COLBERT, GA. — Attorney Pat Beall felt torn by nagging doubts.
His client, William (Pop) Campbell, had privately confessed to him that he alone killed a barber during a robbery in this small town near Athens in the piney woods of Georgia's Madison County. But another man, Henry Drake, had also been convicted of the murder, largely due to Campbell's testimony. An innocent man was sitting on Death Row.
Drake was not his client, Beall reasoned. Lawyers had to focus on their own client's best interests. Beall's task was to protect Campbell from the electric chair. A public confession would blow his chances.
"Just shut your mouth," Beall told Campbell. "Don't tell anyone else."
Despite his hard stance, Beall felt he had no easy answer--he saw himself both as a hired gun and an officer of the court. He had purposefully avoided ever seeing Drake, for he did not want the issue cast in the form of a flesh-and-blood person. In the spring of 1979, feeling uneasy, he called the Georgia State Bar Ethics Committee, seeking guidance.
The voice from the state bar walked Beall through the state ethics code. Represent your client solely, the voice said. But do not let him tell any further lies. As long as your client has not told lies while you've been representing him, you are under no ethical obligation to make things square with the courts about a lie he told in the past.
Beall agreed. He would let Drake's attorney worry about Drake, but he would never put Campbell on the stand to testify again about the events of Dec. 5, 1975.
He would have stuck with that strategy, Beall said later, "but for the Christians."
The Rev. Murphy Davis of Atlanta's Clifton Presbyterian Church had started visiting Campbell in January of 1978, as part of that church's prison ministry. During their first visit, Campbell had told her everything. Later, he confided in a lay member of Davis' church, Carolyn Johnson, who had taken to visiting Campbell with her infant, bouncing the baby on Campbell's bony knee--an unlikely but affecting vision for Death Row regulars.
In 1980, these two women started urging Campbell to put his confession on paper. Campbell began pressing the matter with Beall. Beall resisted. So Davis and Johnson came to visit Campbell one day with paper, pen and a notary public.
Davis wrote out the story Campbell had told her a good number of times over the years. Because Campbell was illiterate, she then read the affidavit to him:
"My name is William Campbell and I was a witness in the trial of Henry Arthur Drake for armed robbery and murder. I lied at his trial. I said Henry was the one who killed the barber, Mr. Eberhart, and that I tried to stop Henry from killing him. But what I said were lies. I was the one who killed Mr. Eberhart. Henry wasn't even there. He didn't have anything to do with it . . . . I lied about Henry because I thought Henry had done me dirty. I thought Henry had turned me in . . . . But since being here at Jackson I've thought it over and I know it was wrong to lie and I can't go on living like this . . . . I know what I'm saying might hurt my own appeals but I'm not going to worry about it. I want to get this off my conscience . . . ."
Before the notary, Campbell signed the document. It was April 2, 1981.
Davis called Beall that day at 4:30 p.m. "I just took an affidavit from Campbell and gave it to Drake's lawyer, Mary Wilkes," the minister said. "I ask your forgiveness. I had to do it as a Christian."
Beall was furious. There had to have been collusion between the good Christians and Wilkes, given the short time in which the affidavit reached the lawyers' hands, he thought. Wilkes had gone behind his back, using Murphy Davis. Of that he was sure.
Beall stormed into the prison the next morning. Campbell, brought to him in a small office, would not meet his eyes.
"Pop, what have you done."
Campbell looked at Beall then.
"I did the right thing."
"If the affidavit gets out, it ruins your chances," Beall said. By now, he had been drawn inexorably into a game not entirely of his choosing.
"I know I should have been relieved and walked away when they got the affidavit," he said later. "But maybe by then I was wrapped up in the game . . . . At that point, I can fault myself."
He hammered at Campbell for more than an hour. This will be bad for your appeal, he argued. This will be bad for your conviction. This will be bad for your parole board. This is another crime, perjury.
Campbell would not budge. I want to go ahead and get this off my chest, he kept saying. I want to do the right thing.
Beall returned to his office enraged, kicking bookcases, yelling at secretaries. He called Mary Wilkes. I know you sent Davis down there, he spat out. This was a conspiracy. I know it.
The next morning, his fury cooled, Beall called Wilkes back. He had used the night to think. Now that my client has signed the affidavit, he told her, I'll do anything I can to cooperate with you.