For some criminal defense attorneys and journalists, the quest to find and exonerate an inmate wrongly convicted of murder is the white whale of their profession — endlessly pursued with a passion that borders on zeal.
In his deeply reported and briskly written new book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Siegel tells of one such quest that stretched over a decade.
If it were simply a story of virtue’s triumph over adversity, Manifest Injustice would be important and highly readable. But its denouement is more complex and its conclusions are more nuanced. Pity the reader who bails out early.
At the center of the twisting tale is Bill Macumber, model citizen, military veteran, super-dad and law-enforcement supporter who was arrested 12 years after the 1962 murder of a young couple who were snuggling in their car parked on a lover’s lane outside Scottsdale, Ariz. Convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Late in the saga, a member of the Arizona state clemency board, a former state attorney general, called the Macumber case “one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen” with its tangled facts and puzzling questions.
Siegel’s careful, detailed reporting reveals a series of oddities and contradictions: a confession to the murder by a convicted killer that was not allowed as evidence; a supposed confession by Macumber given to his estranged wife, an employee of the sheriff’s department investigating the case; disputed ballistics and fingerprint evidence; and the lack of a motive or any prior behavior that could explain a double murder.
A young woman claimed to have been at the scene when the murders occurred. Her description of the gunman seemed to match that of the confessed killer, who died in prison. She knew facts that were never included in news stories. But then she recanted her story.
A picture of a palm print on the car of the two victims seemed, to the prosecution, to fit Macumber. Did Macumber’s wife, with access to the evidence because of her job, doctor the print to frame him, as he long claimed?
Macumber became a model prisoner, establishing self-help programs for inmates. He was allowed to travel outside the prison without supervision because authorities trusted him. He is calm and articulate, his letters and journals compelling.
In 1998, more than two decades after his conviction, Macumber’s case came to the attention of the Arizona Justice Project. Led by a veteran defense attorney and backed by the idealism and energy of law students at Arizona State University, the project takes on the toughest of cases: those in which innocence cannot be established by DNA evidence because none exists.
Among the many contradictions pointed out by Siegel, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and now a professor at University of California Irvine, is this whopper: DNA has been used to free hundreds of prisoners, showing that the criminal justice system is deeply flawed. Yet the promise and hype surrounding the advanced technology may have made it more difficult for prisoners to win appeals in cases where no such evidence exists.
Rich Robertson, a reporter turned private detective, concluded that finding evidence in the case was “like doing archaeology.” Law enforcement documents had been lost; a “housecleaning” at the Maricopa County Superior Court “authorized the destruction of all evidence and exhibits in the Macumber case.”