“What would you like for your last meal?”
The guard’s typically menacing voice had taken on a softer tone, almost one of pity. He stood just outside the heavy metal door, a slot open in its face so he would be heard. Aside from that, a small window near the ceiling was the only indication that the outside world continued to exist.
“Apple pie, please. Some ice cream with it, if you can.”
“Vanilla. Just vanilla.”
The slot snapped closed with an echoing click, cutting off the cell once more. Terrence Crawford was left alone, sitting perched on the edge of the ragged cot. On the other side of the room stood a small sink and a toilet. The rest of the cell was bare, the concrete walls and floor marked by the occasional patch of mildew. Terrence leaned over, placing his head in his hands. His hair had grown long and matted, twisting around his fingers in a greasy knot. Shuddering breaths coursed through his body as he began to sob uncontrollably.
Thirty years ago, he had been convicted for the torture and murder of his beautiful wife and infant daughter.
It wasn’t the police that found them at first. A group of teenage boys had been skating in the alleyway behind his apartment complex, propping up ramps against the dumpster. One of them had missed, slamming into the dumpster and forcing it back against the wall. Barely visible beneath the edge was a bloody hand, fingernails ripped from the flesh. Getting down on their hands and knees, the boys peered underneath the dumpster, each one letting out a bloodcurdling scream at the sight.
Police converged on the area, escorting the boys away from the scene of the crime. Headlines were broadcast across the nation, detailing the brutality with which the two innocent lives were taken. Yet what shocked viewers even more was the precision with which the act was carried out: not a single fingerprint was left behind. Even the victims’ blood had been painstakingly cleaned away, leaving not a single trace of the bodies’ origins.
After months of investigation, the forensics team had uncovered only a single piece of evidence. Almost too small to notice, a fragment of human hair was left behind on the daughter’s pajamas, nestled between the soft fibers.
The fragment pointed to two people: Terrence Crawford, or his twin brother, Michael Crawford. From that point on, it was a matter of suspicion. The brothers had separated years ago, with Michael moving across the country for a lucrative business job on the East Coast. Terrence had stayed in California, relocating only from the congested Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he planned to raise his family. He was away on a trip at the time of the murder, having left for a week’s travel a few days prior to the bodies being discovered.
Naturally, Terrence was to blame for the murder. Between his personal relationship to the victims and his sudden absence, there simply couldn’t be any other explanation. Terrence was placed on death row. The jury had determined that such a man was too dangerous to live even in prison; it would be safest for society to simply remove him.
Terrence fought and cursed at the verdict, screaming his innocence to the stonewalled jury. The security guards dragged him away, tears pouring down his face as he went limp, surrendering in the face of his new life and inevitable death.
For weeks after Terrence was put in prison, he spent every waking moment screaming at the guards, begging them to set him free. “I shouldn’t be here!” he cried out, slamming his fists against the bars on the door. “It wasn’t me; I didn’t do it!” he yelled, picking up the cot and slamming it down on the concrete floor. One night the guard had caught him with a plastic knife from the cafeteria, desperately slashing at his wrists. They placed him in solitary confinement, taking away all but the bare necessities and keeping him under constant watch.
For thirty years, his life revolved around his cell. Occasionally, he would be let out into the prison yard for a walk. Armed guards flanked him on both sides, ensuring that he spoke to no one and made no attempt at escape. He was beyond escape by that point, merely praying for death to take him.
After thirty long years, the day had finally come. Terrence no longer held anger against his captors, only against the bureaucratic system which had forced him to wait thirty years for his sentence to be carried out. Every day had been torture.
The slot in the metal door opened once more. The sweet smell of apple pie permeated the dank cell, along with the creamy overtones of fresh vanilla ice cream. Terrence rose from his cot, shakily pulling the tray from the guard’s hands. The smell reminded him of spending Christmas at his grandparents’ house, peeking through the oven door to see if the pie was ready yet. He took the first bite; after thirty years of prison food, the sweetness was almost too much for him to bear.
The heavy door opened with a grinding screech. Terrence looked up from his empty tray, the last crumbs of apple pie long gone. In the doorway stood the guard, followed closely behind by a preacher. Terrence rose from his cot in silence, ready to meet his fate.
“Today we will be studying an unusual case, one in which a man was wrongfully sentenced to death. Your final project will be an analysis of the case, along with your thoughts on the fallacies of criminal investigations and a clearly defined proposal for how to prevent wrongful convictions.”
The class began to murmur nervously; Prof Jenkins was one of the toughest teachers in the criminal justice program. He was known for his lectures, which could last the entire class period. Students had to pay close attention and take notes constantly; zoning out for even a moment could mean missing a crucial piece of information for a test.
“In 1983, Terrence Crawford was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and infant daughter. The murders made national news, and Crawford was considered to be the most hated man in America.”
Prof Jenkins clicked through his slideshow, displaying mugshots and newspaper headlines. He paused on a photo taken of the victims, their bodies lying mutilated on the asphalt.
“The only piece of evidence found on the scene was a fragment of hair, less than half an inch long. After spending thirty years in prison with much of it being in solitary confinement, he was executed by lethal injection in 2003.”
He clicked to the next slide, showing another mugshot. The date on the bottom read 14 August, 2019.
“This is Michael Crawford, twin brother to Terrence Crawford. At the time of the murders, he was assumed to be living on the East Coast, and so was never considered to be a suspect in the case. However, had the investigators looked more closely into his travel records, they would have seen that he had left on a business trip to California the previous week. According to records of the hotel across the street from Terrence Crawford’s apartment, Michael Crawford arrived in San Francisco the day before Terrence left on his own travels.”
A student raised his hand in the back of the room. “But Professor, couldn’t it have just been a coincidence? What motive would he have had to do such a horrible thing?”
Professor Jenkins turned to face the student.
“Once the police had spoken with the brothers’ family, it was discovered that Michael and Terrence had a history of fighting and rivalry. Michael was constantly convinced that his brother was the favorite, and did everything he could to undermine his success. Even in childhood, he would be breaking his brothers’ toys and spreading playground gossip. By adolescence, it had escalated into more physical fights and sabotage of his brother’s vehicle. When Terrence got married it was simply the last straw for Michael, who had just been left by his girlfriend of three years.”
“Professor Jenkins,” another student chimed in. “Wouldn’t such behavior signify some sort of mental illness? Why didn’t his parents take him in for treatment?”
“The Crawford brothers grew up in a very poor family, one that couldn’t afford for their child to be sent to a psychiatrist. Of course, they did everything they could to help him, giving him discipline and home and reinforcing positive behaviors. But who could have possibly predicted he would turn to such violence? Even his family never suspected he would take a life.”
He clicked through the slideshow once more, showing the brothers’ mug shots side by side. It gave a surreal perspective, with one being nearly forty years older.
“Terrence Crawford spent the majority of his life in prison for a crime he never committed. Until last year, he was remembered throughout history as one of the most despicable human beings to exist, a sociopathic killer within the ranks of Hitler and Stalin. And yet he was an innocent man, deprived of liberty and then of life by the American justice system. May we remember our mistakes.”
Professor Jenkins closed his laptop, leaving the projector screen blank.