Twenty-two years after being sent to prison for an unspeakable crime he did not commit, Calvin Willis walked out a free man, the 138th American exonerated by DNA evidence. He has won his freedom, yes, but how does a falsely accused man reclaim his life?
Photo Editor David Carthas
Three little girls sleep in a house. They're alone. It's a strange house, long like a shoebox and only one room wide, tin-roofed, set on cinder blocks, removed from the street by a long steep rise. The house has no toys, no television, so the girls have spent the night playing dress-up- they've all gone to sleep wearing comically large women's nightgowns. Katina is 7. She lies in her mama's bed. Her 9-year-old sister, Latanya, curls on the living room couch with their friend, Lucretia. (The victim’s name has been changed) It's a dim, grimy room, littered with beer cans and lit by a single red bulb propped in the front window.
Where are their parents? The fathers -vanished. The mothers come and go at weird hours. Often they're gone all night, sometimes for days at a time. When they go, Lucretia babysits Katina and Latanya, though Lucretia herself is just a child. She's two weeks from her eleventh birthday. She's large for her age, and vaguely sad, a special-ed kid who understands others only when they stand in front of her and speak loudly and slowly. An odd drowsiness envelops her. She often sleeps from nine in the evening until three the next afternoon.
A man enters. Gently, he lifts Latanya off the couch, takes her to the bedroom, sets her down next to her younger sister, then returns to the living room.
He's not gentle with Lucretia. He puts both hands around her neck, wrenches her into the air, hurls her against the thin wall separating the living room from the bedroom. A noise flutters out of her. Katina and Latanya come half awake. They listen from their mother's bed less than a foot away. They're scared but too young to understand. Even if they did, there'd be no call to 911. The house has no phone.
The man mashes a thumb into Lucretia's throat. Then, palming her forehead with both hands, he wallops the living room wall with her skull once, twice, three times.
He says, "Shut up, or I'll kill you.”
Lucretia can see him in the red light of the room. Black man. Big. A beard. Cowboy hat and cowboy boots.
Has she seen him before? Maybe.
Lucretia twists. Twists free.
Bursts through the door. The block is dark except for a single streetlamp between her house and the next. She flees into its yellow cone of light. The beige nightgown she's wearing, sized for a woman and trailing behind her on the lawn, trips her. He catches up. She gets another look at him, the hulking cowboy with his hat and his boots.
He says nothing. Just takes Lucretia by both hands, the way a father might take a daughter to swing her around in circles, and boots her in the stomach. She goes limp. He carries her back into the house. Now that she's had the fight kicked out of her, he can take his time. He removes the boots, the pants. He keeps the hat on. After, he decides to leave a memento on the living room couch. A pair of boxer shorts, bunched and wet, size 40.
Eleventh of June 1981. Dawn. Calvin Willis wakes with a start. He feels odd. Not himself. He feels larger than himself, as if his spirit has grown beyond the boundaries of his body. He nudges his pregnant wife.
"Debbie, something going on with me.”
"Oh, Calvin," she says, smiling, eyes closed.
"Serious. I feel good."
He wants to explain it to her, but how? So much change lately. In the five years he's known her, she's been singing the same song. Come home, Calvin. Until recently, he's scattered himself around town. How could he not? At 22, Calvin Willis has a gift, an ease -the guileless, guileful appeal of a man with a blessed body that he is unafraid to fully inhabit. Big Hands, they call him. Not just for the physical fact of the hands, which would look enormous on a seven-foot man, much less one standing five feet eight, but because he is, simply, a handler. A man who knows how to dance fast and dance slow, how to tell a story, how to make his friends feel they're at the center of things, afloat with him in his bubble of youth even as they're stuck in Shreveport, Louisiana, an industrial smear near the Texas border.
Yes, Calvin has always enjoyed being Calvin. Some months ago, though, the thrill began steadily growing. At first he thought he was simply being given more mojo. But soon it became clear that the voice in his head was proffering not license but conviction. It's time to step up. Be a man. Be a father to the 2-year-old daughter he and Debbie already had, and to the son she was carrying.
So Calvin decided to take the enormous energy of his youth and his manhood, his spirit, and pour it into their life together. Step by step, he began changing things. Two months ago, he married Debbie. He started talking to God, too, like when he was a kid, giving the Old Man the play-by-play on his inner workings, in part to humble himself and in part to show he finally had something worth saying. Now they converse when Calvin is in his car, or walking down the street, or in the shower, and after they hang up, Calvin often finds himself singing.
You know, my Jesus is on the main line/ Call him up sometime!
Just yesterday Calvin quit his job as a sanitation worker. He doesn't want his kids having to say their daddy rides the back of a garbage truck. He's going to become a long-haul truck driver instead. He's due to take his written test this very day.
Now, as he sits in bed next to his sleeping wife…a giddy feeling. The optimism he's been feeling is there, but something else is, too, a touch of the queer dark energy that's come over the neighborhood in the last few days. That business with the girl. Calvin was shocked to hear of it but not surprised; he'd believed for some time that the girl's mother, Barbara, and her next-door neighbor, Maxine, were turning tricks, that their homes were parades of junkies and strange men. He'd gotten into it with Maxine a month before. She'd wanted to know why he thought he was too good for her. He'd told her he didn't truck with no hookers.
Then, yesterday, after his last shift hauling trash, Calvin stopped by his grandmother's.
"You been on Perrin Street?" she said sternly.
One block over, where Lucretia lived.
"Two detectives been by looking for you."
Calvin waited all day, but the detectives never followed up.
Twenty-four hours later he's all but forgotten about that. As he sizes himself up in the mirror -the sheen of his Jheri curl; the ivory shirt cuffs that show off, by contrast, those giant languorous hands of his; the thick black belt with the nickel-plated buckle, tightly cinched around the taper of his twenty-nine-inch waist- he chats casually with his Jesus. "Don't know what you got planned for me today, Lord, but it feels big!" Yet once he's done with Jesus, he finds he can't stop talking. To Debbie. To himself. To the air.
"Somethin' different today!" he says, walking out the door. "I can feel it!"
He fires up the Dodge Colt, pulls out of the driveway. After one block he begins to feel physically uncomfortable, his whole body queasily overloaded like a sleeping limb roused to feeling. Two blocks from home he slams on the brakes. Now he knows.
