“The Last Word” - Misstatements, gaffes, inaccuracies, lies

I’ve been meaning to take the time to put up this post about a truly wretched documentary called “The Last Word,” and this being a languid Sunday morning, well, why not now?  For those who reside here in Amarillo, many may recall this abomination from a few years ago which deals with the Johnny Frank Garrett case.  I don’t want to take up too much space rehashing what the case was all about; one can simply Google his name and get a sufficient amount of information on the prosecution, appeal, his infamous thirty-day reprieve granted by then-Governor Ann Richards and his inevitable execution.  But it was indeed a sensational case involving an unfortunate young man who, without any reasonable doubt, broke into a local Catholic nunnery and there, brutally assaulted and killed a nun.  Garrett was a poster child for those kids who are jettisoned by irresponsible parents to fend for themselves, abandoned by the system that was designed for their protection.  And there’s no doubt that the lawyers appointed to represent him were derelict in their duty to try to humanize Garrett. There was plenty of evidence out there that the lawyers could have marshaled in mitigation of the death penalty.  That it was not done is a subject all to itself and the appointed lawyers were and are quite rightly responsible for those shortcomings in their representation. But to accuse them of having “thrown the case” or deliberately foregoing the development of a punishment defense out of some ill-defined, murky “deal” that might have been reached to benefit the prosecutor, well, it’s ridiculous if not outright libelous.  Irresponsible, yes; laden with lies and distortions, definitely.  But, I get ahead of myself.  Let’s talk briefly about this “documentary” and then I’ll turn to the misstatements, gaffes, inaccuracies and lies that are replete in this work.

“The Last Word” purports to be a revealing look into the theme that the wrong man was prosecuted and executed for the murder of Sister Tedea Benz.  In attorney Jesse Quakenbush’s opinion, the victim’s murder was the handiwork of a Cuban immigrant named Rueda.  His evidence is laughable (we’ll get to that later on when I highlight what that evidence is).  But for now, let me highlight some of the more egregious representations and “facts” peddled as the truth in this film. I’ll give you my take, based on what I believe to be the well-established record and my own recollections of the case. Full disclosure: I served as one of Garrett’s writ lawyers, along with attorneys with the Texas Resource Center, on his last writ in the waning months leading up to his execution in 1992.  Each misstatement, gaffe, inaccuracy or lie will be preceded with a time code marking (showing the minute and seconds into the documentary), indicating where they may be found.

2:00 - Garrett’s last words while on the gurney, staged through the words of an actor or whoever, are grossly distorted or created in somebody’s fevered mind.  Essentially, Garrett’s last words were those to the effect that he wanted to thank a few friends, his “personal guru” and the “rest of the world could kiss his ass.”  Of the 500 some odd offenders executed over the past thirty one years, Garrett stands out as the only inmate whose last statement has been removed from the TDCJ website.  Check it out for yourself but the ramblings presented in the opening of this documentary are cooked up.

4:37 - The narrator tells the viewer that Amarillo was under siege - “city under attack” - “rapist on the loose” - clearly the implication is that a serial rapist was on the prowl.  False.  At that point in time, there is no evidence that a lone serial rapist was committing assaults throughout the city.  Period.

5:25 - Claude Stephenson is listed as a “homicide detective.” Wrong.  He never was; he was employed for a number of years in law enforcement as an ID technician and fingerprint expert. Everybody in criminal practice here in the city knows this.

9:24 - The film suggests that botched police work, presumably committed by the Amarillo Police Department, resulted in a capital murder acquittal.  False.  I also note that the film does not identify the case, who it involved, what “botched police work” resulted in a “not guilty” verdict or who the principles were in the prosecution.

11:07 - The producers insist that at the time that Danny Hill was sworn in as Potter County District Attorney, there were “ten capital murder cases pending in the county.”  False as well as ridiculous.

12:01 - The Central Church of Christ (of which Danny Hill attended) is touted as a “Christian powerhouse” in Amarillo which had tremendous sway on local politics and decisions made by elected officials.  This is ludicrous.

12:30-12:45 - Attorney Jeff Blackburn, in an attempt to explain why the jury convicted Garrett, opines that the “average West Texas juror is pretty stupid.”  Is this a gaffe (simply saying something that one actually believes to be true), “inaccurate” or better yet, a gross “misstatement.”  I’ll leave that up to the reader but one might hope that if Jeff ever tries another case before he dies, might a venireperson raise his or her hand and ask him about this.

18:03 - After the murder of Sister Benz, Danny Hill personally ordered that all Cuban immigrants be “rounded up” (just picture Captain Reneau of “Casablanca” - “round up the usual suspects”) and made to “account for themselves.”  Again, this is ridiculous.

