Derral had lost all hope. For seven-hundred seventy-seven days he sat in a windowless six foot by nine foot cell all day, every day. His world was confined by three walls of cinder block and one of steel bars. There were six and a half blocks along the long side, four and one-half across the short side, and fourteen and a quarter to the top. He counted them every day. There were ninety-two blocks on each of the side walls and sixty-four blocks on the back side. He counted those each day, too. He knew the number would never be any different, but he counted the blocks anyway. The blocks enclosing his world would never change, the steel bars would never change, and the fact that he’d never know anything else would never change, he thought. That was his life, day in and day out, as he was on Florida’s Death Row.
Nobody really felt sorry for Derral. He knew he’d done some bad things in his life. He thought about the bad things he’d done, but he served his time for those already. He still thought about them though, even as he laid on the cot in his cell, soaked from head to toe in sweat. The cells on Death Row weren’t air conditioned, and it got so hot that sometimes he soaked his sheets in the stainless-steel toilet and wrapped himself up in them just to find some momentary relief. The heat actually made the stink of prison worse, magnifying the smell of sweat wafting off of scores of other prisoners. It was like living in the world’s biggest locker room.
He struck up a relationship with a woman named Sarah while he was in prison the last time. They exchanged letters – lots of them, in fact. Enough to fill up several shoeboxes. No one understood Derral like Sarah did, not even himself. She knew what bad things he’d done, and she still accepted him. Not a lot of people did that. Not even his wife.
When Derral finally got out, he met Sarah in person. Everything just clicked between them. They each knew what the other was thinking and feeling. They thought of the other’s needs as more important than their own. Their friends said they were good for each other. Derral’s children even treated her like family, calling her “Aunt Sarah.”
It all began to fall apart again for Derral when Sarah was killed. She missed a shift at work and, when her coworkers went to check on her, nobody answered her door. The police found her battered body in a pool of blood and twenties at the foot of her bed, her jugular vein torn open. Investigators found that she had endured over thirty separate injuries, mostly stab wounds and injuries from choking. There was no sign of forced entry and no defensive wounds on Sarah’s body, either.
When Derral heard that Sarah had died, he wept. Nothing that happened to him since that day hurt him so deeply.
Derral thought about Sarah every day for thirteen months, when detectives came to his house to talk to him about her. Although he had spent time in prison and was wary of the police, he knew he had done nothing wrong, so he wasn’t afraid to talk to them. They seemed friendly enough, and he told them about his relationship with Sarah. After he started talking to them he realized that if he admitted to seeing Sarah too close to the murder, the detectives might get the wrong idea. A month and a half was probably enough time between seeing her and the terrible thing that happened to her to tell them without getting in trouble, so that’s what he told them. The detectives thanked him and left.
The detectives came back a week later. They just wanted to talk again, they said. He let them in again and they told him that they had found his DNA under her fingernails. Derral didn’t want to tell them about his sexual relationship with Sarah – he was afraid that they’d think that he had something to do with the terrible thing that happened to her. He didn’t want his infidelity exposed to his wife either, because he didn’t want to lose her, too. But the detectives kept asking. He figured they wouldn’t accuse him of anything if he said she scratched his back when they hugged the last time they saw each other. The detectives were smart and they knew it was a lie. He finally had to tell them about the sex. A month and a half was far enough away to keep from getting in trouble. They didn’t believe that, either. He knew he was innocent, so he figured he might as well tell the truth at this point, because they had to believe that. He’d had intercourse with Sarah three days before she passed away.
The detectives believed him. They also arrested him and charged him with first-degree murder.
Derral knew this was bad, but he was innocent. He knew the jury would see it when he was able to tell his part of the story. He was back behind bars, but this was no big deal. He’d done years in prison before, so a few months in jail was not a problem.
When Bjorn Brunvand went to work on his case, it was immediately apparent to him that the evidence against Derral was entirely circumstantial. The district attorney claimed that Randy’s statements, coupled with his DNA beneath her fingernails, was sufficient to send him to his death. He brought in an expert that said that Sarah’s habit of thoroughly washing her hands each day at her job at the café meant that the jury had to assume that Derral’s DNA must certainly have been put there at the time of the murder and not before. The prosecution went on to claim that the mere fact that Sarah had been beaten and strangled meant that Randy had committed the murder. However, as Brunvand pointed out to the court, that did not mean that it was reasonable to assume that Randy had committed the murder. The police hadn’t even found the murder weapon!
Additionally, the court didn’t allow Brunvand to ask a witness against Randy about a crime about which the witness was currently being investigated. It’s not uncommon for prosecutors to “encourage” witnesses to testify a certain way in a different trial in exchange for a better deal in their own plea bargaining. It was wrong for the state to do it, but Bjorn had seen it happen and wanted to bring it up with the state’s witness. The judge wouldn’t allow it, but at least the issue was made part of the record.
There was no question that the deck was stacked against Derral. He already had a criminal record, and the prosecution flawlessly presented the circumstantial evidence they had to the jury in a very convincing manner. A conviction was almost predetermined. However, Brunvand knew that it was more important in seemingly hopeless trials like this to take the battle to the state and expose as many holes in the evidence and the legal reasoning it used. Every objection Bjorn made, whether sustained by the judge or not, was made a part of the record. Objections lost at Derral’s trial became battlegrounds for future wars in the appellate courts, and, thanks to his accurate and timely objections, Brunvand stored up stacks of ammunition for the clashes to come.
Brunvand put on a compelling defense of Derral, but the deck was stacked against him. Derral was found guilty at trial by a unanimous jury. He sat at the defense table, chained, cuffed, and shackled, during the penalty phase, where the jury sentenced him to die.
Mulling the injustice of it all simply ate away at his insides as he sat in his cell, sweating and counting cinder blocks, waiting for his time to die for a crime he didn’t commit.
Derral was sitting on the metal cot in his cell counting the cinder blocks again when one of the guards walked up to his cell door. “Derral, got a message for you.”
Realizing how odd it was to receive a message outside of mail call, Randy approached the front of his cell as the guard handed a document through the bars. “Supreme Court of Florida,” was written in fancy script at the top. “Per curiam” – what’s that mean?
As he read the typed words on the page, the constant din of prison faded. “Because we find that the record lacks competent, substantial evidence to sustain the conviction, we reverse and vacate the conviction and sentence.” Derral read that sentence over and over again. He pulled the words apart in his mind as he read them. “Reverse.” “Vacate.” Surely it didn’t mean what he thought it meant. He was missing something.
He continued to read. The opinion described a great deal of legal terms, most of which he skipped over because he didn’t really understand them. The document went on to describe Sarah, her murder, the trial, the objections that Brunvand made about the evidence against him – he relived it all in his mind as he soaked up the words from the pages. Then he reached the end of the opinion.
We, therefore, conclude that the evidence before us is insufficient to sustain the first-degree murder conviction. Accordingly, we reverse and vacate the conviction and sentence of death, and remand with directions that a judgment of acquittal be entered.
It is so ordered.
As he sat there in his own little world, he read those words again and again. It couldn’t be true, but it was! The Supreme Court agreed with Bjorn Brunvand and overturned his conviction!
Just like everything in prison, there’s a process for getting out. There’s papers to fill out, lines to stand behind, and humorless stern-faced corrections employees to talk to. But, unlike every other time, the process wasn’t just another pointless march through poorly-painted gray atriums. This time would be different, because this process meant that on day seven-hundred seventy-eight Derral would be a free man.