad luck.

“What I found out also is there are some continuing themes of what makes some successful. And it’s education, if they got skills on the inside. They had family, they had friends. They had friendships with prison officials who supported them, and faith. So it’s a combination of different elements that helped them to succeed once they got out.”
Joan Cheever will read from, discuss and sign copies of “Back From the Dead” on Sept. 7 at the Twig Book Shop, 5005 Broadway.


San Antonio Express-News publish date Aug. 5, 2006

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