31:50 - During attorney Selden Hale’s interview on camera, he is identified as “Chairman of the Texas Prison Board.”  I mean really, who did the background research for Quackenbush?  There is no such agency.  It is called the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.  The documentary does not identify Hale as one of Garrett’s lawyers who are consistently referred to as incompetent or downright corrupt.  The film also conveniently fails to mention that Mr. Hale was fired from his position as chairman of the Board by Governor Richards for his launching a private investigation into the background of a fellow Board member when Hale had been specifically instructed by the Governor not to do so.

33:44-35:20 - The narrator states that at Garrett’s arraignment shortly after his arrest, attorney Bill Kolius (who is no longer around to defend himself, having died of cancer well before this film’s debut) just showed up unannounced and volunteered his services. False.

40:35 - “Phil Jordan [Garrett’s co-counsel along with Kolius], like Kolius, had never tried a murder case.” False.

58:10 - “The case was highlighted by “unfettered media manipulation by an obsessed prosecutor.” Laughable.  There’s no doubt that our local paper is not exactly a bastion of critical reporting when it comes to these things but to suggest that all Hill had to do was pick up a phone and dictate is absurd.  Those of us who have labored in this town long enough know this is pure hyperbole, nothing more.

56:50 - Kolius and Jordan are called “two walking, talking 6th Amendment violations of the right to counsel.”  Not only is this crude, untrue, ridiculous; it is libelous.

58:30 - Jeff Blackburn makes the following statements concerning the performance of Garrett’s trial counsel: “It looks like a deal got made” . . . The lawyers “threw the case.”  What did Blackburn base this on?  Why hasn’t Phil Jordan retained counsel to sue? Maybe he thought that so few people would pony up money to watch this abortion of a film that it wasn’t worth it.

1:02:20 - Bruce Sadler [currently head appellate counsel for Potter County and who is heading for a well-deserved retirement in just a few months], who was appointed to handle Garrett’s direct appeal, had no capital murder experience and had “limited success as an appellate lawyer.”  Only someone with minimal knowledge of criminal procedure and appellate law would suggest this as condemnation or criticism.

1:02:43 - Sadler “threw in the towel” after working three years on the case.  What a shameful statement.  And how insulting.  The narrator fails to explain that the case had come to an end and that Sadler’s duties were completed after the Court of Criminal Appeals had affirmed the conviction and death sentence.

1:08:12 - Blackburn discusses Governor Richards’ role in the case as Garrett approached his execution date. We know that Richards did something no other governor had done in decades - she granted a thirty-day reprieve so Garrett could obtain a full commutation hearing before the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which he did.  I know.  I was there, representing Garrett’s case before the Board in Huntsville.  And what does Blackburn say about Governor Richards, who also is dead and cannot defend herself? This: She could have granted commutation, “no question about it.” False, demonstrably false.  The Governor could only have granted commutation if the Board had recommended it by a majority vote. Which it did not.  And these days, the rules have changed.  It takes a unanimous vote from the Board for such recommendation. But this doesn’t stop Jeff.

1:08:40 - Blackburn states that the governor’s failure to grant commutation (under his grossly mistaken belief that she could do it unilaterally) was evidence of her being a “lousy human being” and that she was “rotten to the core.”  Really, Jeff, you owe her memory an apology.  She may have ended up going for the dough and shilling for large monied interests in Washington, D.C. in her last years of life, but doing something to take care of yourself is not evidence of moral depravity.  You should know that better than anyone.

1:17:17 - Johnny Frank Garrett qualified as being retarded.  Wrong. The files, of which I had access to, clearly reflect that he could not have qualified as retarded under then-current standards.  And do you think that the Texas Resource Center would have let that issue go unaddressed had they had a sliver of evidence suggesting he was retarded?  I think not.

1:17:53 - The hairs recovered from both Benz and another murder in which Rueda (Quakenbush’s whipping boy) were conclusively matched to him.  No offer of proof in support of this naked statement.  Not a shred.

1:26:56 - The documentary imbues a particularly savage take on Danny Hill, again someone who is no longer around to defend himself.  The narrator states that at the time of Hill’s suicide, former prosecutors who had worked for him were lining up to testify against him in order to remove him from office.  Totally false as well as misleading.  What was true was that a petition had been filed to remove Hill from office for his alcoholism (permitted by the Texas Constitution) and that several of his former and current assistant district attorneys had been subpoened to provide sworn testimony in depositions.  I know.  I represented one of those former prosecutors.  They were not lining up to testify against him out of hatred or vengeance, as the film clearly implies.  They were simply summoned by process of law to give sworn testimony. Quackenbush knew better but went ahead with this anyway.  And don’t get me started about his bandying about the death photograph of Hill taken there at his residence before his body was removed.  Shameful.

Attorney Quackenbush stated in the media that he had the proof that Rueda, not Garrett, murdered Sister Benz.  He called on the Potter County D.A.’s Office to submit physical evidence for testing to prove his thesis.  He then went silent and left town.  We haven’t heard from him since.  I don’t know who has more lust for publicity.  Perhaps those who abetted and assisted him in this pack of distortions, lies and misrepresentations called “The Last Word.”

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