The two condemned men raise questions about their guilt
The heavy metal door swings open, and Philip Ray Workman steps out of the shadows into the glare of the fluorescent lights in the visiting room on death row. Muscular like many convicts, he looks fit and wears wire-rim spectacles and a neatly trimmed goatee. In another context, he could pass for a health spa masseuse. He smiles as he shakes my hand, and appropriately enough for someone who may have only a few more months to live, he goes straight to the point. “I really appreciate your coming,” he says. “I need all the help I can get, Lord knows.”
Workman, a born-again Christian who claims he’s an innocent man, could become the first person executed in Tennessee since 1960that is, unless luck runs out faster for Robert Glen Coe, another convicted killer who says he didn’t do it.
After nearly four decades without an execution in this state, there now are two condemned men down to their final legal appeals, and three more nearing the last of theirs. It seems likely that soon, possibly by year’s end in the cases of Workman and Coe, Tennessee finally will begin satisfying the overwhelming public clamor for the deaths of murderers.
Death-penalty proponents contend executions will mete out justice and retribution, even if they don’t make Tennessee a safer place. Opponents argue capital punishment will cheapen everyone’s life and descend the state into a kind of barbarism in which some people die because they had bad lawyers.
The final appeals of Workman and Coe contain all the makings of a John Grisham bestseller: There are shadowy characters, official cover-ups, perjury, drugs, insanity, mysteriously disappearing police files, two wrongly accused men, of course, and loads of corrupt cops, bumbling defense attorneys, and arrogant, God-fearing prosecutors.
It’s easy to dismiss it all as the desperate, 11th-hour pleading of condemned men, which is exactly what it is, certainly. The problem is, what if it’s true? Should we be so confident in sending these men to their deaths? These questions aren’t so easily answered.
That the state might execute an innocent man isn’t as preposterous as it seems. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 566 people have been executed. But 82 inmates awaiting executions have been exoneratedsix this year. That’s an alarming ratio of one inmate freed for every seven put to death.
Regardless of Workman’s or Coe’s guilt or innocence, it’s hard to argue with either man’s contention that he wouldn’t be waiting to die if his first lawyer had mounted the vigorous defense now pressed in his appeal.
Workman and Coe are typical of convicted killers sentenced to die in this country. They are poor, and their victims were white. Workman, 46, was convicted of killing a policeman while robbing a Wendy’s restaurant in 1981 in Memphis. A junkie, he held up the Wendy’s for drug money. Unbeknownst to him, one of the fast-food workers pushed a silent alarm, and when Workman tried to get away, the police were waiting. Gunfire blazed, and police Lt. Ronald Oliver died of a single bullet wound to the chestof this much, we can be certain, but not a lot else.
Workman at first agreed with prosecutors that he must have fired the bullet that killed Oliver. He now contends another policeman did it by mistake in the confusion at closing time in the restaurant’s dark parking lot.
Coe, 43, was found guilty of abducting and murdering 8-year-old Cary Ann Medlin in 1979 in the West Tennessee town of Greenfield. It’s one of the most notorious cases in the annals of Tennessee crime. Coe confessed, saying he decided to kill the girl because, after he raped and sodomized her, she told him, “Jesus loves you.” He said that infuriated him, so he strangled Cary Ann and then, when she wouldn’t die, he stabbed her in the neck with his pocketknife and watched her bleed to death.
A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, Coe now claims he was duped into confessing. He blames another man, who was under police suspicion at one time, for the murder.
Cary Ann’s mother, Charlotte Medlin Stoutwho has waited 20 years for her daughter’s killer to receive his sentencealready has notified prison officials that she wishes to witness Coe’s execution. “It’s going to be such a great relief that I can’t express it in words,” she told me. “I will be thankful to God in heaven when this is over. Coe has never expressed remorse to me. He has never indicated in any way that he is sorry. So if in those last few moments of his life, he wants to look at me and say he’s sorry, I’m going to be there.
“It would help me to know that he regrets and mourns what he did to my child. In those last few moments when it dawns on Coe, ‘Yes, I do have to pay for this,’ that he has to pay with his life, he can look at me and see what my daughter showed him. He can see my forgiveness, and he can ask me for his.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to consider the inmates’ cases after the justices convene for their new session on the first Monday in October. If the high court refuses to hear their appeals, as expected, only Gov. Don Sundquist could spare their lives. A champion of the death penalty, Sundquist is very unlikely to grant clemency to either.
