Three lives hang in the balance this morning as Dr. James Grigson pulls up in a gleaming white Cadillac, ready to make his rounds. The tall Texan with one hand on the wheel and one hand on his flamboyant golden cigarette holder, the legendary forensic psychiatrist known as “Dr. Death,” is about to head out for the West Texas prairie to do some testifying. Indeed, for the Doctor—the traveling expert witness for hire, the courtroom terror of death-penalty foes—this is going to be the most extraordinarily concentrated stretch of testifying he’s ever done. Three death-penalty trials in three Texas towns in two days.
If things go according to plan, if jurors follow his advice and vote for death—as they usually do when the Doctor takes the stand and, in effect, prescribes it—three convicted murderers will be sent to death row to face the Big Needle, execution by lethal injection.
In fact, if the Doctor can adhere to his demanding schedule of appearances, he’ll succeed in doing something even he has never done before: dispatch two lives in a single day.
Dr. Grigson’s lopsided record over the past twenty years favors his chances: going into these three trials he has testified against 124 murderers, and acting on his advice, juries have sentenced 115 of them to death. He is the death penalty’s cutting edge in Texas, its circuit rider. Opponents call him “the hanging shrink.” But even he has never done so many so fast.
This morning in Dallas, the Doctor swings open the door of the Sedan de Ville to admit me into the chocolate leather interior. We’re off to Love Field, where we’ll catch a flight to Lubbock, four hundred miles west. He’s agreed to allow me to accompany him on these hectic, history-making rounds, to observe him game-planning his testimony with prosecutors, plotting against defense witnesses. And blasting defense attorneys out of the water: the Doctor has a reputation as a lethal weapon on the witness stand in Texas, which has sent more defendants to death row than any other state. Indeed, one defense attorney calls him “a killing machine.”
Grigson, a perpetually grinning, relentlessly gregarious type, gives me a vigorous handshake and puts the Caddy into gear. We begin a journey that will take us deep into the heart of Texas, deep into the minds of three murderers, and deeper into that poorly charted borderline realm between evil and madness that is the Doctor’s special turf. Because, despite his controversial methods (the American Psychiatric Association has denounced his practice of telling juries he can “guarantee” that a defendant “will kill again”), despite his embarrassing setback in the Randall Dale Adams Thin Blue Line case (the Doctor, who had predicted Adams would “kill again,” still believes the now absolved defendant is guilty and “will kill again”), it cannot be denied that the Doctor has looked longer and deeper into the minds and hearts of more murderers (1,400 so far) than just about anyone else. One may disagree with where he draws the boundary lines between evil and madness, criminality and sickness. But one can’t deny he knows the territory.
On the evening of March 17, 1989, a twenty-one-year-old white kid named Aaron Lee Fuller was drinking beer over at a girlfriend’s apartment in Lamesa, Texas, when he had an idea. Which was that the easiest way to make quick money was to roll old ladies. Some of Aaron Lee Fuller’s previous ideas, about how to commit burglaries, for instance, had not turned out well, and he’d ended up spending a couple of stretches in the state pen in Huntsville. This was his worst idea of all.
Before long Aaron Lee Fuller found himself at Loretta Stephens’s house, staring through her screen door at the sixty-eight-year-old widow, who was sound asleep on a recliner in her living room. Word on the street had it that Loretta Stephens kept large amounts of cash at home. Fuller used a house key to rip a hole in the screen door and let himself in. Tiptoed past the sleeping figure, proceeded to her bedroom, where, sure enough, he found more than $500 in small bills stuffed into various envelopes.
When he emerged with the money, Loretta Stephens was still sound asleep. All Fuller had to do was make a quick exit and he’d be home free with the cash. The perfect petty crime.
But he didn’t make that quick easy exit. Something drew him to the sleeping woman on the recliner. According to a videotaped confession he later made, he stopped in front of her. Stood over her. Stared at her for a full ten minutes. And then began smashing her face in with his fists, shattering her jaw, causing massive hemorrhages and multiple blunt-force traumas to the brain.
He went into the bathroom, washed the blood spatters off his face, and returned to Loretta Stephens’s side. Noticed her stirring, still breathing through her broken face. Which caused him to go back to the bedroom, get a pillow, and use it to smother the remaining life out of her.
How do you decide who really deserves to die?
She was dead, but he wasn’t through with her. According to his original confession, he proceeded to sexually assault her dead body.
When he took the stand at his trial, Fuller retracted parts of his confession. Claimed that although he punched Loretta Stephens’s face it was not he, but a friend who’d accompanied him, who smothered her to death. And that it was this friend who’d committed the sexual assault.
The jury didn’t believe him and convicted him of committing the murder himself. But what may have sealed Aaron Lee Fuller’s fate—what made him a prime candidate for the Doctor’s death-penalty diagnosis of “future dangerousness’’—was Fuller’s behavior immediately following the crime. Because it is the Doctor’s belief that the special subspecies of murderers who are likely to kill again (unless the state kills them first) betray their “severe sociopath” nature by their emotional reaction—or lack of it—in the aftermath of the killing.
To severe sociopaths, “killing someone is less emotional than eating a plate of scrambled eggs,” the Doctor maintains. To them “it’s not much different from having a meal at a good restaurant. If you like it, you’ll come back again.”
What Aaron Lee Fuller did in the immediate aftermath of Loretta Stephens’s murder was, essentially, party hearty. With the body tied up in a bundle in the back of her car, he and a friend tore off for the bright lights of Lubbock to spend the woman’s cash.
They drove to a convenience store, flirted with the cashier, flashed her the roll of bills, and headed off for Lubbock. Almost as an afterthought they dumped the body in a patch of tall weeds by the roadside. When they got to Lubbock they bought a keg, checked into a motel called the Koko Inn. There, Aaron Lee Fuller commenced the last best party of his life.
It took a jury in the tiny West Texas county-seat town of Lamesa (pronounced La-meese-ah) all of twenty-seven minutes to convict Aaron Lee Fuller of “capital murder”—a murder done in the course of committing another felony—the most severe degree of the crime, the one that carries only two possible sentences in Texas: life imprisonment or death.
But the real trial only began with the guilty verdict. On Thursday, February 1, 1990, the Lamesa jury reconvened to begin hearing arguments on the question of whether to put Aaron Lee Fuller to death. U.S. Supreme Court decisions and death-penalty law in Texas require this separate “penalty phase” trial for all candidates for capital punishment. A pure trial on the life-or-death issue.
The thrust of Supreme Court death-penalty decisions since the Court reformed capital punishment in 1976 has been to permit the state to kill, but to revise the process that selects who is sentenced to die and who isn’t. Make it less a single, emotional pull-the-switch decision; make it more the end product of a multistage decision-making process that emphasizes “informed selectivity” and supposedly ensures that the ultimate sanction is not applied arbitrarily or capriciously, but is reserved for the worst, most dangerous killers, the ones who “deserve” to die by some well-defined criteria of just deserts.
How do you decide who really deserves to die? In Texas, a jury never actually votes life or death up or down. Instead, it is called upon to decide three questions about the murder and the murderer, three “Special Issues.”
The jurors must agree unanimously, first, that the murderer “deliberately” sought the death of his victim; second, that there is “a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence” in the future, acts which would “constitute a continuing threat to society”; and, third, that there was no reasonable “provocation” for the defendant’s murderous conduct.
In practice, it’s Special Issue No. 2—the question of future dangerousness—that has become the battleground on which the life-or-death struggle of Texas death-penalty trials is fought.
