At the beginning of the month, one of my Goodread Groups decided to host a contest for a story involving the number 10,000 because they had reached 10,000 members. I didn’t think I was going to participate, but then out of sheer curiosity I decided to look up stats involving the number 10,000. It turns out, according to a study by the Ohio State University, more than 10,000 people in the United States are falsely convicted of crimes. The study talks about crimes in the 1990’s so it is probably older, but it got my mind going. What would that be like? This is the story that came out of that. It isn’t a lot like the things I usually write, but I wanted to share it anyway. Enjoy!
“What’s your name?” the reporter asked.
Eddie wondered why he should bother to answer. This was his lawyer’s idea, not his. He sighed.
He wondered if she even registered his name. To this bright-eyed, young white girl he wasn’t Edward Hill. He was a convicted criminal and a potential big break for her. Nobody saw him as Eddie and maybe no one ever would again. He tried to hide how dog-tired he felt at the thought. He failed.
“Why are we here, Mr. Hill?”
Mr. Hill? That made him smile. He missed the days when he was Mr. Hill and the respect that it implied.
“I’m here because I am legally obligated. My hope is that you’re here to tell the truth, Miss Lane.”
Elizabeth Lane smiled.
“And what is the truth, Mr. Hill?”
The courtroom scene from “A Few Good Men” played in his mind, but Eddie ignored it. This wasn’t a pop culture quiz and it was the furthest thing from a joke he could think of. No, this was his life and he would fight for it no matter how futile it felt.
“The truth?” Eddie repeated. “The truth is that I am a statistic, Miss Lane.”
Elizabeth swallowed nervously and tucked her golden blonde hair behind her ear.
“Would you care to explain that statement?”
“Listen,” Eddie began and prayed that she would do just that, listen. “My lawyer told me that more than 10,000 people- Americans- are falsely convicted of a crime. I am one of a sea of faces within those unjust tides.”
Elizabeth Lane blinked and took a deep breath.
“According to court records, the security camera caught you committing the murder.”
Eddie shook his head.
“The camera didn’t catch me. I was at home with my baby girl. The camera caught a black man with a similar height and build to me. It never showed the guy’s face.”
“And you swear if it had it wouldn’t have been your face?”
“I swear it.”
“There are those that would say that seems awfully convenient,” Elizabeth replied. “A baby can’t verify that you were there. You knew the victim and you had a history with him.”
Eddie took a deep calming breath to clear the red from his vision.
“I didn’t get along with my brother, Miss Lane. I freely admit that.”
“Your brother was a pillar of the community,” Elizabeth replied. “Respected by many.”
“Well, he wasn’t respected by me,” Eddie replied trying not to glare into the camera. “But that doesn’t mean that I killed him. I wouldn’t kill anyone, especially not my own brother. He was blood and blood is thicker than foolishness.”
“Were you or weren’t you arrested in 2011 for assault against John Hill?”
“He was also arrested for domestic violence that day, if you’ll recall.”
“Are you saying that you were just protecting his wife, Lilah?”
He tried not to grit his teeth when he said it. Lord, this was a terrible idea. All people were going to see was an angry black criminal talking.
“Mr. Hill you nearly killed him then.”
“I got carried away,” Eddie replied. “I had always known that he was a dick in his private life, but when Lilah came to me and showed me those bruises…I lost my damned mind.”
“So, is it fair to say that you cared for Lilah Hill?”
Eddie met the reporter’s clear blue eyes. He wouldn’t beg her to not bring this thing up, but he would tell her that he wasn’t an idiot- he knew what was coming.
“I loved Lilah more than John ever did.”
There. Let them think what they would.
“Who is the mother of your daughter, Mr. Hill?”
Eddie pressed the palms of his hands against his legs. It would look too threatening if he balled them up.
“Your brother’s wife was the mother of your child?”
Eddie felt his gut clench and his throat grow tight. This was why he didn’t want to do this interview in the first place. Nobody could ever see past the cheating. Just because a man is guilty of one crime doesn’t mean he is guilty of another! Why had his lawyer convinced him that this would allow him see Ava again?