Coe could go to his death on Oct. 19, the date set by the state Supreme Court. Workman hasn’t gotten an execution date yet, but the state attorney general says he will seek one immediately if the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Workman’s final appeal.
If the governor won’t intervene, Coe and Workman then must choose the method of their executions: lethal injection or electrocution in the state’s oak-paneled electric chair. Legislators passed a law last year to offer lethal injection as a choicenot in a merciful attempt to lessen the pain of the prisoners, but because of fears that courts might someday strike down electrocutions as cruel and unusual punishment, thus further delaying executions in this state.
On death row, at the state’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, Workman winces when I ask how he would choose to die. “I was a drug addict strung out on cocaine when I robbed that Wendy’s. So I’ve thought that since a needle got me here, a needle will take me out,” he says. “But I just don’t know if I could make that choice. It’s kind of morbid.”
He nods across the visitors’ room at his taxpayer-funded lawyer, Chris Minton. “I might tell Chris to choose for me,” he says.
“Thanks,” Minton replies in a moment of black humor.
“Which way?” Workman continues. “The bottom line is, there’s no good way to go. Dead is dead. I guess to most people, lethal injection seems more humane, but let me show you something.”
He fishes around in the notebook on his lap and pulls out a newspaper picture. It shows the bed used for lethal injections. It’s customized for the job. If Workman is executed in this manner, he will be strapped to the bed with his arms outstretched to receive the poison into his veins.
“What’s this look like if you turn it up like this?” Workman asks, holding the picture at an angle over his head. “A crucifix, that’s what. This is nothing more than a modern form of crucifixion. That’s all it is. They’re just using needles now instead of nails.”
Workman and his lawyer are trying to manipulate the media to create public pressure for clemency. Workman won’t grant interviews unless Minton approves, and Minton is choosy. He let Tim Chavez, the liberal columnist for The Tennessean, talk to Workman. In his column, predictably, Chavez asked readers “to stand up for justice” and write the governor to demand that he commute Workman’s death sentence to life in prison. But if Minton suspects a writer is unsympathetic, there’s no interview. Workman wouldn’t see a Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter, for instance.
On the other hand, Coe is refusing all media interview requests. His attorneys, federal public defenders, won’t even return reporters’ phone calls. The less news coverage their client receives, the better, they doubtless reason.
Even a columnist crusading against the death penalty might blanch at embracing Coe’s cause. On death row, Coe has been disciplined for masturbating in front of other inmates, and over the years, he has consistently been portrayed as a monster in the media, which isn’t surprising given the nature of the crime for which he is sentenced to die.
Cary Ann Medlin was murdered on Labor Day weekend 20 years ago. She lived in Greenfield with her mother; her stepfather, Mickey Stout; and her 8-year-old step-brother, Michael Stout. On the day of her abduction, Cary Ann and Michael went riding their bicycles in their neighborhood.
Looking for candy, they paid a visit to Michael’s grandmother, Margaret Stout, who lived on the street directly behind the children’s house. A little while later, Margaret Stout looked out the window while talking on the telephone and saw the children standing by their bicycles and talking to a man in a two-toned brown car.
Cary Ann disappeared around 5:30 p.m. After an intensive search by virtually the whole town, her body was discovered at 2:30 p.m. the next day, 2 miles from Greenfield in the weeds beside a gravel road. Two days later, Coe was arrested at a nearby town’s bus station holding a ticket for Marietta, Ga., and traveling under an assumed name, his dirty blond hair dyed black.
When Coe was brought to the Weakley County Jail, a hostile crowd was there, screaming at him and yelling threats. Inside the jail, according to testimony at his trial, Coe asked to speak to one of the law officers, and when they were alone, he said, “I did it.”
“You did what, Robert?” the officer asked Coe.
“I am the one that killed that little girl,” he responded.
He signed a Miranda form, affirming he understood his rights, then gave his confession. He said he lured Cary Ann into his car by asking her to take him to her daddy. He said he drove to a deserted place. He said that when he stabbed her, the blood came out of her “like a water hose,” and he watched her “struggle and jerk” for a while before leaving her beside the road in a dense thicket and driving away.
The next morning, under public pressure to solve the crime, the district attorney held a press conference announcing Coe was to be charged with murder.
