by Michael Lasher
I guess that I am glad that a chain link fence blocks me from the only inhabited house on this street. To the right is a cemetery for backhoes. Behind me is some sort of squat factory, darkly humming. To the left is a burned out house; boards hang below a few charred window frames. I scan my surroundings to for errant threats and then focus on the house in front of me. I have to go through the fence, walk up the steps, try to find Liberace, and get him to talk to me.
This is a dodgy neighborhood in a city known for its high homicide rate. The adrenaline leaves a metallic taste in my dry mouth. I tell myself that I can leave at the first whiff of trouble. Normally, I park my car at least a block away so that the witness does not recognize it later should I chance upon him around town. Today, I pull right up to the front of the house.
I am trying to find out the real story behind the murder of my client’s sister, Coco, in the 1970’s. Coco’s siblings, including my death row client Sherman, told conflicting stories. Some said that the murderer was her boyfriend and pimp: Liberace. One of Coco’s sisters told another investigator that she had seen Liberace dump boiling water on Coco. Other relatives believed that the killer was Liberace’s cousin, a belief supported by the fact that this person was convicted of the murder. Adding to the mystery is my failure to locate the convict cousin, despite years of efforts by a team of investigators combing through microfiche, newspapers, and court files. For all the mystery surrounding Coco’s murder, everyone agreed that Liberace was shot in the face when it happened.
That I heard two different versions of such a profound event was unsurprising. As often happens in families buffeted by chaos–by physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and poverty–the surviving members of this family had not spoken to each other in years. You might think that the survivors would have bonded in the crucible of their past. Not usually so.
Adding to the difficulty in investigating families who have lived through trauma, each survivor’s memory of specific events is often distorted by the trauma itself. You might think that every detail of a traumatic event would be seared into the memory; but survivors have a very idiosyncratic, selective memory of details. This case was no exception. Every surviving sibling of Sherman told a different version of a brutal act of perpetuated on him when he was a boy. Each had witnessed the same event but each had a different memory.
History is warped by poisoned family dynamics and memories distorted by trauma. History is buried by the outright lies people have told me to cover painful or embarrassing facts. Months before, I was sitting with Sherman’s 82 year old mother. A regular churchgoer, she has recited for me all of the judges in the Old Testament and told me of the wanderings of the Edamites. I had been asking about Sherman’s biological father. In her red gingham dress and white church shoes, she looked at me with steely blue eyes and lied to my face in the Denny’s booth. She told me that Sherman’s stepfather was in fact the biological father. I knew she had lied because of the shame she felt at Sherman being conceived out of wedlock. I chose not confront her then because it was only our second meeting and I did not want her to shut down on me. Instead, I let it pass and I asked her about Coco and how her murder affected Sherman.
Sherman went down hill fast after Coco was killed. As the parentified child in an extremely dysfunctional family, he felt responsible for her death, even though the oldest sister introduced Coco to prostitution and drugs. After Coco died, Sherman started using more speed, culminating in week-long binges that he would attempt to manage with heroin. He once told me that he “gave up on life” when Coco was killed.
So now I am in the hood investigating this period of Sherman’s life to try to situate his subsequent capital crime within a larger narrative arc. His case is not a “who done it” but a “why done it.” Like Sherman, I have a pathological sense of responsibility, which is no doubt informed in a twisted way by wanting to prove my own worth. Which is why I am now alone on this dangerous street trying to get a total stranger to talk about when he was shot in the face while either he killed Coco or watched her be killed.
The street is eerily quiet, despite it being midday and in the middle of an urban center. The cheery blue sky starkly contrasts with the dingy wooden house that I hope contains Liberace. The house looks like it was built in the early 1900’s; industry grew up around it circa World War II. Brown metal grates cover the windows, even those on the second floor. A chaos of cars, newspapers, milk crates, and various trash spoil my field of view. Mainly, I am trying to spot any dogs that may be hiding. Like postmen, investigators have many harrowing dog stories. But that is another chapter.
I flip up the metal gate clasp on the rusty chain link fence and wait. Barking from behind the house. I quietly wait some more, safely outside the fence. I won’t be able to get up the front steps if any pit bulls come running. While I have a phone number that I am reasonably certain is associated with the house, for many reasons I do not want to call. I do not want whoever answers the phone to know I have investigated them, because they may get freaked out and clam up. I also do not want whomever answers the phone to simply hang up. A vestige of politeness makes most people less likely to slam a door in your face than to hang up a phone. The barking subsides and no dogs come running. I push open the fence and walk quickly up the wooden stairs, trying to avoid the rotted out steps while at the same time trying to look over my shoulder.
