Georgia Man’s Trials : When One’s Rights Made a Wrong
In time, defense attorney Pat Beall learned to march straight through to Death Row when he came calling on his clients at the state prison facility in Jackson. Ten years ago, though, he summoned William (Pop) Campbell to the lawyer’s interview room near the prison entrance for their first meeting.
As a result, Campbell, 58, arrived after a quarter-mile hike in some disarray. He was huffing and wheezing, gasping for air, the victim of severe asthma and emphysema. Beall stared with alarm.
Campbell was 5 feet, 5 inches tall, 120 pounds, a pale-complexioned gnome with close-cropped gray hair. His blue-striped prison whites hung from his bony frame. His dark brown eyes seemed to bulge from his emaciated face.
Beall knew that Campbell and a companion, Henry Drake, had been convicted and sentenced to die for murdering a barber during a robbery. He knew Campbell had vainly denied guilt and fingered Drake, had even testified as the star witness at Drake’s trial. Beall would now be representing Campbell on his appeals.
“We need to work on your defense,” Beall said. “Do you have any questions?”
Campbell spoke rapidly, whispering, straining hungrily for oxygen.
“Well, you know,” he said, “I did it. I killed the old man. Drake didn’t have anything to do with it.”
It is fair to say those words gave Beall great pause. He was then 31, new to the Death Row business. His task was to protect Campbell from the electric chair. This confession would blow his chances.
The other fellow, Drake, might be an innocent man on Death Row, but he was not Beall’s client. Lawyers had to focus on their own clients’ best interests. Beall chose his words carefully.
‘Likely Be Electrocuted’
“If word got out about this,” he told Campbell, “you’d likely be electrocuted. Is that what you want?”
“No . . . no,” Campbell replied.
“Then just shut your mouth,” Beall said evenly. “Don’t tell anyone else.”
Nine full years passed before Campbell’s companion finally left Death Row and walked free last Christmas.
In the end, it was not the lawyers and judges and courts but the five-member Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles that freed Drake. The board members, studying their own investigators’ reports, dissatisfied with the legal system’s results, simply decided Drake was innocent.
In its aftermath, the matter of Henry Drake and Pop Campbell has kicked up all sorts of thoughts and feelings in this region.
There are those upset that Drake faced execution for nine years. There are those outraged that five political appointees freed a convicted murderer, usurping the judgment of 12 local jurors. There are those torn by an agonizing ethical problem with no clear answer: lawyers forced to balance their duties toward clients against the search for truth and justice.
Beyond all this there looms in the story of Drake and Campbell the unavoidable and disturbing image of a flawed, imperfect legal system laboring clumsily to discern the truth and so decide who should be put to death.
The Georgia pardons board felt spurred to action by an abiding sense that this system often delivers a procedurally correct trial but an inaccurate outcome. “We believe the courts decide if it’s a legally right sentence, and we decide whether it is a fair sentence,” said James Morris, the board member who spearheaded the effort to free Drake. “We found long ago that what is legally right is not always morally right. There is one hell of a difference between what is legal and what is right.”
The murder happened in Colbert, a small town near Athens in the piney woods of Georgia’s Madison County, a 90-minute drive to the northeast of Atlanta. Shortly after 9 p.m. on Dec. 5, 1975, a neighbor found C. E. Eberhart, 75, lying bloodied, near death, on the floor of his barbershop.
A witness told Sheriff Jack Fortson he had seen a white male enter the barbershop about closing time. After hearing the description, Fortson immediately thought of Bill Campbell.
Campbell had arrived in Madison County just three months before, but had already caught the sheriff’s eye, for good reason. Campbell, 58, was occupying a house with a Colbert native, Henry Drake, 30, and Drake’s girlfriend, Mary Carruth, a woman of about 50 living on welfare payments. Campbell and Drake were white, Carruth black. In Madison County, such a housekeeping trio was not particularly common.
There also were the men’s personal resumes for Sheriff Fortson to contemplate. Campbell and Drake had met when they were cellmates at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville in the early 1970s. Campbell’s record included convictions for sodomy, burglary and robbery. Drake’s record included convictions for abandonment, burglary, theft and wife beating.