That same day, Coe took two officers on the route he said he followed after abducting Cary Ann. On the way, he pointed out a house and told the officers there was an old man sitting on the porch who saw him go by in his car with Cary Ann. The witness, Herbert Clements, later testified he did see the car and didn’t recognize the driver, but did recognize the girl as Cary Ann.
There was yet more incriminating evidence. When a nervous Coe came home on the evening of Cary Ann’s murder, he told his brother-in-law, “Donnie, I would be better off dead.” He told his wife and friends that he was in trouble with the law, that he had killed two state troopers and stabbed one of them in the throat.
His wife dyed his hair black, and he traded his Ford Torino, silver gray with a brown vinyl top, for a blue Mustang at the used car lot in Gleason, Tenn. That’s what led investigators to Coe. Not long after he left the lot in the Mustang, the chief of police stopped by to ask the owners whether they had traded cars with anyone lately. The owner’s wife, Althea Jones, said that yes, as a matter of fact, they just traded with a guy with a very sloppy hair-dye job. She had noticed black smudge marks on Coe’s forehead.
There was little physical evidence against Coe. His car yielded no evidence of sexual assault, and no hair or fingerprints were found for use against him. However, fecal material was found underneath the foreskin of his penis, and stains on the interior of his pants matched stains found on Cary Ann’s underpants.
At his trial, which was moved from Weakley County to Memphis, Coe used an insanity defense. Six years earlier, he was declared incompetent to stand trial in Florida for trying to rape and stab a woman. He was sent to a mental hospital, diagnosed as suffering from “an explosive personality disorder,” given Thorazine, and eventually released.
One expert witness in his murder trial said his childhood was “like something out of Erskine Caldwell.” His father, who also had spent time in a mental hospital, sexually abused Coe and forced him to watch while he sexually abused Coe’s sisters. Several experts testified Coe wasn’t legally insane at the time of the murder, but others said he was psychotic and strung out on drugs and booze.
Little Michael Stout identified Coe as the man in the car who took away Cary Ann. Michael’s grandmother identified Coe’s Ford Torino as the car she saw outside her house.
The jury convicted Coe of first-degree murder, rape, and kidnapping. At his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor urged the jury “to be true to your conscience, to be true to God.” In asking for the death penalty, he said the Bible teaches “whosoever sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” He told the jurors, “I just want to ask you to put your mind at rest if that in any way has created any conflict, because there’s certainly foundation for capital punishment in the Bible and in the Scriptures themselves.”
During the 19 years of appeals since his death sentence, Coe’s case has outraged the public and galvanized the victim’s rights movement in Tennessee. When conservative politicians denounce the seemingly endless nature of capital cases, Coe’s is Exhibit No. 1.
Gov. Don Sundquist, never one to shy away from inflaming voters’ emotions on the crime issue, held a press conference in 1995 in Greenfield near the spot where Cary Ann was abducted. With the girl’s mother by his side, the governor pushed for passage of legislation limiting death row inmates to one post-conviction appeal in state courts and setting a one-year time limit for resolving that appeal. The bill whizzed through the Legislature a few weeks later.
At the press conference, the governor complained that the paperwork in Coe’s case “now makes a stack more than 8 feet tall.É It offends meno, it outrages methat our criminal justice system can be manipulated through endless filings and appeals, many of them blatantly frivolous and deliberately dilatory. What Coe and many others are doing is thumbing their noses at the law and mocking the memory of their victims.”
Are Coe’s claims frivolous? His latest appeal contends the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation hid evidence in his case, lied on the witness stand, and railroaded Coe. It asserts that his lawyer was so incompetent he neglected to present witnesses corroborating what his new attorneys call Coe’s airtight alibi.
Since Coe’s trial, his attorneys say they have obtained confidential TBI files containing evidence of Coe’s innocence. They say the files, withheld from Coe’s original lawyers, show that shortly after Cary Ann’s abduction, the prosecution’s key witnessesMichael Stout, Maggie Stout, and Herbert Clementsall identified another man, Donald Gant, as the one with her in his car.
Gant had fresh scratches on his neck, and his clothing and bedding were bloody, although “this critical evidence has mysteriously disappeared,” Coe’s attorneys state. He had no alibi, they add, and kept changing his story about his whereabouts on the day of Cary Ann’s disappearance, finally admitting he was in Greenfield that night. But when Gant wouldn’t confess, investigators released him. That evening, they arrested Coe.