What makes Special Issue No. 2 so thorny and contentious—what makes Dr. Grigson’s testimony so controversial within the psychiatric profession and among death-penalty foes—is that it asks jurors to make a life-or-death decision based on a prediction of the future. It allows the jurors to punish the defendant with the extra, ultimate sanction of death, not only for the crime he’s been convicted of but for crimes he might commit later. (It’s a novel but not unique requirement. One other state of the thirty-six that have a death penalty requires a finding of future dangerousness.) In doing so, Special Issue No. 2 asks a lot more of jurors than merely looking into a criminal’s record. It asks them to look into his soul—indeed, into the evolution of his soul in the future, into the life he might get to live, if they don’t give him death.
This is where the Doctor comes in. He’ll take the stand, listen to a recitation of facts about the killing and the killer, and then—usually without examining the defendant, without ever setting eyes on him until the day of the trial—tell the jury that, as a matter of medical science, he can assure them the defendant will pose a continuing danger to society as defined by Special Issue No. 2. That’s all it takes.
But the Doctor’s impact on a jury is more profound than the mere content of what he says. A death-penalty decision is far more emotionally unsettling to jurors than a mere guilt-or-innocence vote. It’s a grave and even terrifying decision to make, in which the desire to exact collective vengeance upon a killer may conflict with the reluctance to pull the trigger personally—which, in effect, death-penalty jurors must do for us all. What makes the Doctor so effective— both prosecution and defense lawyers will tell you this—is his bedside manner with the jury. His kindly, gregarious, country-doctor manner, his reassuring, beautifully modulated East Texas drawl, help jurors get over the hump, and do the deed.
Says one bitter defense lawyer, “He’s kind of like a Marcus Welby who tells you it’s O.K. to kill.”
And as a bonus for the prosecutors who hire him, the Doctor also does his lethal best to destroy defense attorneys and defense witnesses who challenge him.
Which is why, as soon as Lamesa County prosecutor Ricky Smith got a trial date for Aaron Lee Fuller, he put in a call to the Doctor. He knew a conviction would be easy. But death-penalty deliberations can be trickier, even in the conservative West Texas countryside in which Lamesa is situated. There is always a danger of a holdout juror. And the Doctor has a way with holdouts.
On our flight from Dallas to Lubbock, the Doctor tells me about how, in a recent trial, he worked on one stubborn holdout who, he was convinced, had her mind set against voting for death.
“I was watching her and I could tell she didn’t believe what the first [prosecution] psychiatrist told her, and she wasn’t gonna believe what I’d say. She just had her legs crossed, wasn’t gonna hear what we had to say. So we took a coffee break after the first psychiatrist, and I told the prosecutor, ‘You got trouble. You got one woman who’s gonna hang up this jury, because she’s not buying it.’ ”
The prosecutor then dug up some biographical information on the reluctant woman from the jury questionnaire.
“We discovered she had a fourteen-year-old daughter. And I got back on the stand and had the prosecutor ask me [about the defendant], ‘Is this the kind of man that would rape and kill fourteen-year-old girls?’ And we went into that. And she uncrossed her legs.” The jury voted unanimously for death.
The Doctor repeatedly contends under oath that he testifies neither for nor against the prosecution or defense, that he testifies only as to what his scientific objectivity tells him. (Indeed, the Doctor points out, he’s diagnosed future dangerousness in only 60 percent of the potential death-penalty defendants he’s examined. Many other defendants owe their lives to him because the Doctor was willing to predict they wouldn’t be dangerous.) Nonetheless, what makes him popular with prosecutors is that he will go the extra mile; he will go for the jugular to score points to win. He’s so popular, in fact, that as his plane touches down in Lubbock he’s the subject of a tug-of-war between two prosecutors: Ricky Smith in Lamesa, seventy miles south of Lubbock, wants him on the stand to testify against Aaron Lee Fuller tomorrow, Wednesday. But prosecutor Travis Ware in Lubbock wants him to take the stand in his death-penalty trial on Wednesday, too.
Travis Ware has tried a half-dozen death-penalty cases— four of them with the Doctor—and never lost one.
“Defense lawyers fear Dr. Grigson,” Travis Ware explained to me. “They fear his effect on juries. He knows more about the criminal mind than anyone else in America, and he can put it in layman’s terms. His demeanor, his sincerity, his charisma is absolutely uncontrollable by the defense. It drives them crazy.”
Indeed, the Doctor’s scheduled testimony drives them so crazy that during this particular week in February it has created a remarkable, unprecedented phenomenon on the West Texas prairie. Total shrink gridlock! Defense teams in both Lubbock and Lamesa are flying psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and penologists in from all over America to do battle with the Doctor. They’re shuttling back and forth between Lubbock and Lamesa, causing scheduling nightmares.
Finally, after two days of shuffling and shuttling and reshuffling, the order of battle has sorted itself out: the Doctor will take the stand in Lamesa first, in the Aaron Lee Fuller trial. Which means leaving Lubbock before dawn Friday morning, driving the seventy miles to Lamesa, facing Aaron Lee Fuller for the first time and pronouncing on his life, then racing back to Lubbock to take the stand and pronounce on the life of defendant Adolfo Hernandez in the afternoon. It will be the Doctor’s first-ever doubleheader. And if all goes well we’ll be back in Dallas Monday morning in time for the Doctor to take the stand in a third murder trial—which will make it three in two working days.
Dawn on the road from Lubbock to Lamesa. The sunrises are spectacular on this part of the West Texas prairie, spanning a horizon line virtually unobstructed by tree, barn, or settlement. One lonely sign advertises one lonely tourist attraction on this stretch of road, the Dan Blocker Memorial. The sign is in the shape of the big hat Hoss wore on Bonanza. The chief treasure of the museum in the Big Guy’s tiny hometown of O’Donnell is a pair of size 44 trousers Hoss wore at age eleven.
It was about the time we passed the Dan Blocker Memorial sign that the Doctor made his Rock of Ages revelation. He was talking about growing up in the thirties in Texarkana, five hundred miles away in East Texas.
“The Grigsons had the Rock of Ages franchise,” he said, “for the four-state area, of Arkansas—”
“Rock of Ages is what?” I asked, not comprehending at first.
“It’s a particular—Rock of Ages is a trademark or name of a thicker type of marble. During the Depression and after, you would only bury your loved ones under Rock of Ages marble.”
The amazing fact slowly began to dawn on me: Dr. Death’s family was in the tombstone business. You could say that the Doctor is still traveling in the family business. Not Death’s traveling salesman exactly, but surely his jurisprudential franchisee.
Indeed, there’s a bit of the old-fashioned Willy Lomanesque commercial traveler you can’t help but notice in the Doctor. None of the downbeat, defeated Loman stuff, but the salesman’s relentlessly cheerful glad-handing style. Nothing phony about it—it appears to be his natural temperament, the nonstop pepster with a cheery word for strangers in elevators and airports. Once, at a happy hour in a motel courtyard in Lubbock, the Doctor made all the hardened investigators and prosecutorial personnel at his table stand up and clap for the “Feelings’’-type cocktail pianist.
Because, the Doctor confided to me later in a Lubbock steak house, his whole philosophy of life is to “try every day to make at least one person’s life a little better, a little brighter.”
The Doctor doesn’t see himself fighting just to put an end to the life of the defendant. He sees himself fighting to save the lives of potential future victims.
To that end, with the aim of spreading good-natured laughter, the Doctor’s the kind of guy who loves to goose conversations with women in a mildly salacious way, almost invariably introducing me to women prosecutors by saying, “Ron’s down here to do an exposé on your sex life.” And then there’s his lambada thing. In the past couple of days of waiting around in courthouses, bars, and steak houses, the Doctor would ceaselessly seek to promote spicy small talk with courthouse women about the leg and thigh positions of the lambada.