He whips the car around. Pulls into the driveway. With one hand he throws the car door open. With the other he undoes his collar. He scurries up the walk, throws the door open. Shucks his boots.
"That you, Calvin?"
Calvin snaps the belt off his waist. "God damn!" Unzips his pants as he strides past the room where his daughter still sleeps.
"Calvin, what you doin'?"
He doesn't answer. Just takes off his boxer shorts, climbs into bed and says simply, "I love you.” Then slowly, serenely, with eyes wide open, ever careful of her curved belly, he makes love to his wife.
The written exam takes two hours. He schedules his road test for the following Monday, then emerges from the driving academy brimming with the calm, clean feeling that comes from taking care of business. A small voice in his head then.
One more thing to set right.
Calvin crosses the street to City Hall, where the police are headquartered, and steps up to the front desk.
"My name is Calvin Willis," he says, "and I hear y'all lookin' for me?'
In prison, to stay in shape, Calvin invented an elaborate workout routine that included his sink, his bed, and the bars of his cell. he even used law books for biceps curls.
Ninth of June 1981. Two days prior.
Maxine gets home first. The sun is up. Her daughters, Latanya and Katina, play in the yard. She heads for the bedroom. Lucretia's hunched in a chair with her face buried in a pillow.
The girl's face is a shell, lumpy and discolored. Dried blood sheathes her neck. Maxine goes next door for a phone.
A detective named Betty Brookins arrives. What happened? Who did this to you? But Lucretia is incoherent. She keeps grabbing her stomach and breaking into hysterics.
Maxine gets Lucretia's mom, Barbara, on the phone. She's at somebody's house watching The Price Is Right.
"Mama," Lucretia says, when Barbara appears. "That man ugly.”
At the hospital, Barbara remains with her daughter for a while. But only for a while. After a few hours she goes back to Perrin Street, where she and Maxine and a few of their neighbors start to hash things out. Fueled by grief and spite and a feral hazy sense that somebody needs to pay, they make a decision.
You'll find him one block over, they soon tell the detectives. At his grandmother's.
"This is about Perrin Street,” the detective says, "and what you did there Monday night."
"Monday night?" Calvin says. "Let me lay it out for you."
He provides the details. How Debbie told him as he walked out the door that she wanted him home by midnight. How he laughed -what did it matter whether he was in by midnight or sunrise, since her big old pregnant self was going to be in bed the whole time anyway? How he hung out with his friends Gerald and Jerome until eight o'clock. How Calvin and Jerome went off and visited a couple of friends, then hit the Glass Hat Lounge around ten forty-five. How, when he stripped to his underwear, threw his pants and shirt over the dresser, and got into bed, Debbie roused, looked at the clock, saw that it was exactly five minutes to midnight, and said, You made it home, Calvin.
"Do you remember what shoes you were wearing, Calvin?"
Calvin laughs. Nothing he wears is ever an afterthought.
"Dress shoes. Beige. Leather.”
"Not cowboy boots?"
"What about a cowboy hat? You have a hat on, Calvin?"
"Haven't worn a hat since last winter.”
"You sure about that?"
"Look at me," Calvin says, pointing to his hair. "This cost me sixty-five dollars. You think I want to hide my curl? You think I want to muss it up with a hat?"
"That little girl knows who you are, Calvin. She knows your face.”
There's an edge of fear now. This is 1981, not 1960, but it's still Louisiana, and Calvin is still a black man answering to a white detective. To help keep cool, he begins a separate and simultaneous conversation. To the detective he says aloud, evenly, "Sir, my wife is pregnant. I have a daughter. Till lately I been keeping three women on the side. I don't got to rape nobody." To his constant companion he says silently, ardently, Sweet Jesus, I been trying to get good with you. You know that, right?
"Would you be willing to take a test, Calvin?"
"I take any test you got.”
Calvin surrenders his saliva, his pubic hair, his blood. The tests show him to be a type O secretor. Like 41 percent of black people. And like the cowboy man, whose semen has been found spangled over the size 40 boxer shorts and Lucretia's nightgown, and inside her.
Forty-one percent. Thousands, millions, of other men standing between him and the horror on Perrin Street. It can't touch him, can it?
Of course it can, for the oldest, tritest reason of all: He's black and poor.
Calvin is charged with the aggravated rape of a child and jailed pending trial.
Seven months pass.
When Calvin was 2 years old, his mother took him to his grandparents' house. He was so malnourished he was covered with sores -he looked gnawed- and drifted from room to room like a wraith, whispering nonsense to himself.
"Give me that little boy,” Calvin's grandfather demanded.
"Take him,” Calvin's mother said. "I can't take care of him.”
So Calvin grew up calling his grandparents, Samuel and Narlvil Newton, Poppa and Momma. The Newtons, they were as filled with God, exuberantly and tremulously, as people can be on this earth, and they taught their boy how to open his heart to God, how to talk to Him and praise Him with song.
Twenty years later, the Newtons once again stand between Calvin and the abyss.
The lawyer they hire, a man named Stacey Freeman, believes the state had no cause even to suspect, much less arrest, Calvin, and waives his client's right to a jury trial. This is an incendiary charge, after all; why bring human uncertainty and prejudice into the equation when the case -as a matter of law, of fact- is so feeble? Let the judge rule from the bench.
From the get-go, however, the trial is bizarre. The district attorney announces that a day after the rape, Lucretia picked Calvin's face out of a photo lineup (the police having had his mug on file from a couple of misdemeanor arrests dating to '79). Neither Calvin nor his lawyer has heard of this lineup. The DA says he himself has just learned of it. He also announces that the photo lineup has been lost. And that the police have kept no record of how it was assembled.
After the judge denies Freeman's motion to exclude, the lineup and the issue underlying it-did Lucretia actually name Calvin as her attacker and, if so, when-becomes the trial's central question. Problem is, nearly all the prosecution witnesses contradict statements they made to police the day of the crime-and even statements they've already made on the stand. The testimony of Lucretia's mother, Barbara, is typical: She starts by saying she'd never heard the name Willis before talking to the detectives. Then she admits she had. Then she says a detective suggested the name to her. Finally, she says that Lucretia named "Calvin" to her just before they arrived at the police station on the morning of the tenth.
Then there is Lucretia. She is, simply, a terrified child, saying "yes" both literally and effectively to whatever is being asked, no matter who's asking, and casting a veil of confusion. Even her swearing-in raises questions.