The door opens and I reflexively smile, my name propelled out of my mouth by nervousness. I hand my business card and ID to the African-American woman in her 50s who wears a thin white nightgown sporting a few light brown stains. She has a cut on her forehead that looks slow in healing. I think, “substandard medical care.”
I do not see it until she answers my question about Liberace’s whereabouts. Out of a tracheotomy hole, she rasps, “He ain’t here. I am his auntie.” Her breath is pungent and indicates deep unhealthiness. It sickens me and I try to breathe through my mouth while trying to be upbeat and ask inoffensive questions. Usually, I start with a few open-ended questions designed not to necessarily yield useful information, but to put the witness at ease. “How long have you lived here? I bet you have seen a lot of changes in the hood? What a cute dog. What is her name?” I cannot count how many dogs I have gamely petted, despite their smelling like Nachos. People loosen up when you get them talking about themselves or their pets. Then I slip in a more probing question. “When did you last see Liberace?”
I am keyed up, a bit freaked out, and splitting my attention between engaging with the lady while trying to divine from the items in my field of view the identity of those who might be in the house. Does that child’s broken plastic scooter belong to any of Liberace’s children? Is that his beaten up leather jacket on the ground? I also want to be quick to detect whether anybody is going to rush me and tell me to get lost. The ubiquitous TV squawks in the room behind the foyer. Small sounds punctuating the TV noise come from deeper in the house and I strain to hear any quick movements or voices that will send me rushing down the stairs. I ask a bit more about Liberace, suspecting that he is in the house right now. I root myself to the top step, and hazard more difficult questions. Where might Liberace be? Is he living with his and Coco’s now adult child? Is he is working? Where is the convict cousin? She evades my questions; her face conveys no emotion. I try to stay on that top step as long as I can, hoping that some clue will surface. None do and I run out of questions. After 15 minutes of futility, I ask for her phone number (even though I already have it) “just in case I think of another question,” leave her my number, and pick my way down the stairs. Just like me, she is a pro at hiding information.
I drive to a better neighborhood to regroup. Still keyed up, I have trouble paying attention to the traffic around me. I hurriedly park and try to figure out my next steps. Within 10 minutes my cell phone rings and I immediately know who it is. Liberace steadfastly refuses to meet with me in person, deepening my suspicion that he in fact killed Coco. His refusal also makes me wonder how bad he looks after having been shot in the face. It does not occur to me until later that he must have been just as suspicious of me and my motives as I was of him and his. He says, “Yeah, I be doin’ okay. Nah, I do not want to meet you. I got nothin’ to say, ya feel me?. I don’t know where my cousin be.” Long pause, with me struggling in vain to keep the conversation going.
Months later, I hatch a different approach. I call the lady and tell her that I have photos of Coco and other people, some of whom I cannot identify. I ask for her help in naming the people I do not know. I venture, “Maybe Liberace can help . . .?” Asking people for help can sometimes get them talking, because they feel a sense of power in having sought-after information. I set up a time to meet her.
I drive up to the house and there are five people hanging out around the chain link fence. So many people make me nervous. I am outnumbered. I cannot pay attention to everyone at once. The lady is there. I push my unease down into my gut, pull out the photos right on the street there, and cheerfully say, “This is Coco, but who is this here?” She looks but says nothing; I hear her breath clearly out of the hole, as if I can hear all the way down into her rotten lungs. I wish she were smoking a cigarette out of that hole; it would have smelled better. All the while, the people are milling around, dividing my attention and making me nervous. I look nobody in the face. Instead, I focus on feet to see which way they’re pointed and if anyone is headed my way. One or two people wheel over and look at the photos, then at me–the skinny white guy in a business shirt. Others hang back. I notice a very dark African-American man behind the chain link fence. He is standing in such a way that I cannot see his face. He never moves from that position, carefully chosen. But I see his fingers laced through the fence, ebony on silver. I know it is Liberace. He never says one word.
Liberace never gave me any useful information, despite years of effort and some personal risk. In this and in countless other cases, I push myself and come up empty. Maybe I work so hard because I know the odds are so long. If only I could find the long-lost sibling who saw the sexual abuse of my client as a boy. If only I could get that person, battling his or her own addictions and monsters, to talk to me. If only I could get that person to talk about this long-hidden family secret. Only then have I shown my tiny, critical community of capital litigators that I am worthy.