But the Doctor’s corn-pone Dale Carnegie sweetness and light can be extremely deceptive, as I would discover later that morning in Lamesa. Beneath the good-ol’-boy guise there’s a steel-trap mind. The Doctor may be an East Texas country boy on the surface, but he’s a country boy like L.B.J. was a country boy. A country boy with a killer instinct.
It’s an instinct he began to develop in his youth when he and his brother would come home from work and lock themselves into epic fratricidal chess matches, hour after hour, night after night. The Doctor’s brother went on to become a professional pool shark and gambler. And while the Doctor chose a more conventional career path, graduating from Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and doing a psychiatric residency at Parkland Hospital, his restless competitive nature, the pool shark in him, was not satisfied by the passive, couch-centered life of a private practitioner of psychoanalytically based psychiatry. He sought out something that satisfied his appetite for competition. He found it in forensic psychiatry, in the high-intensity combat of criminal-trial testimony and cross-examination. He found it in the duel of wits with dangerous criminals. He began to specialize in examining killers.
At first they were mainly competency exams—judging whether a killer was sane enough to stand trial or not. And at first, he says, he got fooled a lot.
“At first I got the shit conned out of me. In medical school I was as liberal as any psychiatrist you’ll ever meet. You know, most psychiatrists will say if you commit a crime there’s something wrong with you.” But after thousands of hours in jail cells with killers, he came to believe that most of them were not suffering from mental diseases or disorders. “They were just mean. I often think there ought to be a diagnosis, you know: ‘mean son of a bitch.’ ”
He became less easily conned, fell less often for tears of remorse or faked madness, he says.
“These days when they’ll have tears falling down from their eyes, I’ve learned to give this response: ‘You can knock that shit off, you’re not fooling me a bit.’ And you can’t believe—tears will dry up just like that.”
As for fakers of insanity, well, to illustrate just how hard it is to get him to believe somebody’s really crazy these days, the Doctor tells me what is clearly one of his favorite stories, the one about the fellow in jail who sliced off his penis and one testicle.
“Judge called me up and he said, ‘Jim boy, have we got a crazy one.’ And I go examine him, and even one of the jailers there said, ‘Boy, Dr. Grigson, that guy is crazy.’ Anyway, I went back and examined him. And I didn’t think he was crazy. I called the judge up and said, ‘Judge, he’s faking [insanity].’ And the judge said, ‘Jim, nobody’s faking who cuts their dick off!’ And I said, ‘Judge, I promise you he’s faking.’ And they insisted on having a competency hearing. And I got up and told the jury, which was made up of six men and six women, that he cut off his penis and one testicle and that he was faking. They looked at me like ‘Man, you know, not only is he crazy, but you’re crazy, too.’ “ But then the Doctor explained to the jury what he’d gotten the prisoner to confide to him in his exam. “I explained to them that every time he had been caught—and he’d been in the pen four or five times—each time he’d cut his wrist, cut his finger, cut his throat. This time he was up for a habitual [a life sentence for repeated felonies] and he said, ‘I knew I had to cut something serious!’ He said, ‘God Almighty! Damn! I wished I hadn’t done it.’ Well, the jury just laughed and they voted with me and found he was faking.”
The Doctor thinks this is an extremely funny story. In any case it certainly illustrates the extreme lengths to which he takes the notion of personal moral responsibility for conduct, his reluctance to ever excuse or forgive criminal conduct on the ground of mental debility.
“You take the guy that screwed all those dead bodies [a reference to one of several necrophiliac serial killers he’s dealt with]. Ask a hundred, a thousand, people on the street, ‘Is this guy sick?’ They’ll say, ‘Shit, yes. He is crazy. No question about it. Anybody that does this is sick.’
“But we cannot have that concept in law. And as for forgiving, you can say society’s at fault, you can say education is at fault—we project the blame, rationalize the behavior. You can ask, How do you understand a person committing this kind of act? You can say, If you can understand, you can forgive what happened. But I don’t forgive.’’
“I don’t forgive.”
Lamesa is an old-fashioned Texas town out of The Last Picture Show. It even features one of those classics from the James Dean/Buddy Holly era, a Sonic drive-in, the kind with loudspeakers that look like parking meters for you to call in your orders to the carhops. Our directions were to take a left at the Sonic and look for D.A. Ricky Smith’s blue pickup in front of his office on a side street.
When we arrived for the Doctor’s pre-trial conference with Smith, the D.A. had a word of warning for the Doctor: the hotshot defense attorney brought in from Lubbock, Floyd Holder, “has done his homework on you. He’s read all the propaganda, probably gonna bring up that Dr. Death stuff.”
The courtroom was packed. The jury was seated. The defendant looked shockingly young. Cleaned up and clean-cut for his trial, Aaron Lee Fuller looked less like a killer facing death than one of the Brady Bunch facing after-school detention.
Photos taken at the time of his arrest show Aaron Lee Fuller with a greaser pompadour—the Texas version of the white-trash low-life look he affected back then. Today, seated straight up, hands folded formally and politely in front of him at the defense table, Aaron Lee Fuller was wearing a crew cut and a crew-neck sweater, and looking more like an all-American college sophomore than a granny-murdering necrophiliac.
The image, of course, was more than a fashion statement. It was Aaron Lee Fuller’s plea, his last resort, a petition to the jury for his life. One that said he’d done bad, he’d gone wrong, but he wasn’t beyond hope of redemption. If he could clean up his image, at least there was a chance he could cleanse his soul.
It was an appeal on an emotional, not legal, level, but death-penalty decisions, despite all the multistage decision-making processes, are made on an emotional as well as legal level. And so the Doctor was there to combat that image, to help the jury get past it, beneath it, to see Aaron Lee Fuller the way he did: as the moral and medical equivalent of a rabid dog who must be destroyed.
What troubles his critics in the psychiatric profession most is that the Doctor would take the stand today and make his diagnosis of future dangerousness with complete certainty, yet without ever having examined Aaron Lee Fuller. Indeed, without even seeing him— barely thinking about him before taking the stand. In fact, in the two days I spent with him waiting around to testify, the Doctor talked more about the lambada than he did about Aaron Lee Fuller.
In the first half of his career as a forensic-psychiatrist expert witness, in the sixties and seventies, the Doctor would almost always examine the murderers he’d testify against. Frequently when they were first brought in, he’d be called upon by a court to give them a competency exam—to see if they were rational enough to stand trial. Then, fairly often, prosecutors would call him to take the stand at the death-penalty trial of the same defendant, and the Doctor would use information and insights he had obtained in the pre-trial competency exam against the defendant in the death-penalty phase.
The Supreme Court rejected that practice in 1981 in Estelle v. Smith (and dozens of death sentences obtained on the basis of the Doctor’s testimony were subsequently invalidated as a result) because, the Court said, it violated the defendant’s Miranda rights against self-incrimination.
After that the Doctor continued to testify in murder trials, but rarely performed any personal examinations. What replaced them was a curious, carefully choreographed ritual built around him, something known as the Hypothetical. The purpose of the Hypothetical is to allow the Doctor to diagnose the defendant without having seen him or heard the details of his crime until the very moment of Judgment.
The Hypothetical in the Aaron Lee Fuller case was a single question that took no less than forty minutes to ask. A vast Moby Dick of a question that swallowed up all the ugly details of Aaron Lee Fuller’s crime, everything bad he’d done before in his life, all the bad things he’d been overheard saying to others in jail after, and then regurgitated them, laid them before the Doctor for his inspection, and finally asked him— hypothetically—if he, as a scientist, came across such a sorry human specimen, would this sorry specimen present a continuing danger to society?