"Do you know what an oath means, when you raise your hand to tell the truth?" Judge Paul Lynch asks.
"Like when your mama tells you not to do something and then you go and do it?" she offers.
Unsatisfied, or perhaps unnerved, Lynch persists.
"What did that mean when you said that you would tell the truth?"
"You are unable to answer?"
Lucretia shakes her head.
"You are crying. Are you that upset?"
Despite this beginning, Lucretia possesses some recall about the photo array.
"[Detective Betty Brookins] showed me some pictures, and then she told me to pick the ones that didn't have a full beard;' she says, later adding, ominously, "[Brookins] said pick the one who did it to you, and I said neither one of them.”
In other words, the police did not ask if her attacker's face was among the photos, as they should have, but told her it was -and instructed her to find it. (Detective Brookins corroborates Lucretia's account, testifying that she told the girl, "I need you to pick out the one that raped you.”)
Lucretia's testimony gets stranger still. Under cross-examination, she says that she was unable to pick a face from the lineup, that the name Calvin was then suggested to her, and that she still didn't pick out a face.
When Calvin takes the stand, his sense that the trial has become a joke mixes with his fear to produce a taut, edgy witness, ready to fight. After the DA launches a series of oddball questions about daylight savings time, Calvin snaps.
"Do I look like I got a hole in the top of my head?"
"I don't know what you understand,” the DA says.
“Are you trying to take me for a fool?"
Calvin's account-everything from where he was, and when, to the beige shoes he was wearing- squares perfectly with the testimony of his friends, Jerome and Gerald, with whom he spent the night of June 8, and with that of his wife. But in the end, Calvin's testimony does not matter. Nor does it matter that if the testimony of Calvin's alibi witnesses is taken at face value, the scenario of Calvin as rapist necessarily means that he returned home at five to midnight, changed out of his beige shoes, played possum for a while next to his sleeping wife, snuck out of bed, dressed up as a cowboy, left the house, savagely raped and beat a child, returned home, hung up his cowboy paraphernalia, and crept back into bed without rousing his wife. It does not even matter that the rapist's waistline, as evidenced by his boxer shorts, is eleven inches larger than Calvin's.
None of this matters because the trust-worthiest witness of all -science- has calmly pointed its finger at Calvin: "Shorts were found at the scene," Lynch rules, "and… semen stains matched that of the defendant. The nightgown that was worn by the victim had semen stains that matched that of the defendant.”
On February 2, 1982, Judge Lynch finds Calvin Willis guilty of raping a child. On May 17, 1982, Lynch sentences him to a term no shorter than "natural life" without the possibility of parole.
"Do you have anything to say?" Lynch asks.
Calvin turns from the judge to face Mrs. Newton. He speaks in a quiet, bewildered voice.
"I didn't do it, Momma.”
Narlvil Newton feels her face tightening into a mask, openmouthed and silent, as her boy is taken away.
"Momma?" Calvin whispers, looking back, waiting for her face to move. "Momma?"
Calvin and Janet Gregory, the woman who devoted twenty years of her life to saving him, outside the house where the rape occurred in June 1981.
In all of Shreveport, young Lucretia notwithstanding, is there a human being as cursed as Calvin Willis?
There is her name is Janet Gregory. She's a white woman a few years older than Calvin who walks with a limp and talks with a drawl. By her own admission she was raised among racists, though she herself has never bought into that. Prissy, as she is known, has an unusual disposition. She has an uncanny ability to sniff out liars and phonies and a corresponding inability, just as uncanny, to refrain from telling those liars and phonies exactly what she thinks of them. In other respects Prissy is strangely guarded. She doesn't like being looked at or touched by men, because men have brought almost incomprehensible pain to her life. Three months after marrying her high school sweetheart, Ralph, Prissy accidentally shot herself through the knee with his .357. Doctors told her she would never walk again. Four months later, before it became clear that Janet was tougher than anyone knew and would indeed walk again, Ralph was killed in a car wreck.
When a proper period of time had passed, Prissy agreed, at the prodding of friends, to date a man named Daryl. He picked her up in his truck and took her not to the concert he'd told her they'd be attending but to his rented trailer home. He asked her to take a seat, walked into another room, returned with a shotgun, and announced that she would be performing oral sex on him.
"I think you should just shoot me,” Prissy said.
Daryl shrugged, laid the shotgun in one corner, raped her, then drove her home.
On some level, Prissy suspected that Daryl might somehow be the price she needed to pay for living and breathing when her husband had died, so for many years she told no one about what had happened in the trailer.
She did find love again, though. His name was Ferris. They married. Ferris and his dog were hit by a seventy-five-car freight train. He'd been fiddling with the radio in his truck.
Prissy is now married to her third husband. She refers to this man not as "my husband" but as "my son's father.” This is because he beats and forces himself upon her.
In years to come, after she secures a protective order and a divorce, people will ask about her ex, and Janet will say, "The one constant anger in my life is my son's father. I can handle whatever happened between him and me. I can handle no child support. But for my boy's whole life he hasn't had a father. And for that, I could literally rip his head off and shit down his neck.” Given all that has befallen Janet Gregory; such statements carry a certain weight.
Because Janet's third husband-whom she characterizes drily, ominously, as "the one who lives"- makes no financial contribution, she works as a paralegal. In this capacity, she strikes up some remarkable relationships. One is with a death-row inmate named Wayne Felde, whom her boss represents on appeal. Janet knows Felde killed a policeman in a drunken rage, and he doesn't pretend that he didn't. But throughout his unsuccessful appeals-even after she stops working for his lawyer-she talks to Wayne Felde, writes him, visits him, lays her hands upon him during court proceedings, functions as a vessel for him, assuring him when he feels his humanity departing him that it is safe and intact with her. This is the thing about Janet. For some reason, her sufferings, rather than withering her soul, have greatly expanded it. They have given her sight into the inner lives of others and, yes, an abiding and forceful anger. Yet what she sees she tends not to judge, the energy of her rage instead being transmuted into wondering: What is my role here? On the day of his electrocution, Wayne and Janet speak on the phone until his time comes. "I have to go, they're here for me, I love you, I'll miss you, goodbye," he says. Janet takes out a loan to pay for his burial.
