May 11, 1995 in Nation/World

Time Running Out For Convicted Killer In Idaho Paradis Advocates Bring Case To The Court Of Public Opinion

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Twenty-three hours a day, convicted murderer Don Paradis sits in a concrete cell, waiting to die.

Two time zones away, attorney Edwin Matthews sits in a New York high-rise, surrounded by stacks of unsuccessful legal appeals.

For the past decade, Matthews has fought to free the former motorcycle gang member from Idaho’s death row.

After 8,000 hours of volunteered time, Matthews’ client is edging closer to lethal injection for the 1980 murder of a woman in Post Falls.

Local, state and federal courts have upheld Paradis’ conviction. Matthews said his client could die within six weeks if the remaining appeals fail.

Gov. Phil Batt said he probably will not grant a pardon.

“I see no reason to overturn the case,” Batt said. “I believe in the legal system.”

Batt cited Paradis’ many appeals.

“If those haven’t resulted in relief in other quarters, it makes me suspicious,” he said. “Probably the sentence is just.”

Now, with the help of his wife Patricia, a former documentary filmmaker, Matthews is turning to the court of public opinion. He hopes to sway judges and parole officials.

“What do you do if you see something terrible that’s about to happen?” he said. “You speak out.”

He carries the legal workload and speaks publicly about the case. Patricia Matthews works the telephones, fax machine and photocopier, trying to interest reporters and political wave-makers - including actor Dustin Hoffman - in the case.

“It’s tough in the Paradis case, because he’s from a group of people that’s obviously not going to win a lot of popularity contests,” said Tim Ford, a Seattle attorney specializing in death penalty cases.

The Matthewses’ efforts have led to lengthy stories in The New Yorker magazine and on ABC television’s “Day One” program. Both the print and television stories argue that Paradis was wrongly convicted. A TV movie is reportedly in the works.

“I always have hope that something will affect somebody,” Paradis said in a telephone interview from death row in Boise. “All I want is a complete, fair hearing.”

Prosecutors scoff, saying Paradis’ trial 14 years ago was complete and fair. They point out that every judge asked to review the case has upheld the verdict.

“How many times does he (Paradis) get to try it before people say, ‘Wait a minute’?” asked Peter Erbland, a prosecutor in the 1981 case. “They keep coming up with farfetched theories; then they call it evidence.”

The only injustice here, Erbland said, is that it’s taking so long to execute a convicted killer.

“I would hope his soul is saved,” Erbland said, “but I would feel very confident that justice was done.”

Idaho Solicitor General Lynn Thomas called Matthews’ campaign a sign of desperation. Thomas now handles the case for the state.

“They’re trying to create this cause celebre idea that Paradis is innocent,” said Thomas. “It’s obviously designed to present a one-sided view of the case and to convince the public that the system is failing.”

Some information the Matthewses give reporters is misleading. The cover page on one stack of depositions, for example, is titled “The Testimony of Five Eyewitnesses to Paradis’ Innocence.”

A close read of all the statements shows that only three of the five people say explicitly that Paradis wasn’t there. The other two say the killing occurred in Spokane, meaning Idaho has no jurisdiction in the matter.

Edwin Matthews said the cover sheet was an effort to sum up complex testimony. “It should be phrased in a different way,” he said. “We’re not trying to mislead anybody.”

His wife, who is a true believer in Paradis’ innocence, prepared the cover pages. It was late, she said, and they should have been titled more precisely.

1980 murder

Paradis was convicted 14 years ago of murdering Kimberly Anne Palmer, 19, of Spokane.

Palmer’s boyfriend, 26-year-old Scott Currier, was a member of the Hessians, a California motorcycle gang. During the early morning hours of June 21, 1980, Currier was tortured and beaten to death by members of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle gang at Paradis’ Spokane home.

Only one, Larry Evans, was convicted, although witnesses said several bikers beat Currier. As is typical in this case, several gang members point at each other.

The bikers, prosecutors believe, took Currier’s corpse and Palmer - still alive - to Post Falls. They dumped Currier’s body in a ravine alongside Mellick Road.