Known as ‘White Trash’
“Drake’s never been what you would call an upstanding citizen,” Sheriff Fortson told a parole officer some time later. “He’s known in the community as white trash.”
When questioned, Drake told investigators that he and Carruth had dropped Campbell off at the barber’s to get a haircut, then picked him up an hour and a half later. The next day, they said, Campbell had threatened them, demanded some money and compelled them to drive him to Atlanta, where he caught a bus for his hometown, Norton, Va.
State agent Charles Stone and Sheriff Fortson found Campbell at the Wise County Jail in Virginia--he already had been arrested in Norton for another holdup and shooting. Campbell denied any involvement in the barber’s murder.
Stone hinted that Drake was trying to put the blame all on Campbell. Campbell thought on that.
Campbell did not then finger Drake--he said only that Drake was “scared and shaky on the night of the attack.” But a seed had been planted. Four years later, he would testify at a hearing that he figured right then that Drake had “turned him into the law.”
The police arrested both Drake and Campbell for the murder of the barber Eberhart.
The court appointed attorney Floyd Keeble to represent Campbell. Keeble, then in private practice in nearby Royston, later would become the region’s public defender. He was drawn to defending indigents through his sense that they were unfairly prosecuted. “I curse you on the phone, you think I have bad manners,” he was fond of saying. “The poor curse, they get charged with domestic abuse or terroristic acts.”
Keeble began visiting Campbell in the Madison County Jail. His client would sit before him wheezing and whispering. He denied any involvement at first, but kept offering different versions of what happened.
Finally, one morning, he admitted that he had killed the barber, and he settled on one story.
There had been an argument over the quality of the haircut, Campbell said. The barber in anger had grabbed a hammer and struck him. They fought, Campbell seized the hammer. When he left the shop, the barber was bloodied on the floor, but still alive.
Drake? Drake, Campbell said, was never there.
We have nothing, Keeble reasoned. We have no defense. I’ll try to paint this as a heated overreaction and go for manslaughter.
Campbell’s three-day trial began in Danielsville before Judge William Grant on Aug. 23, 1976. Campbell took the stand the second day, his questioning handled by Keeble’s associate, Roger Davison. As Campbell began speaking, Keeble froze in his chair at the counsel’s table.
“I heard something go ‘crunch,’ ” Campbell was saying, “ . . . and then I turned around and Henry had a hammer . . . .”
From the stand, Pop Campbell was putting the murder on Drake.
He was getting a haircut from Eberhart, Campbell testified, when Drake came in and began beating the barber on the head with a hammer. Pop had tried to stop him, but then Drake struck him with the hammer, knocking him out of his chair. Then Drake had set him up outside beside the doorway, saying he’d be back.
Campbell said he was “plumb out” for about five minutes. When he came to, he rose and started to walk down the sidewalk. Drake and Mary Carruth drove by and told him to get in the car. Then they all went to the local cemetery and took to drinking.
‘Trying to Save Henry’
Why, Davison asked Campbell on the stand, did he not tell all this to the investigators who first questioned him?
“I was trying to save Henry,” he said.
“Why would you want to save Henry?” Davison asked.
“Because I knew he would get me in it, too.”
The prosecutor, Bryant Huff, was just as incredulous as the defense attorneys. He found it odd that Campbell had repaired with Drake to a cemetery to drink just moments after Drake had bashed him unconscious with a hammer.
He didn’t apologize for striking you?
And then you all went and had a drink together?
What you are saying is the truth and nothing but the truth, what you have been telling us?
Will you testify to this at the trial of Henry Drake?
Keeble knew Campbell was lying and knew Drake was innocent, but he felt he could do nothing.
“The so-called experts and law professors can say what they want,” he said recently. “But, when you’re sitting there and your client is on the stand trying to save his life . . . . This guy Drake has not been tried yet . . . . That’s down the line, and he’d be defended by competent lawyers . . . . I didn’t know Campbell was going to perjure himself, but, quite frankly, I don’t know what I would do if I had known. I would have been in trouble with the state bar if I approached the bench. I knew he was lying, but I’m not the jury and judge.”