Coe’s lawyers contend he dyed his hair and tried to sneak out of town because he’s insane and behaves irrationally. They dismiss his confession as the raving of a madman who frequently made things up. Police asked Coe leading questions and may have written his confession themselves, they say.
In addition, Coe’s appeal asserts: “No physical evidence shows Robert Coe’s guilt; rather that evidence points to someone else.” His lawyers point out that a hair found on Cary Ann’s body was not Coe’s. Tire tracks in the mud where her body was found didn’t match the tires on Coe’s car, “but are consistent with Gant’s tires,” they say.
During the trial, TBI agent Alvin Daniel testified that investigators couldn’t find Coe’s tire tracks because an ambulance, the landowner, and others contaminated the crime scene by driving through it. But the sheriff since has told Coe’s lawyers the area was roped off, and no vehicles drove through.
Daniel also said investigators didn’t find evidence of a sexual assault in Coe’s car because the car’s seats were vinyl and easily wiped off. But Coe’s lawyers say, “The seats were made of easily stainable cloth.”
Then there’s Coe’s alibi. Three people confirm Coe was in another townMcKenzie, Tenn., where he livedat around 7:30 on the evening of Cary Ann’s abduction. During the trial, the prosecution contended she was killed before that time. But pathology proof shows Cary Ann wasn’t killed shortly after her abduction, but the next morning, Coe’s lawyers say. According to his appeal, this demonstrates he could not be guilty of her murder.
“Where the prosecution withheld vital exculpatory evidence showing the guilt of Donald Gant and which would have impeached the prosecution’s three key witnesses; where counsel failed to investigate and present a compelling alibi defense; and where the prosecution explained away the absence of physical evidence through false statements, Robert Coe was indeed denied a fair trial and sentencing hearing,” his appeal states.
When he ruled on the case in 1996, U.S. District Judge John Nixon tossed out Coe’s conviction and ordered a new trial for him, but not for any of those reasons. Instead, Nixonwho has been vilified by victims’ advocates for this opinion and others favoring death row inmatesruled that the criminal court judge gave the jury bad instructions in Coe’s trial.
Last year, a divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Nixon’s ruling. The court decided some of Coe’s claims regarding jury instructions were filed too late in the appeals process to be heard; other of the jury instructions were simply deemed “harmless error,” meaning the judge did indeed make mistakes, but they didn’t render the trial fundamentally unfair.
But what about Coe’s contention that he didn’t kill Cary Ann, that prosecutors withheld evidence pointing to his innocence? The appeals judges called this allegation Coe’s “most substantial claim,” but ruled against him on this ground too.
Agreeing with the state, the court said it couldn’t find in Coe’s favor because Coe’s original lawyer has lost his files from the case and doesn’t remember exactly what evidence prosecutors gave him. Since those files are lost, no one can prove prosecutors withheld anything, the court decided.
As for Coe’s allegation that Alvin Daniel lied on the witness stand about the tire tracks and the car seats to cover up weaknesses in the prosecution case, the judges decided the TBI agent’s statements fall into the category of “mere inconsistencies.” Daniel was probably confused, the judges said.
Furthermore, the court agreed “there are things Coe’s lawyer could have done better, [but] Coe has not convinced us that his lawyer did not function adequately at trial or that the trial produced an unjust result.” The court described Coe’s original insanity defense as “eminently reasonable,” given that his choices were so limited by his “damning confession,” the stains on his pants, and the rest of the evidence pointing to his guilt.
The courts have looked even less favorably on Workman’s 17 years of appeals. He’s never persuaded a single judge to agree with any of his claims, the main one now being that he didn’t kill anyone.
Workman doesn’t deny that he robbed the Wendy’s, or that he fired his gun twiceonce at a policeman and once wildly in the air. He does contend not only that he didn’t shoot Lt. Oliver, but that police framed him with the murder. He argues his bullets.45-caliber hollow pointscould not possibly have made Oliver’s wound. Hollow points are designed to mushroom on impact, but the bullet that killed Oliver made an exit wound slightly smaller than the entrance wound.
Therefore, Workman contends, one of the other two policemen at the Wendy’s must have shot Oliver. According to his defense, the police conspired to hang the crime on Workman to avoid embarrassment. First, he claims, they planted one of his bullets near the slain officer’s body, then they produced a witness to lie at his trial by saying he saw Workman coolly shoot Oliver at point-blank range.