At the ravine, prosecutors conclude, Palmer tried to escape. The autopsy showed she was strangled to death.

Washington authorities charged four of the bikers with Currier’s death. Three, including Paradis, were acquitted.

Because authorities believe Palmer was killed in Post Falls, her case went to Idaho prosecutors. In separate trials in Coeur d’Alene, Paradis and another gang member, Thomas Gibson, were convicted and sentenced to die.

Unlike Gibson, Paradis has exhausted most of his court appeals.

Given the courts’ stance, death penalty experts say, the Matthewses’ publicity strategy makes a lot of sense.

“The press attention in these cases has often made a big difference,” said George Kendall, assistant counsel with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The organization has gathered statistical evidence for racial bias in death sentences. It matched up Edwin Matthews and Don Paradis 10 years ago when Matthews called and offered to work free on a death penalty case. If a death row inmate, regardless of race, has no lawyer, the legal defense fund will assign a pro bono lawyer.

Publicity can help sway judges, parole boards and governors, all of whom are in a position to help Paradis, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the anti-capital-punishment Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

But even with extensive publicity, he said, clemency hearings or pardons are rare.

“It’s because there’s too much pressure on anyone who’s elected to avoid seeming soft on crime,” Dieter said.

After an appeal from Paradis’ lawyers, Gov. Cecil Andrus, in December, asked the state Commission for Pardons and Parole to push Kootenai County District Judge James Judd to hear new testimony and evidence. Judd refused to grant a new hearing.

Andrus stopped short of commuting Paradis’ sentence, saying he should die if he is guilty.

The commission never launched an inquiry, saying it lacks the authority.

Still, Andrus’ actions enraged Erbland.

“This is a slap in the face of the Idaho criminal justice system,” he said. “If he really cared about justice in this case, maybe he would have written a letter to Kimberly Palmer’s mother, apologizing for the snail’s pace of justice in this case.”

The court of public opinion

Due partly to The New Yorker article, Idaho conservative leader Dennis Mansfield and liberal Episcopal Bishop John Thornton joined forces last month to press for a hearing, too.

“The courts are very reluctant to accept new evidence that comes in late,” said Dieter. “The system, once you’ve been convicted, is pretty much stacked against you. Sometimes, it’s only the court of public opinion that you’ve got left.”

There is at least one person, however, who never will be convinced Paradis is an innocent man.

Her name is Sherry Britz. She is Kim Palmer’s mother.

With every anniversary of the killing, every new court motion, every bit of news, Britz gets blindsided.

She’ll be making dinner when the murder crops up again on the evening news. She no longer reads the newspaper. She learned of The New Yorker piece when a fact-checker called her to verify the spelling of her name and her workplace.

“It never ends,” she said. “Here we’ll be at the 15-year mark on the 21st of June, and they’re still trying to retry the case.”

It took Britz six weeks to read the 17-page New Yorker piece. The “Day One” show caught her - and relatives in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas - off-guard. It felt as if someone had kicked her in the stomach.

“We are the victims that are left,” she said. “I think of her every day. Just when I get to the point where I remember Kim as living and all of the good things, every time I get there, something comes up that disturbs that feeling of peacefulness.”

Like Erbland, she has heard the arguments for Paradis’ innocence. She has read the transcripts, attended the trials and most of the hearings for 14 years. She successfully fought for access to the autopsy reports, fearing her imagination more than the facts, no matter how bad.

Britz is ironclad in her conviction that Paradis killed her daughter.

She wants the case over - either with the executions of Gibson and Paradis or by an assurance that they’ll spend their lives in prison with no chance of parole.