After working for Felde's lawyer, Janet finds employment with an attorney named Graves Thomas-whom Momma and Poppa Newton have hired to appeal Calvin's conviction. In May 1987, while weighing Calvin's options, Graves-one of Janet's dearest friends-goes waterskiing. After cleaning moss from the engine's propeller, he steps up to the deck, says, "Let's go!" and is struck dead by lightning.
A few months after this, Samuel Newton, Calvin's de facto father and the man whose meager salary has been keeping Calvin's legal strategies -his hope- alive, dies of cancer. Calvin is given leave from prison to attend the funeral. In a way, it feels like his own.
In the two years preceding Graves Thomas's death, Calvin has heard the name Janet Gregory once or twice, though he's never met her. He actually thinks she's a secretary. He does not know that there is little in this world Janet Gregory has not withstood, or how this has generated a matter-of-fact willingness-utterly bold, utterly without vanity-to think Yes, I'll take it to everything life shovels at her, no matter how daunting or malign. He does not know that Janet Gregory, a white woman raised to be racist and violated by two men, has been going through her dead boss's files, reading the trial transcript of a black man convicted of rape and alternately exclaiming "This is bullshit!" and "I cannot live with this!" and, more important, wondering, What is my role here?
All Calvin knows is that there are two people out of place at his grandfather's wake, and that Calvin is one of them. There are the scores of mourners in their Sunday best, silent and elegant, all black. There is Calvin, hands and ankles tautly chained to a black steel box affixed to his beltline, shuffling, clanking, eyes lowered-no longer Big Hands, no longer the man who once used his gaze to seize ownership of whatever came before him. And there is that woman, the sole white face, kneeling before his children and speaking softly. Now she's moving toward Calvin, limping, crying, backing his guards off with a ferocious glare, then hugging his neck and saying Calvin, oh Calvin. It's been five years since any woman-including his wife, whom he sees only at family gatherings in prison -has touched him with such intensity.
"Lady," he says, "who are you?"
Back with his family in Shreveport: Calvin, surrounded by, from left, his ex-wife, Debbie; Calvin jr. (who was born while Calvin was in jail, awaiting trial); and Kesha, his daughter.
From 1982 to 1986 the state of Louisiana houses Calvin at the Caddo Correctional Institute thirty miles outside Shreveport. Debbie brings the family every Saturday -Momma and Poppa Newton, while he's still alive; Calvin's little girl, Kesha, 3 years old at the time of his conviction; and Calvin Jr., the baby, born while Calvin was jailed awaiting trial-and this gives his life a semblance of reality, even as the reunions, in a noisy visitor's room full of strangers, feel formal and sterile and weird.
The visits are never enough, of course. Not even close. His need for Debbie is complex. At first he tethers his longing to his memories: of dancing with her for an hour straight the night they met; of their holiday celebrations; of Kesha's birth; of instances when the might of their physical love verged on the preposterous. But as the years pass, he comes to see that there is a difference between what he can remember about their relationship and the relationship itself -that the great moments of their life, though marvelous, are unconnected dots, and that what actually holds a man and a woman together are millions of tiny, unremarkable moments that cannot be individually seen or collectively explained. The moments one simply must be there for. So he finds himself pining for what he cannot quite remember, the nonevents, the sweet quiet nothings of being with her. There's a thing she used to do as she nuzzled his chest in bed, a peaceful rolling coo. Did she know she did it? Did she know he could feel the low little hum in his sternum? What did she mean by it? Something plain and good, he thinks now. You're here with me. I'm here with you.
His longing for his babies, on the other hand, is not complex. Where missing Debbie is an act, something he engages in, his need for his babies seizes and terrorizes him. There is no controlling it. He will try to numb himself, dip his mind in a gray vagueness for days at a time, but then something sharp-the ammoniac sting of industrial solvent in the mess, the cold shock of his cell's stainless-steel shitter against his haunches-will jerk him to a state of full awareness and he will freeze, clasp his son's first bib, which he keeps with him, over his eyes and say aloud, "My babies.” He discovers that his desperate hunger to touch them, compounded a hundredfold by the fact that he's innocent-he is innocent!-is sometimes ameliorated by physical pain. One day he goes so far as to sneak into a room he's not supposed to be in. When, inevitably, a guard approaches saying, "Hey, you," Calvin calmly wraps a hand around the man's forearm, lowers himself into the man's chest, and flips him on his back. The storm comes within seconds, half a dozen guards with billy clubs, calling him nigger and bludgeoning his kidneys and shins until he no longer feels the agony of his lost children.
In 1986, shortly before being transferred 260 miles across the state to Angola prison, Calvin addresses the unspoken question hanging over the Saturday reunions. He asks the Newtons and his children for some time with Debbie. Once they're alone, he tells his wife that he aches for her, aches the way he did in his last hours as a free man, when a spirit came upon him and sent him home to make love to her for the last time. Debbie begins to cry.
"Don't say this thing, Calvin?'
But he must, and she knows it. He tells her that he knows it's been hard for her. That he knows she's been working six days a week at Dillard's with double shifts on Saturdays. That he knows Kesha and Calvin Jr. now spend most of their time at their great-grandparents' That this is no way to live. And he tells her that even though the thought of her with another man feels to him like a form of death, he knows that it must happen.
"I hate it' Debbie sobs. "I hate it!"
Calvin just shakes his head, folds his big hands around hers, and looks her in the eye.
"The only thing in this world that could separate us,” he tells her, "is if you had a child by another man.”
Calvin and Momma Newton, the grandmother who raised him. When Calvin was 2, his biological mother declared herself unfit to care for him.
The most despised and marked man in the world is the man imprisoned for raping a child, so Calvin tells no one on the inside why he is there. To avoid anyone asking, he seeks no company and strives to keep others from seeking it in him. To hide himself in plain sight, he kills everything within him that is engaging -his ability to tell a story, to offer counsel, to make everyone around him laugh and forget. He even strips the confidence and sex from his stride, tightening it up and keeping his eyes downcast when he moves from here to there so that his body in motion suggests nothing except Nothing to see here.
Calvin's way of being, showing his heart to God through constant conversation while showing the world the face of a zombie, takes enormous effort. It requires psychic sustenance: the faith and love of family and of the extended community back in Shreveport. Yet after the first few months, nobody besides Calvin's family visits. Nobody writes. Why? Why don't all those people who once adored Big Hands stick by him?
