Carl Townsley's Accountability Trap
You're more than the worst thing you've ever done. But are you more than the worst thing you've been accused of?
Just outside her second-floor apartment in the sleepy town of Barbourville, Kentucky, Carol Logan was found in a pool of her own blood. She died a few days later. Beaten to death in ‘83. I was about to be born. I wonder if we passed each other, in some hallway, on some other plane. The murder weapon was never found, but we figured it must have been a hammer based on the wounds. She was a nurse, helped people. She didn’t have enemies. Well, one.
Nearly thirty years later, me and an investigator and a man named Carl Townsley were sitting in a hot, cramped room at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Carl was arrested for Carol’s killing. He maintained his innocence. Went to trial with an alibi. No physical evidence connected him to the killing. Only circumstantial evidence, including informants charged with drug crimes. Carl lost. Jury gave him life.
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The years went the way they do.
No one told him we were coming. He cried when I told him we were with the innocence project, that we’d gotten his letters. Weird reaction for a hardened killer, I thought.
I was in my last year of law school, working with the Kentucky Innocence Project through an externship — working on cases where we believed that people had been convicted of crimes that they hadn’t committed. Our goal was to get them out.
Here’s the thing about Carl: he’s got one leg, courtesy of the first and last fight he picked with a train. Got around on crutches and a dilapidated fake leg. Carol had defensive wounds. She fought back, and hard. Whoever beat her to death overpowered her, ran down a flight of stairs and around a corner before witnesses showed up moments later. I didn’t think Carl was physically capable. Nothing that came next served to undermine my sense of his innocence.
We worked the case. Knocked on a lot of doors in Eastern Kentucky. Lots of phone calls. Thumbing through yellowed court records in dusty backrooms. Interviews. Walking through back fields, eyes peeled for fish hooks and razor blades. Snitches didn't want to talk, suddenly. We figured a motive and a likely killer who was seen covered in blood on the night of the killing.
In Eastern Kentucky, entire clans often live in hollers — the space in between the rolling, green hills of Appalachia. The particular holler our suspect lived in had one way in, one way out: a bridge. Our guy lived at the top of the holler. We were heading to his home there to politely introduce ourselves, accuse him of murder, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, ask him to confess. He was infirm. We hoped to poke his conscience, tape recorders with electrical tape over the little red light in all our pockets. He politely declined our invitation, telling us somewhat ominously to be careful on the way out. Lots of places to get lost out here, apparently. Slowly driving the winding path back past all his relatives towards the exit, we half-joked that we’d find a line of shotguns on the other side of the bridge. Our ex-NCIS investigator had previously told me that he didn’t carry a gun. “It can cause situations to escalate if you have one,” he said. Armed with a legal pad myself, I hoped he lied. No muzzle flashes, but my blood pressure didn’t drop until the following morning.
I got a CALI award for my work with the externship that year, the only such award in law school I got. I stayed on past graduation as a volunteer to work on the case. Lots of innocence cases play out when DNA finally gets tested. There’s no DNA to test here. The person we thought responsible disagreed with our thinking. Still, we went to court with what we had discovered thus far. It wasn’t enough to prove his innocence.
The point of writing all this is isn’t to prove it to you. It’s not to lay out all the evidence. It doesn’t matter whether you believe me, and it doesn’t matter whether I am right. The point is two-fold: one, just to say that I believe there is a man in Kentucky prison for a murder that he did not commit and his name is Carl Townsley. I would like for you to know his name, and a bit of his story.
In Kentucky, a life sentence isn’t necessarily life. You can get parole, so long as the parole board approves your release. Carl’s gone to the board numerous times, flopped each time. To make parole, you’ve got to express remorse. Hard to be remorseful for something you didn’t do.
Carl has the keys to his cell in his pocket.
All he’s got to do to get a shot at freedom: lie.
People can be innocent and still go to prison for all sorts of reasons, as Justin Brooks’ new book attests. People can be falsely accused for all sorts of reasons. People lie for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they lie to hurt others. Sometimes they lie to save themselves.
A popular saying, attributed to Bryan Stevenson is that we are all more than the worst thing that we have ever done. Assumed in that formulation is an acceptance of responsibility, an expression of remorse, an atonement — that we all change, hopefully for the better.
What about those who are accused of crimes they didn’t commit, but are nevertheless convicted? They cannot — honestly, at least — inhabit that same world of accountability, remorse, and atonement. The innocent and the honest sound much like the guilty and unrepentant: proclaiming their innocence, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, sometimes angrily. My experiences have told me that we’re not very good — within the legal system or not — at telling the difference. The ‘best’ system that we’ve devised at divining that truth is a trial where criminal defendants are afforded the full panoply of constitutional rights. Due process, such as it is.
Assume for the moment that Carl is innocent. He could lie. Say “I’m sorry for murdering that woman.” Now, not only is he actually a liar, but everyone knows it because he’s spent so many years telling the truth. Now a lying killer, one who hasn’t been able to participate in programming for which an admission of responsibility is a prerequisite, odds seem decent that the admission is used against him next time he goes up for parole.
Heads, you lose. Tails, they win.
I said my purpose in writing this was two-fold, and it is. Here’s the second piece: Our systems, legal and otherwise, do not know how to deal with innocence because those of us that built it — each guilty in our own ways — don’t know how, either.
Carl’s going to die in the same prison where we met. He got the slow death penalty. Perhaps it’s just as well. World’s very different now. The original Nintendo was released around the time he went into custody, the one with the sharp-cornered controller that would bite my hands when I tried to rescue some other kind of prisoner, a princess as I recall. I don’t know that anyone other than prison administrators think about him. I guess other than me, and now maybe you. Maybe you’re a true crime podcaster. Maybe you’re an innocence attorney. Maybe you’re a clemency attorney. I hope you are.
Now that I’m licensed, I’m thinking about him more and more. I dreamt about him the a few nights ago, I suppose spurring me to write this. I remember his eyes looking at me from across metal table. Intense blue relief. Salvation had arrived. I wish that were true.
How would he even live outside? Would he want to? He should at least have that chance to live free, to die free. We should all have that chance.
Maybe when I get my bar card, it’ll be time to take a drive back out to those rolling hills. Don’t know what I could do. Probably nothing.
Maybe’s enough for me.
An old boss of mine once remarked “In Heaven, the lion and the lamb lay down together. In Hell, they get Due Process.” Make of that what you will, but if our systems of determining guilt and innocence were so finely tuned then I’d assume there would be no innocence project because there would be no need of it.
Incredible! As anyone who has experienced our Criminal Justice system knows, it should be called the Criminal Injustice system.