When Campbell returned from the witness stand, Keeble leaned into him. What was that? he hissed. I didn’t buy that and I’m sure the jury didn’t.
In truth, Keeble was angrier at the surprise than the lies.
“I was more upset that I had to change my trial strategy than about the broad ethical stuff,” he said later. “He should have told me before what he was going to say . . . . I had to tear up our prepared closing argument for a manslaughter defense. Quite frankly, from then on, we had to shoot from the hip. The closing argument was ad-lib.”
That being so, the lawyers can fairly be described as rather nimble at ad-libbing.
“From the first time I talked with Mr. Campbell until right now, the story has been the same,” Davison told the jury. “He has not wavered, and his testimony has been the same throughout the times I have talked to him.”
From the counsel’s table, Keeble sat listening in silence. It was Aug. 26, 1976. Their acrobatic efforts were in vain. The jurors flat out did not believe the scabrous old man. With little deliberation, they convicted Campbell and condemned him to death in the electric chair.
When Henry Drake’s trial began in the same courthouse one year later, Keeble tried to discourage Campbell from testifying.
“I knew he’d repeat his lie,” Keeble said. “Quite frankly, though, I thought the jury would see through him. And that Drake’s very competent attorney, Andy Hill, would shred him. I expected a Drake acquittal.”
The trial hinged almost entirely on Campbell’s testimony. Prosecutor Bryant Huff and a jury had not believed Campbell’s story a year ago--but now Huff made that same story the centerpiece of his case against Drake.
Campbell’s turn on the witness stand at Drake’s trial could easily be viewed as comedy, but for the issues of life and death being considered. His emphysema and asthma had deepened, leaving him with little breath to speak. To complicate matters, he recently, in a fit of disgust, had yanked his ill-fitting false teeth from his mouth and stomped on them, leaving him to talk through his gums.
The judge, the attorneys and the jurors often found it necessary to interrupt the proceedings, complaining they could not hear, imploring Campbell to speak up, advising him where to position his mouth with relation to the microphone.
“That’s as loud as I can talk today,” would be Campbell’s wheezing response.
When asked at one point how much wine he customarily drank, Campbell replied: “As much as I can get.” (Indeed, in the prison hospital around then, Campbell converted his bed’s oxygen system into a makeshift still and began selling bootleg booze to other inmates.)
Campbell did not at first want to talk about Drake. “I ain’t got nothing to say about that . . . “ he whispered when first asked if he had seen Drake in the barbershop. When pressed, he still resisted: “I’m not going to answer that question.”
Judge Grant said he had to answer. So Campbell eventually started talking. His testimony, in fact, seemed to blossom as he went on.
Elements were added to the story he had told at his own trial a year before. Drake, for example, was now wearing a wig when he entered the barbershop and Campbell did not at first recognize him.
Campbell’s testimony on direct examination mutated by the time of cross-examination. On direct examination, for example, Campbell had said that only he had a knife. On cross-examination, Campbell said Drake had a knife and a hammer in his hand.
During his time on the stand, Campbell managed to deliver a fair share of stories about the murder weapon. He picked up the hammer at the barbershop and threw it toward Drake’s truck; he found it in Drake’s car and threw it away from the truck; he picked it up near the shop door and hid it in Drake’s car until he could get it back to the door; he picked it up on the sidewalk and threw it back into the shop.
Despite such peculiarities, this jury apparently embraced Campbell’s tale more so than had the jury a year before. On Sept. 1, 1977, Drake was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The state had successfully prosecuted two different men for the same murder, although the trial of each man necessarily contradicted the other.
When Keeble learned of Drake’s conviction, he said he “felt really bad . . . but my faith in the system was still there . . . . We’re an adversarial system. Through the adversarial process, it works out.”
That did not seem the case for Drake. Within months, he had lost his first round of state and federal appeals.