“I appeal to a higher court,” she said quietly. “And I believe justice will be done when they leave their lives and go to meet their Maker.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: QUESTIONS OF GUILT OR INNOCENCE Here are the arguments that Don Paradis’ attorneys say exonerate their client and the state’s counterpoints:

POINT: Another death row inmate, Thomas Gibson, confessed to the murder. He and Paradis were convicted of killing Kimberly Anne Palmer, 19, in 1980. Since then, Gibson’s repeatedly told a minister, a reporter and attorneys that he, not Paradis, was the killer. He said Paradis wasn’t even around. COUNTERPOINT: Former prosecutor Peter Erbland called Gibson’s confessions “part of a desperate attempt to get off Idaho’s death row.” Gibson said he murdered Palmer - in Spokane. If so, Idaho has no jurisdiction. Gibson gets off death row and takes his chances on a Washington trial.

POINT: In the 14 years since the trial, four people said Palmer was killed in Spokane, not Idaho. Two of them - one of whom passed a polygraph test - said Paradis wasn’t there. No witness has ever said Paradis killed Palmer. As with Gibson, these witnesses say Idaho has no jurisdiction in the crime. Paradis would have to be set free. “Jurisdiction in this case isn’t just a legal concept - it is innocence,” said Paradis attorney Edwin Matthews. “If the murder didn’t occur on Mellick Road in Post Falls, the state has no case against Don Paradis.” COUNTERPOINT: Idaho Solicitor General Lynn Thomas said the witnesses, all of them linked to motorcycle gangs, “are simply not credible.” Some, he said, refused to testify at Paradis’ trial. Erbland said the witnesses are only trying to protect a fellow gang member. “Isn’t it easy for anybody to say anything about anyone to protect them?” he said.

POINT: Forensic evidence from Palmer’s body suggests she was killed in Spokane, not in the ravine at Post Falls where her body was found. At Palmer’s autopsy, medical examiner William Brady found a deep gash, 1 1/2 inches across, on her labia. There was no sign of bleeding. That, Brady said, means the injury happened at least 30 minutes after Palmer was dead. A neighbor near the Post Falls ravine, however, said she saw the bikers go up the road and come back in 30 minutes or less. That timeline, Paradis’ lawyers argue, makes the prosecutors’ scenario impossible. The bikers couldn’t have driven up the road, killed Palmer, cut her 30 minutes later, then walked a third of a mile back down the road, all within the 30-minute period - or less - that the neighbor recalled. COUNTERPOINT: Thomas argued the cut is “essentially meaningless,” since no one knows how it happened. The wound, he said, could easily have happened when investigators were removing the corpse. “This is a very rough kind of terrain, with all kinds of brush and sticks and stones,” he said. The decision to prosecute in Idaho, Erbland said, was made on the basis of evidence. Investigators believed Palmer tried to get away, was caught and strangled in a stream. For one thing, Erbland said, the rigor mortis of Palmer’s body matched the terrain where her body was found. Also, her body was also found far down the ravine from her boyfriend’s. While his corpse was hidden in the brush in a sleeping bag, she was lying in a stream, on the other side of a barbed wire fence. If the bikers were trying to hide a corpse, they wouldn’t have carried her all that way, then left her in plain view, Erbland said.

POINT: Even Paradis’ courtappointed lawyer, William Brown, said he did a poor job defending Paradis. Brown, fresh out of law school, had never tried a criminal case before. COUNTERPOINT: “Anyone who loses a case can look back and say, ‘Here’s what I could’ve done,”’ responded Erbland. He points out that the Idaho Supreme Court in 1986 reviewed the record and decided Brown “did a commendable job.”

POINT: During the trial, Brown also worked for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department as a reserve officer patrolling the parks. It was, Paradis’ new lawyers say, a blatant conflict of interest. “If Don Paradis had a fully competent, loyal lawyer who did not have a conflict of interest, the result would have been different,” said Matthews. COUNTERPOINT: “This attack on William Brown is one of the most despicable parts of the Paradis argument and public relations ploy,” said Erbland. He points out that Brown, now deceased, cannot defend himself. Erbland said Brown was up-front about his part-time job. “Brown told me that Paradis knew that,” he said.