At his trial, Workman didn’t dispute that he killed the policeman. He used a drugs-made-me-do-it defense, claiming he was so messed up on cocaine that he couldn’t form the intent necessary to commit murder.
Minton, who began representing Workman in 1989, found a reputable ballistics expertDr. Kris Sperry, now the chief medical examiner for the Georgia state policeto swear that he has never seen a hollow-point bullet make a wound like the one that killed the policeman.
Workman’s appeal states: “Undisputed evidence the jury did not hear proves that Workman did not shoot the victim, and he is therefore innocent of capital murder under Tennessee law.”
It seems farfetched that police would frame Workman. But there are disquieting questions, chief among them, of course: How could a hollow-point bullet have made the fatal wound? Here are more:
♦ In the Wendy’s parking lot that night, no one remembers seeing the witness who testified that he saw Workman shoot Oliver. He isn’t mentioned in any of the police reports from that night. He came forward later. How could he have escaped the notice of the cops converging on the restaurant after the shooting?
♦ The bullet found beside Oliver’s body was pristine, not a scratch on it, making it very unlikely that it was fired from Workman’s gun. How did it get there on the parking lot if police didn’t take it from Workman’s gun and put it there?
♦ Why did the two policemen with Oliver during the shooting testify that only Oliver fired his gun, a service revolver, and that they never discharged their weapons at all? Their testimony can’t be true. Hospital records show Workman was treated for shotgun pellets in his buttocks.
“Our pitch is, the guy is innocent,” Minton says. “The guy did not commit a capital offense. The state should not execute somebody who did not commit a capital offense. But we’re dealing with allegations of police misconduct, and it’s hard for the courts to swallow.”
Workman seeks a court hearing on his new evidence. The state argues that courts shouldn’t even consider Workman’s claims because they were made too late in the appeals process. In the latest ruling in his case, the 6th Circuit decided Workman wasn’t too late, but still refused to stop his execution.
The court wrote, “If a .45 caliber hollow-point bullet had gone all the way through Lt. Oliver’s chest and emerged in one piece, we have no doubt that the exit wound would have been larger than the entry wound.” So, the appeals judges concluded, the bullet must have fragmented inside Oliver’s chest, with only a sliver emerging to create the smaller exit wound.
Workman then produced an affidavit from Dr. Martin Fackler, president of the International Wound Ballistics Association, citing autopsy records showing the bullet didn’t fragment. The court wouldn’t reverse its decision, but did rewrite its ruling to omit any mention of the possibility of fragmentation. It dismissed Workman’s ballistics claims as merely one expert’s opinion.
The judges didn’t address many of the questions raised by Workman. But they said police didn’t see the witness to the murder at the Wendy’s because they were busy at the time. What’s more, they said they couldn’t fault the accused killer’s original lawyer for failing to bring up any of this during his trial. Workman had essentially admitted his guilt, so why should his lawyer try to prove his innocence in court?
What are the odds that the Supreme Court will agree to hear Workman’s appeal? I asked Minton.
“They’re long,” he conceded. “There are a lot of facts here. The Supreme Court doesn’t like facts. They want to make law or settle disputes between the circuit courts. So this case doesn’t fit the traditional mold for a case going to the Supreme Court.”
To opponents of capital punishment, it’s the all but inevitable end result of a fundamentally flawed system. Accused killers, too poor to afford their own lawyers, are given public defenders who are overworked, inexperienced, and paid a pittance. These lawyers put on bad defenses, and their clients are convicted and sentenced to die.
As they file appeals, inmates are given better lawyersoften attorneys specializing in death penalty cases. These lawyers dig up new evidence and witnesses, raising doubts about their clients’ guilt and about the conduct of prosecutors and police. But in a Catch-22, courts won’t hear the new claims because they don’t raise big-picture issues of constitutional law, or because they weren’t made earlier in the process when the inmates had bad lawyers. Guilt or innocence is supposed to have been settled long ago.
At their trials, Coe and Workman both essentially admitted guilt, but claimed they weren’t responsible for their actionsa defense that rarely succeeds. What if they had mounted the defenses now pressed in their appeals? Would they have raised reasonable doubts in the minds of jurors? If they were convicted, would they have been sentenced to death?
In Coe’s case, there’s another issue: Should the state execute someone who’s insane? “No matter how you feel about whether he did or did not commit that crime, do we want to execute people who are psychotic?” asks Rev. Joe Ingle, a Nashville minister who counsels death-row inmates. “I don’t think so. I don’t think we want to descend to that level of barbarity in this state. I just don’t think we want that on our conscience.”