And so the epic Hypothetical began. Assume, Doctor, the D.A. began, that in the early hours of March 18, 1989, Aaron Lee Fuller ripped open Loretta Stephens’s screen door, and assume, Doctor, that he proceeded to steal her money, and assume, Doctor, that he beat her, smothered her, sexually assaulted her dead body—all of these “assumptions” repeated for the jury in clinical detail and all of them reflecting the prosecution’s version of events—and assume, Doctor, that he dumped the body and partied all night long at the Koko Inn, and assume, Doctor, that his prior criminal record consists of such and such crimes and arrests, and assume, Doctor, that he told so-and-so he wasn’t sorry about killing Loretta Stephens, “that he felt he’d done her a favor,” and assume, Doctor, that he bragged about his plans to go after other victims …
The forty-minute question was coming to a close now. The Doctor leaned forward in the witness stand, smiling equably. Assuming all that, Doctor, do you have an opinion about such an—
A booming voice from the defense table interrupted the impending climax of the ritual. Floyd Holder, the big, burly, white-bearded defense attorney from Texas Tech law school in Lubbock, rose to speak.
“Your Honor, I would like to take the witness on voir dire [preliminary examination].”
The judge granted the request. And suddenly big Floyd Holder launched a furious attack on the Doctor.
“Doctor,” he boomed out, “I understand that it is your opinion that the board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association are a bunch of liberals who think queers are normal?”
Whew. Everyone in the jammed courtroom sucked in a little air as it became clear that a real courtroom mano a mano had begun.
The Doctor demurred mildly to the liberal/queers charge, but before he could finish, Holder demanded, “The board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association has reprimanded you for your expression of an opinion as to predictions of future dangerousness, have they not?”
Seemingly unperturbed, the Doctor replied, “They sent me a letter saying that this will serve as a reprimand.”
“And the American Psychiatric Association has labeled your predictions as quackery, haven’t they?”
“No, sir, they have not,” the Doctor said, still smiling. A majority of the profession is “in agreement with me, that you have to predict dangerousness every day” in commitment proceedings and the like.
“And isn’t it true that the A.P.A. filed an amicus brief in which they labeled your opinions as quackery?”
“The Supreme Court disagreed with them,” said the Doctor, “and thought that my testimony was appropriate.”
“I would object, Your Honor, to any testimony, as not being recognized within the field in which he practices.”
“I will overrule the objection,” said the judge. And at last prosecutor Smith was able to ask the Doctor for an answer to the killer question.
“Doctor, based upon that hypothetical, those facts that I explained to you, do you have an opinion within reasonable medical probability as to whether the defendant, Aaron Lee Fuller, will commit criminal acts of violence that will constitute a continuing threat to society?”
“Yes, sir, I most certainly do have an opinion with regard to that.”
“What is your opinion, please, sir?”
“That absolutely there is no question, no doubt whatsoever, that the individual you described, that has been involved in repeated escalating behavior of violence, will commit acts of violence in the future, and represents a very serious threat to any society which he finds himself in.”
“Do you mean that he will be a threat in any society, even the prison society?”
“Absolutely, yes, sir. He will do the same thing there that he will do outside.”
And that was it. All the “medical,” “scientific” testimony the jury needed—in any case all they’d get—to justify a judgment that Aaron Lee Fuller was too dangerous to live, beyond hope of redemption, and ought to be put to death.
But Floyd Holder wasn’t quite finished with his assault on the Doctor. He still had cross-examination. He still had one more shot at saving Aaron Lee Fuller’s life.
Do you recall the Randall Dale Adams case? Holder began.
The Doctor nodded warily and said, “I recall it well, yes, sir.”
Are you as sure about this defendant as you were when you declared Randall Dale Adams was guilty and would kill again? Holder asked.
Again the courtroom tensed up. Even out on the prairie the papers had reported on the Adams case. How Adams, a convicted cop killer, was sentenced to death with the help of the Doctor’s testimony; how New York filmmaker Errol Morris came down to Dallas (originally to do a film about the Doctor) and began digging into the Adams case, eventually getting Adams’s chief accuser—on death row for another murder—to claim that he, not Adams, had fired the fatal bullet at the cop. How this, and holes in purported eyewitness testimony uncovered in The Thin Blue Line, resulted in Adams’s conviction being thrown out and Adams being freed last year after twelve years in prison.
Looking totally unperturbed, the Doctor said dramatically, “Those people that were involved in the case know that he is guilty. I examined Mr. Adams … there is no question in my mind as well as [the mind of] the jury who convicted him that he is guilty.”
And did you say of Randall Dale Adams that he will continue his previous behavior? Holder asked.
“I most certainly said that,” the Doctor said defiantly. “And he will.”
(Later, he told me that, despite everything, he still has no doubt about it: the new confession by Adams’s accuser was a sham, a lie by a death-row inmate with nothing to lose who “wanted to jack the system around.” And then the following week, in the Dallas trial, the Doctor went even further: he testified not only that he believed Randall Dale Adams did the killing, but that he was certain Adams “will kill again.”)
For a brief moment there in Lamesa, it looked as if Floyd Holder might have some momentum going in his assault on the Doctor. But then Holder made a fatal mistake. He fell into a Doctor death trap, one of the patented devastating counterpunches that have earned the Doctor a reputation as a killing machine on cross-examination. Many lawyers told me the best thing to do is not to cross the Doctor at all, to minimize the damage he can do.
The Doctor had told me of the particular relish he has for doing damage on cross-examination. “I always hold something back for cross,” he said one evening in Lubbock.
But Holder had done a lot of homework he didn’t want to go to waste. He began as he had with the Adams question, a bit smugly. “In the case of Rodriguez v. Texas, 1978, [did you say of Rodriguez], ‘No matter where he is he will kill again’? … Do you remember that?”
Now, this might have been a good question because it was clear the Doctor couldn’t recall who the hell Rodriguez was. But the Doctor—a poker player as well as a chess player—shrewdly calculated that Holder didn’t know the details either. And so he felt free to spring a trap of his own.
The Doctor replied as if searching his memory and then coming upon a grim recollection. “Is Rodriguez the one that killed four women and raped thirty-eight?”
Of course, he had no idea what Rodriguez had done. But what the jury heard was: killed four, raped thirty-eight. In the silence that followed it became embarrassingly clear that Floyd Holder had no idea whether the Rodriguez he was citing had killed one or a hundred.
Holder tried to conceal how taken aback he was, but he didn’t conceal it well. He looked down and shuffled some papers. He said something huffy about “I have no idea” who Rodriguez is, as if that wasn’t the point.
But the point had been made, indelibly. And it wasn’t his point. The point the jury got was that the Doctor was trying to protect society, protect them, from multiple rapist-murderers, and that Holder hadn’t troubled to find out how many women Rodriguez had raped and murdered (five of the twelve jurors were women); that he was only interested in some kind of legal loophole that let a monster like that loose on the streets again.
It was all over then. Holder had lost not only the moment but his composure, and he never did get it back. He continued briefly; he even brought up the nickname “Dr. Death.” (“The jury may not appreciate how famous you are, sir …. They call you Dr. Death, don’t they?”) But he never recovered from the deadly land mine the Doctor had detonated under his feet with his Rodriguez reply.
A day later the Lamesa jury took two hours to agree unanimously on a death sentence for twenty-one-year-old Aaron Lee Fuller.
One down, two to go.