Eddie watched as Elizabeth Lane’s eyes narrowed just a hair. Her judgement hurt him more than he believed it ever could. He could almost feel the needle in his arm now.
“What happened to Lilah Hill?” Elizabeth asked quietly.
Eddie’s vision blurred. Would crying help or hurt his case? Men weren’t supposed to cry. He didn’t care anymore. With Lilah’s warm brown eyes, Ava’s eyes, floating in his mind’s eye he felt another shard of glass lance through his heart.
“He killed her.”
“Who killed her?”
“You told the police that this was your suspicion. They investigated and they found no conclusive evidence against him.”
“Yeah, and now I’ve been saddled with her murder too,” Eddie agreed unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. “But I didn’t kill either of them- couldn’t. God knows I loved Lilah too much to even consider it. Like I said, John was my brother…”
He stopped talking and spread his hands before him. It sounded too much like babble. Keep the answers short and to the point, that’s what he was supposed to do. The phantom needle in his arm slid in another few centimeters.
“If John killed Lilah, why wouldn’t he have killed your daughter too?”
“I don’t know. I’m grateful that he didn’t, but I just…maybe he just wasn’t all monster. Maybe he couldn’t look a three week old child in the face and smash it in. I hope that’s why.”
“What other reason might he have had?” Elizabeth wondered.
“Well, it makes him look less guilty, doesn’t it? If the baby that he deserved to be pissed off about is fine and the cheating wife is dead, it throws some doubt as to what happened. I just hope he wasn’t evil to his core. That’s the reason I like to think Ava is still alive.”
Silence filled the room. It hung so heavy that both Eddie and Elizabeth nearly choked on it. Eddie took a deep breath to calm the wild pulse that thrummed in his ears.
“Miss Lane, listen, I know this looks bad for me. I have been found guilty by a jury of my peers of two murders I did not commit. I will see that so-called justice delivered in my arm in three days’ time.”
Eddie paused, the words unable to move past the lump in his throat.
“My baby girl is going to grow up motherless and fatherless if I can’t find a way out of it. I don’t know that there is much more my lawyer can do for me. I need there to be a record somewhere that I am not the murderer others will have her believe.”
The pity in Elizabeth’s eyes was almost worse than the earlier judgement. She looked to her cameraman and whispered something in his ear.
“Mr. Hill, you have to realize that the case against you is considered solid,” Elizabeth began.
“We’ll air the interview, but I don’t think it’s going to win you a stay of execution.”
Eddie met the reporter’s eyes and started rocking back and forth.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but you used this defense in your trial and it got you nowhere. We’d like to give you a chance to say something to your daughter, should things go the worst way.”
He closed his eyes and the rocking grew more pronounced.
“She won’t ever see it.”
“Mr. Hill? Look at me.”
Eddie opened his eyes and stopped rocking for a moment. Her eyes were sincere- no pity, no judgement, just determination.
“She will. I promise.”
“Will the rest of the world hear it?”
“Not if you don’t want them to.”
Eddie sat up straighter, but couldn’t seem to stop moving back and forth in his chair.
“So, what? I just look here?”
Elizabeth smiled and nodded. The camera zoomed in so that only his face filled the screen.
“Ava, baby, I don’t know what kind of world you grew up in, but I hope it was a good one. Maybe you know who I am-”
His voice broke and tears carved tracks down his face.
“Maybe you don’t. I’m your daddy. They are going to tell you that I am a killer and a cheat, but they’re wrong. Yes, your mama and I went behind her husband’s- my brother’s- back, but I need you to know that I loved her, just like I love you. When I think of light in this world, it’s your face I see, and I want you to know that even if I’m gone when you watch this, that love and that light will live on.”
Eddie wiped his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath.
“I feel like I should have something wise and fatherly to tell you. I was a teacher before all of this happened, you know. Then again, maybe you don’t…they probably won’t tell you that, either. Teaching, I feel like it’s in my blood. I loved doing that almost as much as I loved you and your mother. I taught fifth grade, but there is so much that I wanted to teach you and now there isn’t any time.”