In response, Charlotte Stout points to the fact that Coe was declared competent to stand trial for her daughter’s murder. “That man is very sane,” she said. “His ex-wife said he can twist psychiatrists around his little finger. The media should just shut up and stop trying to retry this case.”
The state attorney general’s office, which argues capital cases on appeal, is under heavy pressure from lawmakers and the public to send inmates to their deaths. Around the country, it takes about 11 years for an inmate to exhaust his appeals. In Tennessee, it has taken close to 20 years to reach this stage.
In 1996, voters expressed their anger by ousting state Supreme Court Justice Penny White from office, an almost unheard-of event in the history of judicial yes/no retention elections in this country. White’s offense? She concurred in a majority opinion that the rape and murder of an elderly Memphis woman wasn’t “heinous, atrocious, and cruel” under the meaning of the state’s death-penalty statute.
In an attempt to appease constituents and to shift any blame from themselves, state lawmakers then held highly publicized hearings into why Tennessee hasn’t executed anyone since William Tines, a black man who was electrocuted in 1960 for raping a white woman.
Among other factors, lawyers and judges point to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been scrupuloussome say overly scrupulousin upholding the rights of death-row inmates. Of the states under that court’s jurisdiction with death-penalty statutesTennessee, Kentucky, and Ohioonly Kentucky has carried out an execution since 1976, when capital punishment resumed in this country.
There are more reasons: Tennessee’s two-step appellate system, for example. In Texas, where 184 inmates have been executed since 1982, death-row appeals go straight to the state’s highest court, but here, they go first to the Court of Criminal Appeals, then to the Supreme Court. That alone adds at least a year to the process.
To expedite appeals, the state Supreme Court has instituted a number of reforms. The justices have raised standards for defense attorneys to avoid the incompetence that has caused the reversals of many convictions. They’ve also appointed experts to help judges conduct trials, and they’ve begun monitoring capital proceedings to ensure no judge is slow-walking cases.
“We’re in a new era now,” Attorney General Paul Summers tells me in his office with state Solicitor General Michael Moore. “The flaws in this system have gotten worked out, and the pendulum has swung.”
I ask Summers, an ex-state appeals court judge, his personal feelings about the death penalty. “When I was a district attorney, I sought it. When I was on the court of appeals, I affirmed it,” he replies. “I support the death penalty.”
Does he believe capital punishment will deter crime? “I don’t know,” he says. “But there are some crimes that are so horrible that they deserve the type of retribution that the death penalty metes out.”
Moore speaks up. “My own view is that deterrence is not the principle reason for the death penalty. I think retribution is the more important function, and that’s not the same thing as revenge. Any kind of penalty system reinforces social norms in society. It gives people confidence that the virtuous are rewarded and the guilty are punished. That common understanding is essential to have a civilized society, and I think the death penalty is one aspect of creating that civilization.”
Are they concerned that the state might execute someone who’s innocent?
“It’s not something that overly concerns me,” Summers says. “Our system of laws isn’t perfect, but we’ve got so many safeguards, that’s probably the last thing I concern myself with.”
I ask specifically about Workman’s case, about the new ballistics claims that no jury has been allowed to consider, and Moore laughs as if it’s a silly question. “Personally, that is not a case that concerns me,” he says, referring me to court records for the state’s view on Workman’s appeal.
“As far as constitutional rights go,” Summers adds, “Tennessee is a Cadillac state.”
Razor wire coils literally for miles around Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, the modern prison on the Cumberland River that contains Tennessee’s death row. The prison’s 658 convicts exist inside squat, concrete-block buildings set in a neat, grassy complex not unlike dormitories on a college campus. There are colorful flowerbeds here and there and rolling green hills just beyond the prison’s perimeter.
Death row itself is known officially at the prison as Unit 2. It’s distinguishable from the rest of the buildings only by a roughly 100-foot-long attachment, the cage where the state’s 99 condemned men lift barbells and exercise.
“Phillip’s feet haven’t touched the grass since he’s been on death row, and he’s been on death row since 1983,” Minton says as we walk through various buzzing gates and clanging doors on our way inside Unit 2.
