Meeting with the Lawyers Who Defended Gail Cutro
When I was in Columbia to promote my book, I arranged to meet with the three lawyers who represented Gail Cutro at her first trial. After a few rounds of email, we agreed to meet in a downtown bar on Sunday afternoon.
I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t spoken to them in many years. And I had no reason to believe any of them had thought much about me during that time. But I had spent lots of hours thinking about Lisa McPherson, Wes Kirkland and Thom Neal. (You can see them together in court in the In Good Hands Photo Gallery.)
I had listened to their voices, read transcripts and notes from our interviews, and, of course, pored over trial transcripts and legal briefs. And I’d spent quite a bit of time working to make my descriptions of them accurate.
It’s one of the things that I treasure about journalism. We spend way more time with our sources than they will ever know. But it’s not that often that we publish a book after many years and then have an opportunity to sit down with them again.
I wondered if they’d seen my book. And if they had, how they felt.
It took a few minutes before we had all assembled. Lisa was there first. I was wandering around to see if I recognized anyone when Thom Neal came up to me and called to Lisa to join us. Wes ambled in a few minutes later.
It didn’t take long to break the ice. In fact, I’d say there was no more frost than you’d expect there to be in a South Carolina September.
It probably helped a lot that Thom and Lisa had read my book and had lots of positive things to say. In fact, one of them had already written a laudatory review on Amazon. They didn’t love everything I wrote, they acknowledged, but they said they found my reporting accurate and fair.
Wes had not read it yet. But he swore he’d bought it, and he was pretty sure it was either on his phone or available to be downloaded there. The problem was that his kids had messed with his passwords, he explained, and he needed their help to gain access.
We all laughed, but it wasn’t the first or last time eager would-be readers told me they needed the help of their children to figure out how to get hold of my eBook. That was why I wrote that blog post about electronic books while I was down there.
Our conversation wasn’t all light banter. It was quite clear that Lisa and Thom still felt very strongly about the case. Lisa had brought a letter with her that Gail had sent her from prison. Thom talked about the ways the Cutro case had permanently changed him—confirming some of the things I’d written. Wes was the least changed, as had been apparent even back then. In fact, aside from gray hair, he was also the least changed physically.
Thom and Lisa asked a few questions prompted by the book. Some probed the circumstances of conversations I’d quoted. But there was no trace of anger or bitterness. It was more like veterans reminiscing about their time in the trenches.
About an hour after we’d started, Catherine Maier’s lawyer walked in and joined us. Maier’s son was one of the three children Gail Cutro was accused of harming. He was the baby who lived, and his mother was a key witness in the trial. Wes Kirkland, in fact, conducted a withering cross-examination of her.
Her lawyer’s name was Jay Elliott, and he knew my companions well. I don’t think an observer could have guessed that he was joining three lawyers whose views of a bitterly fought case were radically different from his own.
We could have been five college friends having a few drinks and talking about the old days at school.