Unintended Consequences - By Marti Green



Forty-Two Days

I didn’t kill my little girl. The body in the woods—that wasn’t my daughter. The words on the page kept ringing in Dani Trumball’s ears. I loved my little girl and only wanted to help her.

Most of the letters on her desk Dani went through quickly, spotting the scams easily enough and tossing them aside for a quick response from her secretary. “Dear (fill in the blank): We regret that the Help Innocent Prisoners Project is unable to assist you at this time.” Others rang true and might warrant some added sentences. “While we appreciate your circumstances, the many requests for our limited services mean we can only accept a few cases. We wish you the best of luck in finding someone else to help you.” Only a few, a very few, were taken on.

This letter—it stayed with her. I sure hope you can help me because they are going to kill me soon, and maybe I deserve to die, but it’s not because I killed my little girl. Six weeks until his execution. “Impossible,” she kept muttering to herself, shaking her head. She pushed her hair away from her face and wiped her forehead with a tissue. It was warm for early April, too early for the air-conditioning in the office to be turned on, and she felt limp from the heat. She unbuttoned an extra button on her blouse and then reread George Calhoun’s letter. I kept telling them she wasn’t my daughter, but they didn’t believe me. I don’t know why Sallie—that’s my wife—said she was. She must have gone crazy, from worry about Angelina. That’s our daughter’s name. We named her that because she was our little angel.

The Help Innocent Prisoners Project—HIPP—operated out of a converted warehouse on 14th Street in the East Village. It received letters from inmates throughout the country, and each attorney reviewed some of them. Dani had been going through a stack of folders, each containing an inmate’s plea for help, when she came across the letter from Calhoun. She’d already scribbled, “Sorry, no,” across the top, put it in her out box, and moved on to other letters. For the third time, she rummaged through her pile of replies and pulled his letter out. After staring at Calhoun’s words once more, she started to put it back yet again but wavered. Finally, she stood up and strode out of the office, glancing up at the framed embroidery over the door on her way out. It read, “Everyone on death row claims they are innocent. Once in a while they are.” Her mother had sewn it for her after she began working at HIPP. Over time, Dani had witnessed the truth of the saying. The difficulty was in figuring out which ones really were innocent. Sometimes, when she felt most overwhelmed, she wished for a magic ball—perhaps in the form of DNA evidence—that could provide the answer. Without it, the truth was often elusive.

“Busy?” Dani asked as she entered the office of Bruce Kantor, the director of HIPP. She slipped into the plastic chair opposite his desk.

“Always. Too busy. I think I need a vacation.”

“Didn’t you just have one three years ago?”

“I think it was five, but who’s keeping track?” Bruce leaned back in his chair, its fabric as worn as the wood of his desk. His dark brown skin and shaved head glistened with beads of sweat. With his taut body, kept trim with regular ten-mile jogs, he looked like a warrior ready for battle. “So, what’s up?”

“Take a look at this letter. I think it’s something that might be worth exploring.” She handed it to him and sat forward in her chair as he read it silently.

“Six weeks?” he said when he was finished. “You do realize how difficult that is, don’t you?”

She did know. Trying to halt an execution in only six weeks was like trying to run a marathon in two hours. “You’re right. But I keep putting it down in the ‘sorry, no’ pile then pulling it out again.”

Bruce looked over the letter again. “I thought you stayed away from child-murder cases.”

“I do. I mean, I have. I can’t even imagine having to deal with that as a parent.”

“So why this case?”

Dani shrugged. “I’m not sure. There’s something about it. I mean, if this guy is being honest, his daughter wasn’t murdered, but a child’s body was found. Who was it? Where’s his own daughter?”

“If we take this on, are you willing to head it up?”

It was