Flocks of sandhill cranes roost on the flanks of the empty highway leading back from Lamesa to Lubbock. The fragile endangered birds apparently like the arid isolation of the bare prairie flats as a winter resting ground before their journey north. Midway on his hasty journey between death-penalty trials the Doctor is pumped up by his victory in Lamesa, primed for fresh battle this afternoon in Lubbock.
“By God, if it isn’t war,” he tells me, “I don’t know what war is!”
If it’s war, why is he fighting it? He says that he’s “taken a lot of shit over this Dr. Death crap,” and that if he had it to do over again he might have stuck to uncontested competency hearings. But the Doctor doesn’t see himself fighting just to put an end to the life of the defendant. He sees himself fighting to save the lives of potential future victims, the ones the defendant will kill—even inside the pen—if he’s not put to death.
To illustrate, he tells me the story of the Zimmermann study and the tree-branch rapist—probably his most heartfelt statement about why he becomes a death-penalty partisan in the courtroom.
Back when his practice of predicting future dangerousness in death-penalty trials first became controversial, the Doctor says, “a Dallas judge named Zimmermann decided to see how I’d done in my record of predictions in his courtroom. So they went back and looked at the people I’d examined in court. And there were only two people I said would kill again: Terry Turner and Jesse Eugene Woods. Because it’s rare for me to say someone will kill again. Most murderers aren’t going to—a majority of them will never kill again. Spouse-passion-type killing, you know, after going through all that they’d do almost anything in the world to avoid trouble. Passion killers often make model prisoners. That’s one of the things that’s misleading. Most murderers on the whole make model prisoners. But that’s not true of these sociopaths.”
Like, for instance, Terry Turner and Jesse Eugene Woods.
“Terry Turner was a little sociopath—he was, oh, nineteen, twenty, years old and a forty-five-year-old woman took him in. She felt sorry for him. Gave him a place to stay, got him a little job. He raped and killed her. They didn’t find him guilty of capital murder—something got screwed up, I can’t remember. Anyway, Terry got out of the pen in three years. On the way home from the pen he raped a woman. Within thirty days he’d taken a fourteen-year-old girl, raped and killed her. And took a tree branch and shoved it all the way up in her vagina.
“Then there was the other one, Jesse Eugene Woods. I’m trying to think what Jesse did the first time. I believe he killed somebody in a fight. [Actually, the charge was aggravated assault and sexual assault, not murder.] Anyway, I examined Jesse and I said, ‘I guarantee this guy is going to kill again.’ Anyway, Woods got out and beat, I think it was, an old woman to death. And after Judge Zimmermann looked at those cases he said, ‘Well, I can testify that Dr. Grigson has been 100 percent accurate in this court.’ ”
The Doctor does not offer the two-case Zimmermann story as serious statistical vindication. What he’s saying is that he’s got to be aggressive, persuasive, he’s got to sell his testimony to juries, so they won’t let people like Terry Turner and Jesse Eugene Woods loose to kill again. That’s why, he says, he feels compelled to go the extra mile. Not just to testify, but to win—in order to protect potential victims from horrific fates like that suffered by the fourteen-year-old girl.
The problems the psychiatric profession has with the Doctor concern not so much his motives as his claims to be testifying as a scientist. In a blistering attack on the Doctor’s testimonial practice in its 1983 brief to the Supreme Court in Barefoot v. Estelle, the American Psychiatric Association, the governing body of the profession, flatly states:
Psychiatrists should not be permitted to offer a prediction concerning the long-term future dangerousness of a defendant in a capital case, at least … where the psychiatrist purports to testify as a medical expert possessing predictive expertise …. The large body of research in this area indicates that, even under the best of conditions, psychiatric predictions of long-term future dangerousness are wrong in at least two out of every three cases. The forecast of future violent conduct … is, at bottom, a lay determination … made on the basis of essentially actuarial data to which psychiatrists qua psychiatrists can bring no special interpretive skill s…. The use of psychiatric testimony on this issue causes serious prejudice to. the defendant. By dressing up the actuarial data with an “expert” opinion the psychiatrist’s testimony is likely to receive undue weight …. [It] provides a false aura of certainty … impermissibly distorts the fact-finding process in capital cases. [My italics.]
Equally objectionable, the A.P.A. brief charges, is the Doctor’s practice of diagnosing a defendant as a severe sociopath on the basis of a prosecutor’s hypothetical question, without examining him—and then telling the jury that the sociopath “diagnosis” is scientific basis for guaranteeing future dangerousness.
“Such a diagnosis simply cannot be made on the basis of a hypothetical question …. The psychiatrist cannot exclude alternative diagnoses [such as] illnesses that plainly do not indicate a general propensity to commit criminal acts.
“These deficiencies,” the A.P.A. told the Supreme Court, “strip the psychiatric testimony of all value in the present context.”
In a six-three decision in that case the Supreme Court majority held that—even granting the truth of the A.P.A.’s objections—the Doctor’s testimony should not be barred as constitutionally impermissible because the adversary process of the trial would permit other psychiatrists to challenge his conclusions in court, allowing the jurors as fact finders to decide the merits.
But Justice Harry Blackmun, ordinarily a middle-of-the-roader in death-penalty cases, wrote a furious dissent declaring, “In capital cases the specious testimony of a psychiatrist, colored, in the eyes of an impressionable jury, by the inevitable untouchability of a medical specialist’s words, equates with death itself.” (My italics.)
The Doctor disagrees. The Doctor believes the A.P.A. condemnation is based not on science but on the emotional animus of liberal psychiatrists against the death penalty—and against him for being the death penalty’s cutting edge in Texas.
The Doctor says he’s better qualified than any American Psychiatric Association committee to pronounce upon the science involved because of his unmatchable data base—the examinations he’s done of 12,000 criminals, 1,400 murderers, 391 capital-murder defendants.
The Doctor has a hyperbolic counterargument for those who criticize future-dangerousness predictions: “It’s ridiculous to say you can’t predict future dangerousness. After Hitler killed the first Jew, would you say he was dangerous? After the second? After a million? How many do you need to know for sure?”
True enough, perhaps, but what if instead of Hitler we look at twenty-one-year-old Aaron Lee Fuller. Is he incorrigibly evil? His defense attorney introduced evidence that Fuller had been physically abused as a child. Is he beyond rehabilitation? Should a jury be told there’s a “medical certainty” he’s too dangerous to live?
Curiously enough, considering the Doctor’s Hitler analogy, the next defendant, the one the Doctor is racing back to Lubbock to pronounce upon this afternoon, is sometimes called “Adolf.” The defendant usually refers to himself as Adolfo Hernandez, but on his rap sheet, his list of a.k.a.’s included “aka Adolf Hernandez.” And Lubbock prosecutor Travis Ware invariably refers to him as Adolf Hernandez.
Adolfo Hernandez was a thirty-eight-year-old ex-con with a long history of glue sniffing and house burglaries when he committed his first murder—beating an elderly woman to death with a baseball bat, a big, heavyweight Louisville Slugger type. Just so the jury wouldn’t forget, throughout the Lubbock trial, or at least during the death-penalty portion of it I saw, D.A. Travis Ware stalked around the courtroom questioning witnesses with the menacing bloodstained Louisville Slugger resting on his shoulder.
Lubbock’s a big town compared with Lamesa; it’s the jewel of the West Texas prairie, with major cotton and cattle money, home to the Texas Tech Red Raiders. The Lubbock trial featured a larger-scale cast of characters. There was D.A. Travis Ware—a Texas boy who was educated in England and returned home to become a hard-line law-and-order prosecutor. He drives around with a machine gun in his sports coupe, and has never lost a death-penalty trial.