“The state’s case rested largely on Campbell’s testimony, since there was no other direct evidence and little circumstantial evidence of Drake’s participation in the crime,” the Georgia Supreme Court wrote. All the same, “the credibility of Campbell’s testimony was for the jury to decide.”
By late 1978, both Campbell and Drake were in need of new lawyers, for the state of Georgia does not provide funds to indigents for the second round of capital case habeas corpus proceedings.
One morning in November of 1978, the phone rang in attorney Pat Beall’s office, housed in a small frame house in the northeast Georgia town of Watkinsville. I have two Death Row cases, said Patsy Morris, the Georgia ACLU’s anti-death penalty coordinator. Will you take one?
Beall--born and reared in Atlanta, educated at a conservative Catholic military high school--had been transformed by events of the 1960s, turning from plans for a Foreign Service career to the notion of socially responsible legal work. In March of 1978, he went to work for the University of Georgia Law School’s prisoner legal counseling project. “The prisons are for the stupid and poor,” he took to saying. “The wealthy get off. There is no justice.”
Days after the ACLU call, Beall found himself sitting across from Campbell in the interview room at the state’s diagnostic and classification center in Jackson. The 10-foot-by-10-foot cubicle opened to the hallway on one side through a chain-link fence. A fluorescent light glared from above.
“Well you know, I did it,” Campbell gasped. “I killed the old man. Drake didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Just shut your mouth about this, Beall told his client. Don’t tell anyone else.
Beall talked recently of his thoughts that day:
“I wish I could tell you I had a great philosophical debate in my mind. But I didn’t. I just thought--damn, this information can’t get out. It would blow my chances of getting him off Death Row. The moral dilemma had no meaning to me at all. My view was myopic--I focused on my client’s needs . . . . I wish I could give you melodrama, but I didn’t think of Drake on Death Row. I didn’t have his best interests at heart . . . . Truth and justice with a capital T and J are nice things for law professors to hold seminars on. But, when you’re in the pit, you don’t have time to consider lofty ideas. I had corporeal matter here. I had a flesh and blood client whose hand I shook. My job was to get him off Death Row.”
Drake had his own new attorney to look after his interests. August (Bud) Siemon had been a classmate of Beall at the University of Georgia’s law school and a fellow volunteer at the prisoner legal counseling project. In May of 1979, Siemon went to Jackson to visit his client.
He found Drake shy, diffident, mild in manner. Drake then was 33 years old, 5 feet, 7 inches, 165 pounds. He had tattoos on his left upper arm (Cindy), left forearm (Mom and Dad), and right forearm (a heart with the word Drake). There were a wife and three children in his distant background, long ago abandoned. There was a brother in prison on theft and assault charges, and another dead, shot in a fight.
“Pop Campbell is telling everyone he lied,” Drake said softly. “Get him into court, he’ll tell the truth.”
Siemon asked that Campbell be brought to an interview room. As Campbell settled into a chair, gasping after another quarter-mile hike, Siemon introduced himself. Before he could ask questions, Campbell started talking.
Drake is innocent, he whispered. I did it.
Just then Beall walked by, there to see another client. Beall saw them through the chain-link fence and stopped.
“Bud, what are you doing in there talking to my client,” he said. “Pop, don’t talk to him. He’s no good for you.”
Siemon understood but pleaded for an affidavit from Campbell.
“Bud, you’ve got my sympathy,” Beall replied. “But I’ve got a hard road trying to get my own client off Death Row . . . . It could do Campbell’s case no good to have the truth come out.”
“But my guy’s innocent,” Siemon said.
“I’m sorry,” Beall said.
Back at his office, Beall drafted a letter to Siemon telling him for the record not to contact his client again.
Soon after, another Atlanta attorney, Mary Wilkes, took over Drake’s defense from Siemon. Siemon told her of Campbell’s statements. Wilkes, too, approached Beall for an affidavit.
“I’m sorry, Mary, you’ve got your job, I’ve got mine,” Beall replied.
“Your client is guilty, mine isn’t,” Wilkes pleaded. “An innocent person could be executed.”
“I’m sorry,” Beall said.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.