It's not that anyone back home thinks he's guilty. Nor does their belief in his innocence lack conviction. They are thoroughly convicted people. Yet theirs is not a conscientious, do-the-right-thing kind of conviction. It's subtler, deeper, beyond righteous anger: It's conviction-as-resignation. The people Calvin grew up with presume that innocent black men will go to jail and that there's nothing anybody can do about it. Most are Baptists or born-again evangelicals, a handful of generations removed from slave theology, who believe that the reward for people such as them lies in the next plane and that there is little if any human agency in this world. When a right man like Calvin is shut away, their response is less That is an outrage! than Ain't that a shame.
Debbie, though, does not believe God has willed Calvin to be in prison or his community to abandon him, and she is outraged. Her anger thickens and curdles her heart until she begins to carry a conviction other own, secret and terrible. One day when she can no longer abide herself, she tells her grandmother-in-law that as hard as it is working all those shifts at Dillard's, she's starting not to mind, because almost everyone she works with is white.
"They the only ones that been offering me kindness."
"You need to look to God, child," Mrs. Newton says.
"We got a black church on every corner in this neighborhood-where they been?" Debbie fires back "It's a white church that's been bringing my kids gifts at Christmastime. My pastor hasn't even talked to me about it. I got no one of my own people I can talk to. Black people don't stick together, Momma! Now that we finally got something-'cause we free and we can work and make something of ourselves-it's like we afraid they'll take it away again, so we don't share anything with each other.”
Debbie knows how a bigoted mind works, the way it assigns the characteristics of individuals to whole groups of people. All black people eat watermelon… All black people are shiftless… But as her community forsakes her family, she finds her mind and heart similarly debased-black people don't stick together-and the indignity of it makes her all the more enraged at what the state of Louisiana has done to their lives.
When Calvin sees that white woman whispering to his 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son at Poppa Newton's wake, he assumes she's talking cute to them, distracting them from the enveloping sadness. He's wrong. She is making a furious and tender vow.
"Two things," she tells Kesha and Calvin Jr. "First, if you hear people saying bad things about your daddy today, don't you believe a word of it." The children nod. They don't know what to make of this woman. "Second, if I have to, I will go to my grave trying to prove he is innocent."
Indeed. After cookie and a few other nouns, Calvin is one of the first words Janet Gregory's child utters. Sometimes when his mother can't get to the phone, he'll pick up and squeal "Calvin! Calvin! Calvin!" into the receiver. In a way, "Calvin" becomes the man of Janet's fatherless house, a palpable presence by way of the legal briefs carpeting the living room floor and the Post-it-note brainstorms spackling the walls.
Just as some nurses become as expert in medicine as the doctors they work with, Janet has built an encyclopedic knowledge of criminal law. While holding down a job, attending classes in pursuit of a college degree, and singly raising her child, she researches and writes Calvin's petitions herself, picking apart the bungled photo array and the contradictory testimony at his trial. Then she shows up at the doorsteps of various Shreveport lawyers, announcing that "I've prepared this marvelous writ and I need a warm body with a law degree to sign it.” Since everyone knows she's no sucker or bleeding heart, and since she's just a little bit scary, they sign.
In 1988, by way of Janet, Calvin files a postconviction application. It is denied without explanation. This kind of per curiam judgment, as it is called, is very difficult to challenge. By essentially declaring, "Because we said so,” it offers a convict no legal traction, no argument to parse on appeal.
In 1989 he files a writ of habeas corpus. Denied per curiam.
In 1990 he files a second postconviction application. Denied per curiam.
The same year, he files his second writ of habeas corpus. Denied per curiam.
Again in 1990 he files for postconviction relief with the Louisiana Supreme Court. Denied per curiam.
In early 1991 he files another writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Denied per curiam.
During these years, as Janet fails to prove Calvin's innocence -fails, even, to get a court to explain his "guilt"- the two of them never lay eyes upon one another. In fact, after their first face-to-face at his grandfather's wake, Calvin and Janet don't meet in person for seven years. Janet simply hasn't the time or the money for the 520-mile round-trip from Shreveport to Angola prison. She does not travel. She does not eat out. She does not shop. She does not have a love life. She works at her job and her schoolwork, raises her boy, and files briefs.
Despite the physical distance-or perhaps because of it-Janet's relationship with Calvin takes on a teetering intensity. At first their letters and calls concern only legal matters. After a time, though, what once became clear to Wayne Felde becomes clear to Calvin Willis: that Janet knows no bounds, that she is capable of acting as a preserving vessel for another person's humanity -humanity that would otherwise stagnate or deform. Tentatively at first, then flowingly, then in a roaring geyser, Calvin reveals to Janet everything. Everything he must keep hidden in Angola for fear of being killed, or worse, and everything he must keep hidden from the members of his family, who are already fragile. Only with Janet is he able to flex the humor and intelligence and libido and wrath that together form his manhood. He tells Janet about Angola, a hard-labor camp redolent of the slave plantation it once was, where Louisiana's lifers are sent to wither and die -how the place is designed not to rehabilitate or even hold men but to turn them into something less than men. He tells her how every day hurts and threatens to remove him from his self. He tells her what it's like not to see his wife and children and mother, and how the ghost of things not done haunts his conscience. He tells her about his ongoing lover's quarrel, belligerent and ecstatic, with his God. He tells her about his fevered and tearful masturbation, usually conducted without privacy. He tells her about scouring the dictionary in the prison library for new, long, strong, clean words : phenomenon, fastidious, punctilious, omnipotent. He tells her about performing biceps curls with law books-the only way they prove useful. He tells her about the dead-eyed cellmate who, when arrested in a nightclub, had a beer in one hand and a sack stuffed with a woman's head in the other. He tells her about seeing human beings hang themselves, puncture their wrists, overdose, anything to escape, and about human flesh getting shivved and cudgeled and fucked. He tells her about the petty and arbitrary humiliations the guards mete out: the way they give Calvin thirty days in extended lockdown for "reckless eyeballing" (failing to turn and face the wall in the presence of a female guard) and another thirty for the "aggravated sex offense" of accidentally grazing a female security guard's shoulder in passing, the way they fire rifle shots a foot above his head when he crosses an imaginary "guard line" out in the fields on work detail, and the way they cuff him to the bars of his cell for six hours just for fun and mace his eyes if he doesn't offer up his wrists the instant he's told. He tells her about being paid four cents an hour to pick cotton in the fields surrounding the prison, and how much worse this is than being paid nothing at all. He tells her what it's like watching the children of the guards, who live on the plantation grounds, grow up, and how strange it is to see young boys who once called "Hey, nigger!" to him as he worked the fields become guards themselves -yes, that much time is passing- with rifles in their hands and toothpicks in their mouths and absolute power over where he rests his eyeballs. He tells her he is losing his grasp on time, losing his ability to count, in a way; how during his first four years of imprisonment, at Caddo Correctional, time was still solid, still the bedrock of his reality, each day marked by a beginning and an end linked by a continuous line of being, but how at Angola, a place that cannot possibly be real (can it?), he has learned that a man's grasp on time is like his good health -something taken for granted until it dissolves. He tells her about the way a cell becomes a kiln in the summer, the air void of motion, 110 degrees at two in the morning, the way he will take a tin cup and splash the brown water from the tap onto the concrete floor, then lie in it face down, spread-eagled and naked, his nose and mouth filled with the ever present shit-stink bubbling up from the drain, his ears filled with the baboon shrieks of men whose consciousness has been reduced to the purely physical, saying to himself over and over, for hours on end, I will not die in Angola… I will not die in Angola … I will not die in Angola …
More than anything, though, it is his anger that Calvin tells Janet about, and that he needs her to absorb and carry for him. It is his anger that debases and emasculates him most, even more than all his unspent love. It is his anger that shuts down his imagination (he does not dream when he sleeps at Angola -ever) and stills time, that turns a day into a month. And it is his anger, eating him inside-out like lupus, that threatens to alienate him from his God. This is the thing that cannot happen. For only in prayer does Calvin travel beyond the cast of his own umbra to perceive something other than his own suffering self. Prayer is not to Calvin what drugs or suicide are to other men in Angola -a means of escape. It is how he tunes in to the fact that he is a real person, here on this earth, living in real time, and that he is not alone. And it is only in prayer that the voice comes to him, full of mystery and hope.