When we arrived back at the Lubbock courthouse around noon on the day of the Doctor’s doubleheader lambada of death, Travis Ware was stalking the courtroom with the Louisville Slugger murder bat over his shoulder, beating up on one of several defense experts who had been flown in to beat up on the Doctor before he even took the stand. The courtroom seemed filled with shrinks taking notes, with lawyers who had upcoming death-penalty cases scoping out strategies against the Doctor. And indeed they’d thrown everything in the book at him this time—psychologists, sociologists, penologists.
This time, Brian Murray, an aggressive young lawyer on the Hernandez defense team, led the direct assault against the Doctor. He began confidently by asking the Doctor about the accuracy of future-dangerousness predictions. He began confidently because he was building on two days of testimony by defense experts who had recited studies all saying you couldn’t do it—you couldn’t scientifically, medically, accurately predict the dangerousness of any given killer.
“Did you follow up on [your predictions],” Murray asked the Doctor, “to see whether your analysis was correct?”
The Doctor smiled almost beatifically at the question as it came floating up to the plate, stepped into it, smashed it out of the park.
“The only study I know,” he said mildly, “was done by Judge James Zimmermann in Dallas, who conducted a study of all those [times] where I’d predicted a person would kill again in his court. And I had only predicted two of them. And both of them did again.” He didn’t go into the tree branch. He didn’t need to. It would have been overkill.
What he said, in the mildest of tones, was: “Both of them unfortunately had been released from the pen after committing murder. [Only one was in for murder. ] And both of them within a very short period of time committed murder again.”
He might as well have given Adolfo Hernandez a lethal injection right then and there. He was throwing the bodies left for dead by Turner and Woods in the jury’s lap and telling each juror: Twice before I told juries these men would kill, and both times those juries ignored me and both times innocent people were murdered because those juries didn’t listen to me. If you let Adolfo Hernandez live and if— when—he kills again, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In the mildest, friendliest, courtliest, country-doctor, Marcus Welby way he was telling them: The blood will be on your hands.
Once again the poor defense attorney who’d stepped into this trap found himself demoralized, disoriented, the wind knocked out of him, stumbling through the remainder of his examination of the Doctor. Stumbling eventually into a final, extra-cruel trap the Doctor sprang on him at the end.
Defender Murray was asking the Doctor about the absence of any neurological-or mental-test evidence on the defendant.
Isn’t it true, he asked the Doctor, that in the absence of any neurological studies you can’t rule out that organic brain damage or retardation might be at the bottom of Adolfo Hernandez’s problem, not your diagnosis of sociopathy?
“An attorney representing a client in a capital-murder case not knowing a possibility that would be a defense?” the Doctor replied. “That would be absurd.”
Bad enough. But the doomed defense attorney wouldn’t withdraw from this disaster area fast enough.
“The question was, what if that [testing for retardation, etc.] was not done? Would that affect the result?”
“Are we talking about a mentally retarded attorney?” the Doctor asked.
The whole courtroom rocked with laughter. Attorney Murray was left standing there glaring, humiliated, paralyzed.
The Doctor smiled benignly. Murray sat down, defeated. A day later the jury voted unanimously for death. It took them two hours.
Two down, one to go.
By the time we got back to Dallas for the final trial of the Doctor’s triple-header I’d begun to believe that he was invulnerable, unstoppable on the stand. That the death-penalty process in Texas was fatally skewed whenever the Doctor took the stand to testify—his skills as a witness unbalanced the scales of justice.
The problem is, the Supreme Court decision in Barefoot v. Estelle (which permitted the Doctor’s hypothetical future-dangerousness testimony) envisioned a vigorous adversarial process in which defense psychiatrists and lawyers could present their case to the jury, dispute, refute his “science.” In reality, the Doctor’s charisma and deadliness as a witness just overwhelm the process and create an intrinsic unfairness.
But finally, in Dallas, I saw the Doctor take a hit. Not a fatal one, but one that threw him off his stride. Even left him speechless on the stand for a moment— something nobody’s ever seen before. For that one moment the Doctor’s mask of utter confidence and geniality, of Marcus Welby—like disinterested benevolence, slipped.
It happened in the death-penalty trial of Gayland Bradford, a twenty-one-year-old black man accused of murdering a twenty-nine-year-old security guard in a Dallas grocery store.
There was little doubt about the nature of Gayland Bradford’s deed. It’s all there in the sickly-gray cinema verité of the security-camera videotape they played at his trial.
The tape was particularly devastating because in its opening moments it captured something about the security-guard victim’s life as well as his death. It showed him, moments before he was blown away, horsing around with the cashiers, doing a bit of an Oliver Hardy imitation, arms akimbo, saying, with mock outrage, “I hate this tie.”
Enter Gayland Bradford. A black-clad figure cuts purposefully through the gray static of the videotape, swiftly reaches the security guard. Sticks a gun into his spine and, before he knows what’s happened, blows a hole in him.
There’s a sickening POP on the sound track.
The guard sprawls backward beneath a checkout counter, bleeding but alive. “O.K., O.K., O.K.!” he pleads, holding up his hand, as if to fend off the gun Gayland Bradford is pointing at him. ”O.K.!” he says one last time.
It’s not O.K. with Gayland Bradford. He pumps three more shots into the guy, quieting him forever.
An open-and-shut case. To nobody’s surprise, the jury took twenty minutes to bring in a guilty verdict.
But the death-penalty phase of the trial brought two surprises. First, the Doctor would get to do something he rarely does these days. He’d get to go in and examine the murderer before testifying against him. (The judge had granted a prosecution motion that would have barred defense shrinks from introducing mitigating evidence from their exams unless the prosecution shrink—the Doctor—got to examine Bradford, too.)
That was the first surprise. The other surprise in this case was the Doctor’s attitude toward Gayland Bradford. It seemed to me from the moment he showed up at the trial and got a look at Bradford that the Doctor brought more than his usual competitive zeal to this case—he brought something extra, an almost personal animus, to the crusade to get Gayland Bradford executed.
I’m not sure why. Perhaps in part because we were back in Dallas, the Doctor’s home turf, but also a place where widespread publicity about his role in the Randall Dale Adams case had revived the Dr. Death image, challenged his reputation for invincibility and certitude. Perhaps also because he would be facing a particularly wily and experienced opponent on the defense team—Paul Brauchle —who’d tangled with the Doctor before and knew his tricks.
Or maybe it was just cultural, maybe it did all come down to Gayland Bradford’s lightning-bolt haircut, which, as we shall see, was certainly the flash point at the climax of the trial.
Whatever the source, I first noticed the Doctor’s extra-aggressiveness in this case on the Monday afternoon following the big Friday doubleheader. He was sitting in court furiously scrawling notes about the defense psychiatrist’s testimony, urgently passing the notes up to Dallas D.A. Dan Hagood to use in his cross-examination of the defense shrink. It was as if the Doctor wanted not merely to refute the defense psychiatrist’s testimony, he wanted to destroy him.
And, oddly enough, for different reasons I was feeling outraged about the defense psychiatrist, whose ineffectual performance on the stand typified what seemed to me the bankruptcy of conventional psychiatry in dealing with the life-or-death urgency of death-penalty trials.
Because this case had a real, arguable psychiatric issue. Unlike the Aaron Lee Fuller case, unlike the Adolfo Hernandez case, in which there was very little the defense could find to mitigate the horror and cold-bloodedness of the killings (Fuller was very young, Hernandez was very drunk—that was the best they could do), here there was a quantifiable mitigating issue: the possibility that Gayland Bradford was retarded. The defense psychologist who examined him had tested Bradford at an I.Q. of 75, borderline retarded; the Texas penitentiary had tested him at 68.
