In 1985, Edwin Matthews had been a prominent international attorney for more than 25 years. Although he loved the law, he didn't think it was fair that most people on America's death rows couldn't afford their own counsel.
So Matthews decided to represent an inmate on a pro bono basis, reports Bob Simon. Matthews wound up with Don Paradis, who had been convicted of strangling a young woman in Idaho. Although Paradis said he was innocent, Matthews had no particular reason to believe him. But after launching his own investigation, Matthews became convinced that Paradis was telling him the truth. So, he stayed with the case and got him the inmate set free but only after Paradis had spent 21 years in jail. That cost Matthews his belief in American justice.
On the day Paradis was released from prison, Matthews took him to this lakeside cabin in Idaho. Paradis was overwhelmed by the silence.
While there, Matthews asked Paradis what he was thinking about. "I'm thinking I don't have to hear keys, and doors slamming, and bars, and steel and razor wire, men hardened with hate," he said.
The friendship of 68 year-old attorney Edwin Matthews and his 53-year-old client Don Paradis is, to say the least, improbable. Paradis is a former member of the Gypsy Jokers, a motorcycle gang. Matthews is a member of the Harvard and Yale clubs and a partner at Coudert Brothers, a prestigious law firm whose clients normally do not include people on death row. The two came together because of a murder that took place 22 years ago.
In 1980, in Spokane, Washington, a fight took place at Paradis' house between two bikers who were partying there. Paradis interrupted the fight and hit one of them, who had a gun.
"If I wouldn't have stopped him, he'd have killed somebody," says Paradis.
Paradis then says he left the house. When he returned, he found the dead body of the man with the gun. Paradis and two other bikers were tried for that murder in the state of Washington. They were acquitted. Then Paradis was sent to this courthouse in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to be tried for the murder of the victim's girlfriend, 19 year-old Kimberly Palmer.
According to the prosecution, Paradis, along with two other bikers, put the body in a van and started driving from Washington to Idaho. They also brought along Kimberly Palmer, who was still alive. The prosecution says they planned to kill her when they got to Idaho.
It was here, said the prosecution, that Palmer escaped and ran down a ravine. The prosecution then theorized that Paradis and the others chased after her and caught her here at the bottom, where she was strangled and left to die at this stream.
Paradis's court-appointed defense counsel was an inexperienced lawyer named Bill Brown.
"He had never tried a case, any kind of a case before," says Matthews. "He did not know you could object to what the prosecutor said. Now everybody who's watched Perry Mason knows that."
And at the same time Brown was defending Paradis, he was also a reserve officer in the police department of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where the trial was being held.
"The defense counsel's job, as it was my job, was to look suspiciously at everything the State said, challenge it, doubt it. That's not the frame of mind that Bill Brown as a police officer was in," says Matthews.
The jury found Paradis guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to death.
"Am I a murderer? No. I didn't murder anybody," says Paradis. "I didn't attempt to murder anybody. I didn't help to murder anybody." The story Paradis tells, one that Matthews came to believe, isn't pretty. But it doesn't make Paradis a killer.
"When I walked in, the house was a mess and there was the body of a girl on the kitchen floor," Paradis recalls. "And walked downstairs and the body of the guy was on the basement floor."
The guy was the man with the gun. The girl was Kimberly Palmer. She had been killed in Washington along with her boyfriend, not in Idaho as the prosecution claimed.
Because of his affiliation with an outlaw motorcycle gang, Paradis feared that he would be charged with murder. "It entered my mind to call the cops but you know it goes through where you pick up the phone, call the police and say, 'Hey, this is your local Gypsy Joker and I've got two dead bodies in my house. Will you – will you come and give me a hand here?' No way," says Paradis.
So he and two other bikers put the bodies of Palmer and her boyfriend in the van and drove to Idaho, where Paradis left Palmer's body by this stream.
"I made a mistake, one that I regret every day," Paradis says.
Says Matthews: "He was guilty of attempting to cover up a murder. And he helped hide a body. And for that he deserved to be punished. But that's, at the most, several years in jail."
Paradis – a renegade biker who hid the body of a teen-age girl - hardly came across as a sympathetic figure to the jury. He readily admits that he deserved to serve time, but doesn't think he should have faced execution for a murder he didn't commit.
Paradis says that at one point he came within three minutes of being executed. Matthews says Paradis' troubles originated in the fact that he could not afford his own defense counsel.
"In this country, if you have resources, you will not get the death penalty," says Matthews. But Matthews, who is a competitive rower with a fierce will to win, was determined to save his client's life. He began by pursuing the leads Paradis had given Brown; leads that Brown never followed up.
"I assumed there'd been a police investigation and everybody'd done their job," says Matthews. "And I began to find one witness after another that said something totally different had happened."