Tears fell like rain and sobs ripped through his body. Elizabeth offered him a cup of water and he steadied himself again. He turned back to look at the camera.
“So, I’ve got to use the time I have. Probably the most important thing you should know is that nobody knows you, not really. I don’t care if they’re your best friend or your worst enemy. They will project onto you what they expect to see out of you. It doesn’t matter your color, your religion, your politics, none of it- this is the way of the world.”
Eddie took a tissue from Elizabeth and wiped his eyes again, blew his nose. He turned back to the camera.
“That might make you think that this world is hopeless, but that’s not true either. Just because others can’t know you as you really are, doesn’t mean that you can’t know yourself. If you know yourself and stay true to yourself you can do amazing things, change your corner of the world.”
“I learned who I was a little too late to do anything about it. That’s the good that’s come out of all of this, I suppose. Maybe now you don’t have to repeat my mistakes. I love you more than you will ever know, but I hope you can feel just a little bit of it through this screen.”
Eddie looked down like he was done and the camera started to drop.
“Wait, there’s just one more thing.”
The camera refocused on Eddie Hill.
“Ava, I know you can be a force for good in this world. Just in case you haven’t gotten there yet, I want you to know that I love you anyways. Believe me, I know how hard it can be out there and as long as you’re doing your best, I’m one proud daddy.”
Terror filled his eyes for a moment as they brimmed over with tears once more.
“Good-bye for now, Baby Girl”
He lifted his hands into the view of the lens and the camera panned back.
“With these two hands I had the privilege of holding my own personal angel, and I will see you again, in this life or the next…”
He brought his head into his hands and grieved, feeling the life he should have had as it slipped through his fingers.
The screen changed to a room where about twenty people were gathered, they looked upon Eddie Hill sitting in a bed. A little girl, maybe two and a half, with her hair braided toddled over to him, holding on to a stern woman’s hand.
“Ava, Baby! You came to see Daddy?”
She ran over to him and he wrapped her up in his arms.
“Please turn it off,” Ava moaned. “I can’t…”
The screen went black and Ava stared at it, still seeing the after image of her and her father almost fourteen years before. Unbidden, his face floated before her. Daddy…
“Why did you wait so long to show me?” she whispered, nearly choking on the words.
“Well, when your father’s appeal failed and the execution occurred, you disappeared into the system. I couldn’t find you again until just a couple weeks ago.
Ava sighed and shook her head.
“The drug charges.”
Elizabeth Lane held no judgement in her eyes on this day.
“I had no idea,” Ava muttered, running her fingers through her braids. “Do you really think he was innocent?”
Elizabeth Lane nodded sadly.
“Mom and Dad never talked about either of them.”
“It’s not something people talk about,” Elizabeth replied.
Ava looked up at the middle-aged white woman who had appeared out of nowhere in the police station. Could she tell this stranger? She had to, otherwise her soul would shatter inside of her- she could already hear it breaking.
“I don’t remember…that day,” she admitted. “But I remember his face. When I was little I would have nightmares and when I would wake up I would see him and I knew it was going to be okay. I didn’t realize…”
She wrapped her arms around her abdomen in a desperate attempt to hold herself together. Still, she could feel her world crumbling. Elizabeth handed her a tissue. When Ava sat up again and wiped the tears from her face, Elizabeth pushed a photograph of Eddie, Lilah and Ava Hill towards her.
“He wanted me to give that to you.”
Ava caressed the photo with her fingers. She smiled.
“Have you considered my offer?”
“What do you want me at a newspaper for?”
“I just thought you might want a chance to speak and be heard,” Elizabeth replied.
“I got caught using drugs,” Ava pointed out. “Isn’t that going to give your newspaper a bad name?”
“A little marijuana never hurt anyone. It’s legal in so many states now, no one will blink an eye.”
“Do you really think anyone will listen?”
Elizabeth returned her smile.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Ava’s stomach lurched inside her. Could she do this? She had dreamed of writing, of making a difference.
Elizabeth heaved a sigh of relief, feeling lighter than she had in years.
“I’ll see you in six months, Miss Jackson.”
“I’ll be there.”