Retardation does not excuse a killer from responsibility or punishment. But a recent, very important Supreme Court decision in a Texas death-penalty case—the Penry decision—held that a death-penalty jury can be asked to consider evidence of diminished capacity such as retardation in deciding whether a killer deserves the maximum sanction of death.
But a number, 75 or 68, wasn’t enough. The Supreme Court decision did not hold that some arbitrary number disqualified a killer from capital punishment, merely that it could be used in the advocacy process of the death-penalty trial to argue for his life.
What Gayland Bradford needed was a powerful advocate to make the case that his lack of mental capacity diminished the degree of cold-blooded deliberation he brought to his crime.
What he got instead was a shrinking violet of an academic psychiatrist who clung to jargon-encrusted textbook clichés, who cowered behind his pose as an objective scientist and refused to contend for the life at stake, the way the Doctor contended for Gayland Bradford’s death.
When this defense shrink came under furious attack on cross-examination by D.A. Hagood, he acted petulant, insulted, and irritated that a scientist of his stature and dignity should have to defend himself in the sweaty arena of the courtroom.
Even the defense team was dismayed by its witness’s performance.
“This fucker is so stupid,” Paul Brauchle confided to me after the slaughter was over, “that he doesn’t even know how stupid he really is.”
I asked the Doctor what he might have said if he’d been hired to testify in Gayland Bradford’s defense. And he said, in effect, that he could probably have saved Gayland Bradford’s life.
“What you do,” he said offhandedly, “is tell the jury, ‘Look, it’s an awful crime, a tragedy, but this is a scared retarded kid.’ Sure the prosecution objects to your injecting this, but you’ve reached out and planted something the jury can hold on to, not all that bullshit about the Diagnostic Manual. ’ ”
Of course. Suddenly it seemed obvious. But in none of the three death-penalty trials I’d observed had any of the supposedly liberal psychiatrists had the will or the skill to reach out to the jury’s heart the way the Doctor does. I began to think the only way a death-penalty trial in which he testifies can be fair is if the Doctor is forced to make the case for both sides.
That was not the case in the Gayland Bradford trial. After demonstrating how he might have saved Bradford’s life, the Doctor proceeded, over the next forty-eight hours, to throw himself with redoubled vigor into the effort to ensure his death.
To this end he focused his sights on the unusual one-on-one, head-to-head “examination” of Gayland Bradford the court’s ruling had mandated.
Before the exam, he had two objectives. First, he wanted to refute the notion that Bradford was retarded. He didn’t buy the 75 I.Q. figure.
“That’s bullshit,” he told me. “I know it’s higher than that.”
“Based on what?” I asked him.
“Based on what I’ve heard,” he said vaguely.
He didn’t disclose the other objective to me right away, but it became the main objective of his exam. He wanted to pin another murder on Gayland Bradford. He wanted to prove he’d killed more than once—all the more reason to guarantee he’d kill again.
He’s played investigative shrink before with great success, he told me. A number of times he has examined killers arrested for the first time for murder and—acting on a hunch, on experience, on his data base—he’s not only tumbled to the fact these people have killed before, he’s gotten them to confess it. He can smell a repeat killer when he sees one, he says. He thought he saw one in Gayland Bradford.
And so it came to pass that at 4:35 P.M. on February 7, 1990, the Doctor was ushered into a conference room in the Dallas County jail. He introduced himself to Gayland Bradford, who was advised of his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The Doctor gave Gayland Bradford cigarettes; he gave him coffee; he gave him a ninety-minute “psychiatric examination” that was less like a medical procedure than a third degree in a precinct detective tank.
“He’s killed before. I know it.”
Those were the Doctor’s first words when he and his wife joined me for a previously scheduled dinner—right after leaving Gayland Bradford.
And as soon as we sat down to dinner at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the posh Dallas nouvelle-southwestern-cuisine mecca, the Doctor, flushed with victory, spilled out the extraordinary story of his invasive investigative probe into Gayland Bradford’s psyche.
It certainly was a curious dinner: the Doctor, ordering celebratory martini after martini (I counted four); the Doctor and his (third) wife, Vicki, describing their courtship on a Singles Bon Appetit cruise to Jamaica; the Doctor picking apart Gayland Bradford’s psyche the way he picked apart the limbs of his honey-roasted quail.
Vicki’s an attractive blonde pipeline-company executive, seventeen years younger than the fifty-six-year-old Doctor. She says he won her heart on the cruise when he tried to fix a kite-flying contest on her behalf. The Doctor, it seems, had bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of kites to give away to the poor Jamaican children; he organized kite-flying contests for the gourmet singles; and—this was the thing that sealed her love—he even contrived to surreptitiously tie an extra roll of twine to her kite string, to ensure hers would fly the highest and win the contest. She loved that gallant, competitive instinct about him. Still, they have some conflict because the Doctor seems to be a bit set in his ways about investments. Vicki, who’s done quite well for herself, wants the two of them to buy a house together. The Doctor’s also done well. He makes more than $200,000 a year from his private practice and his expert-witness fees ($150 an hour). Nonetheless, he wants to keep his capital in some investments he’s made in gold. Neither seems willing to back down, and despite mutual declarations of love, they’re considering splitting up over the house-buying issue.
I’d never seen the Doctor so animated, so thrilled with the chase, the hunt, as he was that night in his dramatic fresh-from-the-jail account of going head-to-head with Gayland Bradford.
He came on strong, he said. Forgetting about the conventional psychiatric procedure, which usually begins with a history and leads up to the crime, the Doctor early on got Gayland Bradford to take him through the murder step-by-step.
It was so fresh in the Doctor’s mind— and he still had his notes with him—that he recounted whole chunks of dialogue verbatim.
“Gayland goes through the whole killing bit,” the Doctor began. “How the guard’s saying ‘O.K., O.K.,’ and he’s shooting him a few more times. At this point I say, ‘Gayland, where did you get the gun?’
“ ‘Well, I had it.’
“ ‘How long have you had it?’
“ ‘Well, I don’t know.’
“Finally I say, ‘What did you do with your gun?’
“ ‘Well, I ditched it.’
“ ‘Well, why? Why did you do that? You didn’t ditch the security guard’s gun?’ ”
“ ‘I wanted to get rid of it.’
“ ‘Look, something doesn’t make sense here. You’ve made your confession, but you didn’t tell them where the gun is. How come?’
“ ‘I just wanted me to know.’
“You hear that?” the Doctor asked us. “He says, ‘I just wanted me to know.’ It had already dawned on me that he’s killed somebody else with it. Ballistics would show that. So because he doesn’t want to be connected with the other killings, he won’t say where the gun is. I don’t say that to him. My mind’s turning like mad. I said, ‘Gayland, how come you won’t tell them where the gun is? It doesn’t make any sense. Why, Gayland? Why?’
“Of course, I’m giving him cigarettes and coffee and we almost smoked the defense psychiatrist [there observing] out of the room.
“And by the way,” the Doctor added, “this kid’s not retarded. This kid’s vocabulary—I told him, ‘I’ve heard doctors say that you have a 75 I.Q., that you are mentally retarded, but I want you to know whoever made that stupid statement is 100 percent wrong.’ This with the defense psychiatrist who made the statement sitting right there,” the Doctor chortled.
But the Doctor hadn’t finished with the missing-gun question, and things soon built to an angry climax.
“I kept going, ‘Why, Gayland? Why won’t you tell me where the gun is?’ Well, after the fourth or fifth time he said the reason he wouldn’t say where the gun was is ‘I don’t know what the man who sold it to me might have done with it.’
