Several months before books become available for the reading public, unfinished versions are provided to newspaper book editors, who send them out for review. This way the critic has time to read and think about the book and craft a thoughtful review, which will run right around the time the book shows up in stores.
When the uncorrected version of “Manifest Injustice: The True Story of a Convicted Murderer and the Lawyers Who Fought for His Freedom” (Henry Holt, 384 pages, $28) became available, Bill Macumber was still imprisoned for committing a double murder in the Arizona desert in 1962. Barry Siegel — a talented author, former newspaper reporter and current journalism professor in California — had come to believe Macumber was innocent. When Siegel finished his book, Macumber, now in his late 70s and in ill health, was still imprisoned. An effort by Macumber’s appellate lawyers had not succeeded in achieving his release.
After I received the unfinished version of the book, a new development occurred. In early November, Macumber walked away from prison after an agreement involving the Maricopa County prosecutor, a judge assigned to the proceedings, Macumber’s lawyers and Macumber himself. Siegel and his publisher rushed to produce a revised final chapter.
Even before the developments that brought a modicum of closure to the murder case, Siegel had written a fascinating, depressing book. I spend much of my time as a journalist writing about wrongful convictions, and every case turns logic on its head. How could they occur so often, in so many jurisdictions? The answers usually contain common denominators, such as police and prosecutors putting on blinders after identifying a viable suspect, eyewitnesses who are mistaken, forensic laboratory testing based on incompetence or dishonesty, jailhouse snitches lying in exchange for favorable consideration from the authorities, and so on.
But each wrongful conviction case, naturally, contains unique aspects. The Macumber case includes a defendant with a clean reputation and a good job who was accused years after the murder by an angry former wife; a confession to the double murder by a known criminal who then died young and was ignored; homicide investigators who apparently forgot how to use logic as they sorted through the evidence. And that’s just for starters.
Macumber is free from prison now. But he can never regain the nearly 40 years of freedom he lost while imprisoned. As for the murder victims and their surviving loved ones, they never received justice, no matter what the whole truth would demonstrate.
Steve Weinberg is a journalist and book critic in Missouri.