This sidebar appeared with the story: QUESTIONS OF GUILT OR INNOCENCE Here are the arguments that Don Paradis’ attorneys say exonerate their client and the state’s counterpoints:

POINT: Another death row inmate, Thomas Gibson, confessed to the murder. He and Paradis were convicted of killing Kimberly Anne Palmer, 19, in 1980. Since then, Gibson’s repeatedly told a minister, a reporter and attorneys that he, not Paradis, was the killer. He said Paradis wasn’t even around. COUNTERPOINT: Former prosecutor Peter Erbland called Gibson’s confessions “part of a desperate attempt to get off Idaho’s death row.” Gibson said he murdered Palmer - in Spokane. If so, Idaho has no jurisdiction. Gibson gets off death row and takes his chances on a Washington trial.

POINT: In the 14 years since the trial, four people said Palmer was killed in Spokane, not Idaho. Two of them - one of whom passed a polygraph test - said Paradis wasn’t there. No witness has ever said Paradis killed Palmer. As with Gibson, these witnesses say Idaho has no jurisdiction in the crime. Paradis would have to be set free. “Jurisdiction in this case isn’t just a legal concept - it is innocence,” said Paradis attorney Edwin Matthews. “If the murder didn’t occur on Mellick Road in Post Falls, the state has no case against Don Paradis.” COUNTERPOINT: Idaho Solicitor General Lynn Thomas said the witnesses, all of them linked to motorcycle gangs, “are simply not credible.” Some, he said, refused to testify at Paradis’ trial. Erbland said the witnesses are only trying to protect a fellow gang member. “Isn’t it easy for anybody to say anything about anyone to protect them?” he said.

POINT: Forensic evidence from Palmer’s body suggests she was killed in Spokane, not in the ravine at Post Falls where her body was found. At Palmer’s autopsy, medical examiner William Brady found a deep gash, 1 1/2 inches across, on her labia. There was no sign of bleeding. That, Brady said, means the injury happened at least 30 minutes after Palmer was dead. A neighbor near the Post Falls ravine, however, said she saw the bikers go up the road and come back in 30 minutes or less. That timeline, Paradis’ lawyers argue, makes the prosecutors’ scenario impossible. The bikers couldn’t have driven up the road, killed Palmer, cut her 30 minutes later, then walked a third of a mile back down the road, all within the 30-minute period - or less - that the neighbor recalled. COUNTERPOINT: Thomas argued the cut is “essentially meaningless,” since no one knows how it happened. The wound, he said, could easily have happened when investigators were removing the corpse. “This is a very rough kind of terrain, with all kinds of brush and sticks and stones,” he said. The decision to prosecute in Idaho, Erbland said, was made on the basis of evidence. Investigators believed Palmer tried to get away, was caught and strangled in a stream. For one thing, Erbland said, the rigor mortis of Palmer’s body matched the terrain where her body was found. Also, her body was also found far down the ravine from her boyfriend’s. While his corpse was hidden in the brush in a sleeping bag, she was lying in a stream, on the other side of a barbed wire fence. If the bikers were trying to hide a corpse, they wouldn’t have carried her all that way, then left her in plain view, Erbland said.

POINT: Even Paradis’ courtappointed lawyer, William Brown, said he did a poor job defending Paradis. Brown, fresh out of law school, had never tried a criminal case before. COUNTERPOINT: “Anyone who loses a case can look back and say, ‘Here’s what I could’ve done,”’ responded Erbland. He points out that the Idaho Supreme Court in 1986 reviewed the record and decided Brown “did a commendable job.”

POINT: During the trial, Brown also worked for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department as a reserve officer patrolling the parks. It was, Paradis’ new lawyers say, a blatant conflict of interest. “If Don Paradis had a fully competent, loyal lawyer who did not have a conflict of interest, the result would have been different,” said Matthews. COUNTERPOINT: “This attack on William Brown is one of the most despicable parts of the Paradis argument and public relations ploy,” said Erbland. He points out that Brown, now deceased, cannot defend himself. Erbland said Brown was up-front about his part-time job. “Brown told me that Paradis knew that,” he said.

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