You have a testimony. You must bear witness to yourself. And you will.
In January 1993, after a change in Louisiana law allows him to do so, Calvin obtains the initial police report on his case. It is an astonishment. In it, two detectives write that on the morning of June 9 -hours after the crime- Latanya told them that a "big" man named "HARRY" [sic] who "had on a cowboy hat, cowboy shoes" had visited the house and left after finding only children there.
Harry. A big man. A man Latanya knew by name. Ugly. Not Calvin Willis.
Eleven years into his sentence, Calvin secures a certificate of probable cause and reappeals.
A month later, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses the grant-not on the merits of its argument but because of the "untimely filing by petitioner.”
As if Calvin has had the original police report in hand for ten years and has been omitting it from his previous appeals out of… caprice?
He has one more shot. In October 1993 he files another application for postconviction relief; in March 1994 the First Judicial District Court of Caddo Parish denies Calvin's application. This denial is not per curiam. Reasoning is offered.
"The police report does make mention of...'HARRY,' but it does not state that 'HARRY' visited the home where the incident occurred earlier that day."
This is inane: Though the detectives did not quote Latanya on when "HARRY" visited, it is patently clear she meant the day of the incident -and that this is what the detectives thought she meant.
"Because...'HARRY' was not necessarily a suspect,” the ruling continues, "there is no need for the court to consider [this claim].”
Catch-22: "HARRY" was never a suspect because the police report in which his name appeared never saw the light of day throughout the investigation, during the trial, and for the next eleven years.
It is over now. In legal terms, Calvin's case has been "exhausted." Janet, too, is exhausted, and stooped under the weight of anger, both her own and Calvin's. All of her heart and soul and rightness have been poured into Calvin's legal briefs over the better part of a decade. Countless thousands of words, all met with the same slap to the face: DENIED.
Until now there has been a distinct difference between what Janet did for Wayne Felde and what she has been doing for Calvin. What she did for Wayne was a form of palliative care; she was never going to save him. Calvin has always been different. Like Wayne, he has demanded her love but also -because the object has been to free him- every ounce of her intellectual fortitude. And she has failed. Now it is merely her job, as it was with Wayne, to ensure Calvin goes to his grave knowing he has been understood.
But then one day not long after his final denial, Calvin calls.
"People around here been talking about something,” he says. "It's called DNA.”
For a time the only sound on the line is the recorded voice that interjects every few minutes to remind her that she is taking a collect call from a prisoner. Janet knows about DNA evidence, how it has broken men out of death row. Still, something within her resists its promise of sword-through-the-knot magic. To Janet, believing in DNA-in the possibility of a force cooler and stronger than the human minds that conduct and corrupt the business of justice-is like believing in happy endings, something to which she has long been allergic.
"I need to see your face," she says at last.
Janet brings the kids and Mrs. Newton. Debbie remains in Shreveport; in the wake of Calvin's final failed appeal, she has written a series of letters explaining that she finally has the means to purchase a home. But creditors won't lend to a single mother with an incarcerated husband. She has assured him the divorce will be nothing but a piece of paper to mollify the bank. But signing it has left Calvin with a sick feeling.
Maybe it's better she's not here.
Janet, for her part, now knows Calvin more intimately than anyone save God. Yet having met Calvin in person only once, seven years before, she barely knows his face. He in turn barely knows hers. Their faces -hers reveals its weathering; his, strangely, appears as fresh as the day he turned himself in- render them unrecognizable to one another. For the first fifteen minutes they do something they've never done before: small talk. Finally, Calvin addresses the subject.
"People gettin' relief from this DNA' he says.
"Let me give you a reality check," Janet says.
This is one of the reasons she has come in person; she's not sure he can survive another dashed hope. She explains that exoneration by DNA evidence is a long shot. Eleven years have passed. Even if the DNA in the rape kit and on the boxer shorts has been preserved, the DA's office might refuse to release the file.
"We need to do this' he says.
Another reason Janet has traveled 260 miles is to look Calvin in the eye, and she does so now.
"I will do what needs to be done. You know that. I will write the letters. I will talk to the police. I will raise the money. But the thing about DNA evidence is, it's… irrefutable."
So she will start again, from scratch.
It takes nine years.