Matthews eventually located five witnesses who said that Paradis wasn't there when the murders happened. He also found scientific evidence that made the prosecution's theory of Kimberly Palmer's murder hard to believe.
The crucial evidence in the trial was given by pathologist Dr. William Brady.
Says Matthews: "He said ...the victim's lungs were heavy and wet and that that resulted from her having inhaled water from the stream where her body was found as she was dying and that explained why her lungs were 500 grams too heavy. And I remember going into the kitchen. And I found a jam jar that has 500 stamped on the bottom of it. And it represents 500 grams. And I filled it up with water. And I started drinking 500 grams of water. Takes a long time."
Nonetheless, Brady told the jury that's what Palmer did as she lay dying. Brown never challenged this contention.
Brady's testimony was crucial. "Without that, they could not pin the crime to Idaho and they couldn't pin Don Paradis to the crime," says Matthews.
Armed with this and other evidence, Matthews took his case to various courts of appeal. Confronting him at every turn was Lynn Thomas, solicitor general of Idaho. Thomas, who's now retired, argued that Matthews' evidence wasn't new, was available at the time of the trial, and could have been used by Brown.
"We believed, and still do, that the judgment that put him there was accurate and was reliable and was based on sound evidence," says Thomas.
But shouldn't any shred of new evidence be permitted to be heard? "No, that's not the law," says Thomas. "I mean you could go through claimed new evidence forever."
Thomas is right. The law states that evidence is not considered new merely because it wasn't presented at trial. The intent, of course, is to prevent lawyers from filing endless appeals and retrying cases over and over again. The result, however, does not always guarantee justice or prevent an innocent man from being executed.
"I couldn't believe before I took this case that you could stand up in a court and present evidence that proved it was impossible that the crime could not have been committed by the defendant, that even Houdini couldn't have committed this crime, and have the judge turn a blind eye to that claim," says Matthews.
After years of trying to get appeals courts to hear his evidence and being blocked every time - 20 judges said no - Matthews went outside the legal system to save his client's life.
"I realized at the time that he was going to be killed if we didn't do something. So that's when we went for clemency," says Matthews.
Matthews succeeded. The governor of Idaho commuted Paradis's sentence to life in prison without parole. That's where he'd be today if something extraordinary hadn't happened. Some notes taken at Kimberly Palmer's autopsy were found that suggested that Palmer could not have been killed at that stream in Idaho, effectively demolishing the prosecution's case. Bill Douglas, the current prosecutor for Kootenai County, Idaho, found the notes.
What if he hadn't turned over the notes and Paradis had been executed? "If Mr. Paradis is gonna get executed, then it's gonna be under the rule of law. And that's gonna be only if his lawyers have everything available to him which would have included these notes," says Douglas.
But Lynn Thomas, who had known about the notes for years, argued successfully in court to withhold them from the defense.
"I didn't want them accepted as evidence because they're confusing, incomplete, and they don't say anything," says Thomas.
But the notes state that Palmer was "dead when went in water." That's what Paradis' original prosecutor, Marc Haws wrote down, based on a firsthand police report of Brady's autopsy.
Brady was the pathologist who testified that he could place Palmer's death in Idaho because the presence of fluid in her lungs showed that she had inhaled water from this stream in her dying breath.
But the phrase – "dead when went in water" – is the opposite of what Dr. Brady said at Paradis' trial.
Both Brady and Paradis's prosecutor, Marc Haws, who wrote the notes, declined a request for interviews. But when Matthews delivered the notes to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals, it ruled that they "could have been used to impeach [Dr. Brady] sufficiently to undermine confidence in the verdict [and that Paradis] was prejudiced by the failure of the prosecution to disclose the notes." A month after the ruling, Paradis was set free.
Over 16 years, Coudert Brothers and Matthews spent 20,000 hours trying to save Don Paradis' life. In billable time, that's more than $5 million.
"Can you imagine that it takes $5 million to save an innocent man's life," says Matthews. "At that price, how many of us can afford to survive?"
The answer: not many. Matthews has come to believe that justice peeks beneath her blindfold to see what you've got in your wallet. He'll tell you that more than 90 percent of the 3,500 people on death row today could not afford their own attorney. And he's also convinced that if they'd had competent, devoted lawyers, very few of them would be there. But if these thoughts were on Matthews' mind at the Coudert Brothers party celebrating Paradis' release, he kept them to himself.
At the party, Matthews said: "Don, in the process you have become our favorite client, a client that we could not afford to lose. And in the process you've made us strong and you've ennobled our lives. Thank you."
"I toast to Edwin Spencer Matthews, Jr., my hero," Paradis toasted.
Says Matthews: "When I started, what made this worth it was a belief in the legal system, and that it was my duty as a lawyer to improve the system. I don't think I've done that, and I didn't do that. I helped save somebody's life, but the legal system, I think, is deeply flawed."