“And of course I’ve got my wheels working, and I said, ‘What do you mean, what he might have done with it?’
“ ‘Well, he might have killed somebody with it.’ I said, ‘Oh, now I understand. You were afraid that if they found the gun, and it had killed somebody else, they might put that killing on you?’
“He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Hey, that makes sense.’ Turned to him and said, ’Gayland, this isn’t the first time you ever killed anybody!’
“ ‘What do you mean, man?’
“ ‘Gayland, this isn’t your first one.’
“I tried another avenue. Started taking him through his past criminal record. Then asked him, ‘When was the first time you broke the law and didn’t get arrested? Didn’t get caught?’ He looked at me like ‘You son of a bitch.’ Said, ‘I quit.’ ”
And that was it. “Well, he did say one more thing. As we were walking out, I kind of joked, I said to him, ‘Hey, man, I know more about you than your own mother.’ He said, ‘Bullshit.’ I said, ‘I guarantee you I know you a whole lot better than your mother, because I know what you’ve done.’ And as I was leaving he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘You’re slick.’ ”
“Yeah, it was ‘Hey, man, you’re slick.’ It’s the sociopath’s compliment. It’s the recognition of the sociopath for somebody who appreciates what he really is.”
He’s slick, the Doctor, yes. But almost too slick in this case. Because as it turned out, the Doctor’s trial appearance the next morning in the Gayland Bradford case was not the expected triumph he’d been brimming over with the night before.
Something happened that next morning on the stand, something I hadn’t seen before. The Doctor made a serious misstep, went a little too far in his avidity to nail Gayland Bradford.
What happened could perhaps be attributed to the four martinis over dinner the night before. The Doctor did look a little pale and irritable as he took the stand. It was that irritability, I believe, that caused him to stumble.
Not at first, not during direct testimony. There it was possible to detect an edge, but it came across as aggressiveness. Indeed, he was more aggressive than I’d seen him before. Not only did he predict future dangerousness, not only did he attempt to demolish the “I.Q. 75” defense, not only did he inject his uncorroborated suspicion that Gayland Bradford had killed more than once before, he also told the jury, “Gayland Bradford is one of the most dangerous killers I’ve ever examined or come in contact with.”
With all that, the Doctor didn’t need the haircut remark. But he just couldn’t help himself.
Paul Brauchle has a deceptively easygoing manner. Slight, extremely soft-spoken, with a puckish sense of humor, he’s cordial to the Doctor, but he has some very strong feelings about the Doctor’s practice.
“If you ask me, he’s the sociopath,” Brauchle told me in a courthouse-corridor conversation. “He’s the one who, despite reprimands, goes around making pronouncements which have been condemned by his profession. He’s the one who does it over and over again with no remorse,” Brauchle added. “Just like a sociopath.”
Brauchle told me he’s learned to be wary of the Doctor on cross, so I wasn’t expecting great things; I was surprised when he took the Doctor’s haircut comment and blasted it out of the park.
Now, earlier, while discussing the defendant with me, the Doctor had remarked a couple of times upon Gayland Bradford’s haircut. It was something of an advanced fashion statement, Gayland Bradford’s look. Unlike, say, Aaron Lee Fuller, who tried to craft a whole new, penitent image out of his crew cut, Gayland Bradford was not making a fashion statement calculated to ingratiate himself with the all-white jury deciding his fate.
It was a carefully sculpted flattop with shaved sides, common enough in urban areas everywhere by now. But with an added, less common touch: into each stubbly, shaved side of his head Gayland Bradford had had inscribed the unmistakable outline of a lightning bolt.
Despite the fact that his life was hanging by a thread, that thread consisting of the jury’s judgment of whether he might be dangerous in the future, Gayland Bradford had chosen a fashion statement that—whatever its private meaning to him—seemed to announce to the jury, “I am one dangerous dude.”
It was, however, certainly something the jury was already aware of. The Doctor didn’t need to point it out to them.
Still, the Doctor couldn’t resist taking a shot at it. It happened in the middle of cross-examination. Brauchle was questioning him about whether he’d prejudged the Gayland Bradford case, before he had walked in to examine him.
Perhaps the Doctor knew he was on thin ice on this subject and saw the haircut wisecrack as an escape.
In any case, when Brauchle asked him if he’d formed any other opinions about Gayland Bradford before he examined him, the Doctor said, trying for a laugh:
“Well, I thought that was the weirdest haircut I’d ever seen.”
There was a bit of nervous laughter in the courtroom which stopped dead when Paul Brauchle shot back:
“Pretty good reason to kill him, right?”
Then there was silence. It was one of those courtroom moments of truth that cut to the heart of the matter.
The Doctor himself was speechless for a moment. Something I’d never seen before.
Then lamely, plaintively he volunteered:
“Well, I’d never seen a haircut like that.”
At this point the judge, mercifully, decreed a recess.
But for one revealing moment the Doctor’s mask had slipped. The image of geniality and nonpartisanship he was so good at projecting to juries was betrayed by what seemed to be hostility. Not just to a haircut, but to Gayland Bradford himself. Not merely to Bradford’s crime, but to what he saw as Bradford’s cultural alienness. It seemed to call into question the Doctor’s ability to get inside Gayland Bradford’s head if he couldn’t get past his haircut.
Pretty good reason to kill him, right?
Nonetheless, if it bothered the jury, it didn’t bother them for too long. The moment of exposure passed rapidly. The Doctor looked shaken during the lunch recess; he knew he’d been roughed up by Brauchle, told me he knew he had to suppress his emotions, cool himself out. When he returned to the stand, he’d adopted a totally Gandhian tactic: soft-spoken, barely audible one-word answers to Brauchle’s sallies. No combativeness, total agreeableness. Brauchle gave up and the cross ended with a whimper, not a bang.
As it turned out, this jury did take longer than the Lubbock and Lamesa juries to make up its mind. Not two hours as in Lamesa and Lubbock, but six hours. Still, when they came back they’d followed the Doctor’s orders. They’d voted yes unanimously on the Special Issues.
Gayland Bradford was sent down to death row in Huntsville to join Aaron Lee Fuller, Adolfo Hernandez, and 322 other condemned murderers waiting out the appeals of their appointments with the Big Needle. In the fifteen years since the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for the resumption of capital punishment, Texas has executed thirty-three of its death-row population. In the past, it’s generally taken six and a half years before a death-row inmate gets strapped onto a gurney and hooked up to the lethal intravenous infusion.
But there are signs that the pace may quicken for Fuller, Hernandez, and Bradford. Two March 1990 Supreme Court decisions may cut years off the average length of time spent before execution by cutting off secondary avenues of appeal previously available in the form of habeas corpus hearings. In a recent Texas gubernatorial-primary campaign, two Democratic candidates tried to outbrag each other in promising how many they’d execute how fast. And it’s not just in Texas— heart of the “death belt,” as foes call the five southern states with the largest death-row population—that the rate of executions may be about to make a quantum leap. This month, California has scheduled its first execution in a quarter-century and will begin the inexorable process of bringing its huge backlog of 273 death-row inmates to the gas chamber.
For those who believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder and who favor more death sentences executed more quickly, the Doctor is something of a hero of productivity. Almost like an Old West marshal riding into town to swiftly string up evildoers. To those who oppose the death penalty, he’s the embodiment of all that’s arbitrary and capricious about how we select who gets killed.
But few would disagree with Gayland Bradford’s awed assessment of the Doctor: He’s slick.
Or Justice Blackmun’s: He equates with death itself.
[Photo Credit: Duane Stephen Michals via The Art Institute of Chicago]