For the first four, Janet's on her own. After determining that the Caddo Parish clerk's office has preserved Lucretia's rape kit and the boxer shorts, she does what she did during the appellate phase of Calvin's case: letter-writing, calling, fund-raising. In 1998 she discovers the Innocence Project, cofounded by Barry Scheck and run out of the Cardozo law school in New York City, and submits an application on Calvin's behalf. Scheck accepts. This is big. Scheck is the country's most credible legal advocate when it comes to DNA evidence, with access to the most vaunted laboratories. He tells Janet she'll need to raise $2,500, though by the time all is said and done the bill will top $14,000.
Janet redoubles her fund-raising efforts, showing up in the offices and homes of friends and enemies alike armed with Calvin's story and a letter printed on Innocence Project stationery. She hits up clerks at the grocery store, the woman at the dry cleaner's, strangers on the street. The donations rarely top $50. She mails copies of the checks -including one for $3 from her mother's housekeeper, the most the woman can afford- to Calvin, who pens each contributor a thank-you note. (The four cents an hour he earns slinging a blade in the fields of Angola nets him about a stamp's worth of postage a day.)
She even hits up a retired prosecutor named Carey Schimpf.
"Hey, Carey, do you remember a guy you prosecuted about twenty years ago named Calvin Willis?"
Not in great detail, Schimpf says.
"Well, he was innocent. But guess what? You have the chance to redeem yourself"
Schimpf declines to contribute.
In 1999 the district attorney agrees to release the evidence to Scheck's DNA specialist, Edward Blake of Richmond, California.
Four more years pass.
Janet is adept at rage; she's known for years how to channel the two lives' worth that she carries into her legal questing.
But these four more years of waiting threaten to transport her to a place where her anger consumes her. One thing keeps her on an even keel: a burly, bearded, ex-junkie, ex-alcoholic country-music guitarist and songwriter named Randy Arthur. He is, like Janet, intimately familiar with pain. Years ago, in an alcoholic stupor, he killed a jogger with his pickup truck. Now, Janet stays awake at night and listens as Randy pleads with the man's widow in his sleep, telling her how he's bettered his life and asking for her forgiveness. Randy, in short, is a person who gets Janet. They marry in November of 1999.
A change comes over Calvin in these years as he waits for his blood to speak for him. During his first fifteen years or so behind bars he often felt that every filament of his being was aligned in the service of pain, as if pain itself had designed and realized in him the perfect instrument for its expression. Over time, though -as with Janet, and perhaps because of her- the perfection of his pain has cleaned him out, concentrated and clarified him, pushed him deeper into God. Not just his own God, either. Calvin's prayer life has imbued him with a peaceful intellectual hunger; by the late '90s he has become the kind of Christian who reads the Koran and attends Muslim prayer services so as to behold the manifold nature of holiness, and who sees God in every face he encounters-even those of his guards.
On his way to the dungeon known as Camp J for yet another "reckless eyeballing" offense, Calvin turns to the guard hustling him along and asks, "Why you hate me?" Something in Calvin's tone commands the man to confront the question head-on rather than sarcastically.
"I hate you because you are the shit of the earth."
"No," Calvin says. "Why you hate me?"
"I hate you because of what you did."
"No. Why you hate me."
The guard gives Calvin a long look
"Boy, I was raised to hate you," he says, walking off.
"I'm not the one you hate," Calvin calls after him. "I'm not the one.”
This is Calvin Willis now. Even as he continues to suffer one of the greatest offenses a man in this world can endure, his consciousness has been multiplied. He sees through. It is even possible that he forgives. There is power in that. And knowledge. He knows now that he can never be repressed, only murdered.
By the time Calvin's blood reaches Blake, his life can no longer be measured in terms of time, which he's lost track of anyway y-only in terms of its crescendoing radiance. Because he finally can, he begins to take back the anger Janet has been carrying for him.
"The work you have done is good," he tells her over the phone and in letters, time and again. "You are good. Concentrate on that. Let your anger go."
She says she doesn't know how.
"Just give it to me," Calvin says.
It is by way of this grace that when the cruelest blow comes, Calvin can sustain it.
Late in 1999, a man on Calvin's cellblock, also from Shreveport, receives a family visit.
"I got news for you," he says when he returns. "Your wife got remarried, man! She got a daughter. That girl already 5 or 6 years old!"
Debbie, it turns out, did not need his signature on the divorce decree just to buy the house. Back in 1994, while Janet, Momma Newton, and the children were visiting Calvin in Angola, she was in the hospital giving birth to her daughter, Briana; Janet and Mrs. Newton hadn't thought it their place to break the news.
The one line I drew. The only thing that could separate us.
He thinks, too, about the little art-class trinkets he's sent her over the years, the toothpick houses and construction-paper Valentine's Day cards, and how childish and pathetic they've surely seemed to her, an adult getting on with her life, going on without him, a new family.
"What you gonna do, Calvin?"
It's a rhetorical question, but Calvin answers.
"Nothing, man. When you in prison you can't do nothing about nothing."
And by the time the cruelest blow comes to Janet, Calvin has already taken back the principal on his anger, assuring her by way of his manifest serenity that she is free to fully concentrate on her own burden.
Randy's years of substance abuse have caught up with him; his liver is dying. In September 2001 a donor organ matching Randy's tissue type is located. Prissy kisses her husband before he goes under and tells him she'll be there when he gets back. But when the doctors open him up they discover his hepatic veins have turned to jelly. He bleeds out on the operating table. At the age of 46, Janet becomes a widow for the third time.
A group of local musicians throws a benefit; Janet has been sending her own money, along with the donations she's drummed up, to the Innocence Project to pay for Calvin's testing, and doesn't have enough to bury her husband.
In March 2003, Janet gets Calvin on the phone.
"Hey, Calvin' she says, "you need to start studying for your driver's test?'
"What you talking about?"
"There's male DNA in Lucretia's fingernail scrapings. It matches the male DNA on the boxer shorts.”
"It's not your DNA.”
Calvin doesn't say anything.
"You're coming home, Calvin."
There's something blindingly, even painfully, bright about the words, and for a moment they crush him. How could it be? How could something in the blood, a million times smaller than anything the eye can see, rout the brutality of mind and heart, as old as the species, that took his life away?
Word spreads quickly around the cellblock.
Calvin is innocent! Calvin gettin' out!
Over the next few days, the guards overseeing Calvin approach him to have a word. They do not congratulate. They do not apologize. They grin. Grin and say, each of them, the same three words.
You'll be back.
Six months pass.
No one at Angola bothers explaining to Calvin or Janet why a proven-innocent man continues to serve time. Nor do they offer any guesses as to when he might be released.