A staff attorney for the state Office of Post Conviction Defender, the shaggy-haired Minton is passionate in his advocacy of Workman. His office door bears a sign reading, “Life Is Precious,” and he seems genuinely anguished by his client’s declining prospects for remaining alive.
When I asked Minton if I could meet Workman, he replied, “Depends on what kind of story you’re going to write.” He finally allowed the interview, even though I never gave him any indication that I believe in his client’s innocence. Before we visited the prison, Minton surprised me by asking that my article not mention Workman’s conversion to Christianity.
“My sense is that when the public sees somebody heading to the electric chair, saying, ‘Don’t kill me; I’ve accepted Jesus,’ they’re skeptical about that,” he said. “People might say, ‘Aha, he really did do it, and he’s trying to weasel out of it by accepting Jesus.’ ”
Once Workman is led into the visiting room, it’s immediately apparent that he’s not on the same page as his lawyer when it comes to media strategy. If there was a let’s-downplay-Jesus meeting, Workman must have missed it.
He’s carrying a Bible, a gift from his fiancée, who began visiting Workman five years ago after reading about him in the newspaper. And on his purple baseball cap, he has written “JOB 13:15” and “W.W.J.D.” We sit in the room’s plastic chairs, and I ask him to explain his cap.
“Job 13:15,” Workman recites. “ ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.’ If God chooses to let this situation cost me my life, then that’s his price. But he knows. He knows the truth. W.W.J.D. What Would Jesus Do. Contrary to public opinion, I don’t think he would have any part in state-sanctioned killing.”
Workman goes on to tell how he found Jesus in a dream on death row. “It came from being locked in a cell for a lot of years and realizing that you are helpless. A poor man don’t stand a chance in a court of law. After a number of years, I just bottomed out. I was hopelessly in despair. I contemplated dropping my appeals and just getting it over with. Why postpone the inevitable?
“Then I had a dream. I dreamed that I was digging out of my cell down through the floor. I’d try to go this way or that way, and I could only go straight down. And I’d get tired and frustrated, and I’d look up and there was a rope coming down. And I’d think, ‘Well, somebody’s trying to trick me. I’m not going to grab this rope and pull myself back up.’
“And two times, that’s the way the dream ended, with me looking at the rope and thinking, ‘I’m not going for something like this.’ But the third time I had the dream, I reached out and snatched the rope, and it started pulling me up, and it turned into the arm of Jesus. And I realized then that I’d better start searching, and I found there was a God and Jesus.”
Workman says he has never tried to contact the family of the slain policeman, “but I’ve always prayed for them.”
That night at the Wendy’s, Workman says he yelled, “I give up! I surrender!” But when one of the policemen hit his head with a flashlight, he fired his gun. After his arrest, he says he came to believe he was guilty of murder. “With everybody telling me that I did it, I assumed that I must have done it.”
Indeed, he believed it until Minton produced the ballistics expert who’s now disputing the prosecution’s case. Workman says, “There had to be a police conspiracy to put the killing on me. I created the situation, and I feel responsible to a very large extent because I’m the one who brought it all together. But I never, ever thought about taking someone’s life. All I wanted was more money so I could buy more drugs.”
“Is there any message you would like to give the governor?” I ask him.
“What would I say to the governor?” Workman shakes his head, as if to say it would be pointless to talk to the governor. “Well,” he says, finally, “I’ve heard the governor is supposed to be a Christian. If that’s so, I can only tell him he needs a savior just as much as I need a savior. If we can’t have mercy and forgive others, then how can we expect to be forgiven?
“But it’s a political thing. The governor, in his mind, wouldn’t be able to afford to give clemency because I’m sure he would think, ‘I would be run out of office the next day.’ So you know, I feel like anything I would say to the governor would bewhat’s the word?futile.”
“You don’t have any hope?” I ask.
Workman sighs. “There’s always hope. I don’t have hope in the governor. I have hope in Jesus Christ. There’s always hope, if not in this world then definitely in the next one.”
I ask Workman if he talks with Robert Coe, and he says he hasn’t even seen Coe in years because their cells are in different sections of death row.
“But I know about his case, and it seems to me that the little girlwhat’s her name, Cary Ann?when she told her killer, ‘Jesus loves you,’ that shows she’s bigger than the whole state. Here we are in the Bible Belt, and everybody’s supposed to be Christian, and the Bible says unless you become as little children, you shall not see the kingdom of heaven. And so to me, that little girl is bigger than the whole state.”
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