But on the evening of September 18, 2003, a journalist tells Janet that Calvin is being put on a bus at five the next morning to the Caddo Correctional Center, where he will be released. Janet has a terrible vision: Calvin greeting freedom in a neon orange jumpsuit. She runs out to buy a selection of jeans, khakis, and dress shirts, as well as socks, tennis shoes, and a belt.
The guards keep Calvin's hands and feet manacled throughout the 260-mile drive. They take a long McDonald's stop. They give Calvin nothing to eat or drink. They offer him no acknowledgement whatsoever. Inside the correctional center they unshackle his limbs, then leave without saying another word.
An officer approaches Calvin with the clothes Janet has purchased.
"Your lady friend brought these for you:' she says.
Calvin stares at the shirts and pants for a while. Spiritual matters aside, he has not made a choice since 1981. He no longer knows how.
"Miss," he finally says, "I haven't worn clothes in twenty-two years. Could you pick something out for me?"
The corrections officer takes each article of clothing from the box and places it up against Calvin's frame. She picks the khakis and a plaid button-down shirt. The cling of the new socks on his ankles startles him.
"You look nice;' she tells him after he's dressed. Then: "It's time.”
"What do I do?"
"Leave," she says, pointing to the exit.
As he approaches the door, Calvin prays. Prays for a renewing of his mind and heart, prays to be free of whatever anger he retains, the self-inflicted wound of it. And at the instant he lays his hand upon the door and steps into the light, he receives this final piece of his deliverance; he experiences it as a hand, searing and baptismal, passing over him.
You must bear witness to yourself. And you will.
They are out there with the media, waiting. Momma Newton and Kesha and Calvin Jr., whom he hasn't seen in almost ten years. And Janet. All his loves except Debbie.
Debbie had a terrible night last night. Lying in bed next to her husband, Edward, with eyes wide open, she prayed for the trembling to stop.
Lord, keep my body still. If my husband sees my distress he'll think I want Calvin back.
Later, in the hours before sunrise, her mind went elsewhere.
I was 23 years old. I had the best marriage anybody could have. And then you were gone. And I couldn't talk about you. Not even with black people. My own people. And my mind went blank. For years my mind went blank. I couldn't remember you the same. I had to let you go. And I hated you. Hated you for making me need to be with other men. Hated you for not being at home. You should have been home, Calvin.
At the instant Calvin Willis, age 44, steps into freedom-as the 138th convict in this country to be exonerated by DNA evidence-Debbie and Edward are at Home Depot purchasing supplies for a home renovation.
Debbie sees the replay on the evening news, however: There are her children. There is Janet, God bless her. There is Mrs. Newton, 85 years old, unable to form words, howling as she grabs her boy. And there is Calvin, serene, poised, fielding questions.
"You know," he says, "I lost my wife.”
Then he bursts into tears.
It is not over. It will never be over. Hugo Holland, chief of the sex-crimes unit at the district attorney's office, makes a concerted effort to ensure that Calvin Willis retains the stigma of child rape, unleashing a series of acid sound bites:
"Calvin Willis is not innocent. He's just not guilty.”
"There is no reason whatsoever for us to ever say that the legal system made a mistake.”
"[Just] because we didn't find Calvin Willis's DNA on the underwear doesn't mean that he didn't leave them there.”
Hugo Holland is the least of Calvin's problems. In practical terms, as an exonerated man in the state of Louisiana, he gets nothing. Not a dime for having two of the best-earning decades of his life stolen from him, and for the loss of his family. Without Momma Newton's spare bedroom, he'd be homeless.
Yet there are myriad odder ways in which Calvin is burdened. There are, for instance, his dual aversions to making eye contact and to being touched. His old friends, who remember him as the most physically assertive and expressive of men, never know what to say when Calvin goes stiff and silent in their embraces. There is his inability to stop cleaning (he scrubs Mrs. Newton's floors, sinks, and toilets at least once a day), as if the literal and figurative upwelling of shit he battled every day in Angola has permanently imprinted his olfactory nerves. There is the way life behind bars has damaged his understanding of time. He can tell you in vivid detail, for instance, about an episode in Angola in which he brandished a coffeepot during a fight and ended up burning a layer of skin off his face, but he can't remember what year this happened, or even whether it happened in the late '80s or early '90s or mid-9Os.
So much he has unlearned. Shortly after his release, Momma Newton prepares an enormous repast. When the spread is ready, she hands him a plate and says, "You start!" But Calvin just stands there, puzzled. A minute passes before Mrs. Newton makes the realization -the boy doesn't know how to serve his own plate-and turns away so he doesn't see her tears.
This is Calvin Willis after twenty-two years in a box: a man of rare spiritual elevation; a child who doesn't know how to spoon food onto his own plate.
At Thanksgiving, Momma Newton gathers her kin-Calvin; Kesha and her husband; Calvin Jr. and his boy (Calvin's first grandson, Elijah, born two days after Calvin gained his freedom)-as well as Debbie, her husband, Edward, and their 9-year-old daughter, Briana. The minute she lays eyes on Calvin, Debbie becomes acutely self-conscious; where she's put on the pounds, Calvin, having been stopped in time, is as beautiful as the day he vanished.
"I know," she says, casting her eyes down. "I was a size 5 when you left. Now look at me.”
Calvin just smiles.
"Still look good to me.”
She hugs him, then asks if he's ready. When he says he is, Edward comes forward.
"I got to say something to you.” Calvin says.
Edward braces himself. This has been a longtime coming.
"I want to thank you.” Calvin continues. "It takes a strong man to raise another man's kids right, allowing them to become who they need to become. My children are beautiful. I know you've had a hand in that. I thank you.”
"Who's that man?" Briana asks her mother. "Why he make Daddy cry?"
Debbie takes her daughter aside.
"He's father to Kesha and Calvin Jr.,” she explains, "but no one to you.”
Briana does a lovely thing then. She runs across the living room and grabs hold of Calvin's waist. He takes her up, and the two of them talk for a while. He says the things one says to a child. Hello, missy. What's your name? How are you? But after a few minutes Briana sees something in this man, something cavernous and vast, and it amazes her. Calvin, a man who has been forced to spend half his life letting other souls carry and act upon his most fathomless passions, then watches as Briana turns to face her mother.
"Mama, this man!" she cries. "He love you!"