Thy Neighbor's Life by Melinda Henneberger (article written for GQ)
When Gerri-Faye Butts and her two little girls were murdered, the evidence pointed to her ex-boyfriend. But Kevin Hailey just happened to be the son of the deputy sheriff, and in a small town like Atlanta, Texas, that counts for a lot.
The fourteen-minute video opens with a wide exterior shot of a rusting white trailer. The camera pans a toycar and a twirler's baton left out in a steady rain and lingers on a half-eaten sandwich discarded in the mud. "My God, they're going to show it!" someone in the courtroom cries out, and a series of little gasps follows as the spectators realize what they are about to see.
The trailer is a block off Main Street in Atlanta, Texas (pop.6,118), in the Piney Woods corner of the state, where Texas meets Louisiana and Arkansas. Inside, 29 year old Gerri Faye Butts lies dead on her living room sofa. She's dressed for bed, in a white T-shirt and cotton panties. Her hair is matted across her face and around her mouth, covering the bruises on her neck. The fingertips of her right hand brush the floor next to the coffee table. The small, tidy room is lined with potted plants and photographs of the smiling woman and her two daughters. A stack of dishes has been left beside the kitchen sink to dry.
Down the hall, 3-year old Mackenzie is floating facedown in a bathtub full of cold water. A ball of washrags has been stuffed in the drain. The girl is in her nightclothes, her blond hair pulled into a tiny ponytail on top of her head.
In the back bedroom, the telephone cord has been ripped out of the wall and wrapped several times around 11-year-old Jessica's neck. She is lying next to a stuffed panda beat on her pink satin bedspread (WRONG - the comforter was dark blue and white.) naked except for a T-shirt hiked up around her chest. (WRONG - the T-shirt covered her chest) Her bare legs are spread open. (WRONG, they were together in the crime scene tape.) The camera zooms in on her vagina and a single drop of blood on her upper thigh.
When the small screen goes dark, Gerri Faye's mother still has her eyes closed. Several people have fled the courtroom, including the dead woman's brother Jason. Terry, another brother, holds his face in his hands, moaning, "This makes me sick!" Loud sobs come from the rows of Gerri Faye's friends, mothers whose children played with her children, women who worked alongside her at industrial sewing machines, stitching protective gloves for $4.00 an hour. Most of them are wearing little pink ribbons pinned to slips of paper that read "IN REMEMBRANCE OF GERRI, JESSICA AND MACKENZIE. TILL JUSTICE IS SERVED." After the tape is played, they rush the door, emptying into the hallway for a smoke.
Brian Butts doesn't move from the front of the room. Flushed and trembling, he glares at his sister's neighbor and sometimes boyfriend, the man accused of killing Gerri Faye and her children on his way home from a Super Bowl party this past January.
As a son of a local deputy sheriff, the suspect grew up around cops and courtrooms. Kevin Hailey "was raised within the arms of the law," his mother, Kathy Weaver says - and sometimes depended on his daddy to get him out of scrapes. Now a babyface 24, the lawman's boy is a big, strapping kid with a stutter - Opie on steroids. He has shown little emotion all morning, working a wad of gum in lieu of the Copenhagen snuff he favors. But when the court breaks for lunch, Kevin turns to wink and wave at his supporters.
This hearing of the evidence against him will decide whether he is to remain in jail pending a capital-murder trial. But no one here, with the apparent exception of the visiting judge, believes there ever will be any trial. The defendant looks about as concerned as if he'd been hauled into traffic court for an expired inspection sticker.
As he leaves, he gives the gallery a smiling thumbs-up and greets each of the giggling young women in party dresses who crowd around the railing to wish him well. As his estranged wife, Angie, puts her hand in the pocket of his blue suit jacket and nuzzles his chest, he looks over her shoulder and blows a kiss at another woman in the largely female cheering section led by his mother. Last week, Mom says, the sheriff let her just poke her head into the jailhouse and give her son a kiss. "He's such a hunk anyway, I had the whole jail crying. I said, 'Now I know why all the women love him.'"
Later, Kevin flings an arm around his father, Jerry Hailey, a tall, muscular man who couldn't look more like a cop if he were in uniform. They smile, posing for a souvenir snapshot of Kevin's day in court. A little hissing noise comes from the pink-ribbon crowd.
Communities like Atlanta have a reputation for paying close attention to misbehavior. Maritial infidelities, late night comings and goings, inappropriate dress and overgrown lawns are rarely overlooked; a loud, drink-throwing scene may well be remembered for a lifetime. But such places have also been known to ignore crimes that threaten the order and security of small-town life. When you know everybody, how can anybody be thought capable of murder?
Atlanta's social order is so rigidly based on who your people are that a resident of thirty years might still be considered a newcomer, unless of course he or she marries someone with real roots. The Haileys have been in Cass County for generations; Gerri Faye Butts came to town as a pregnant teenager. And a lot of people here doubt there will ever be justice for a factory worker on food stamps, a woman with two children and no husband who sold a little dope to make ends meet at Christmastime. Those who are sure that Kevin was asleep in his grandparents' house when Gerri Faye and her daughters were murdered feel that she herself is partly to blame for bringing this shame on their quiet town. To believe otherwise is to allow that no one in Atlanta is any safer at home at night with their children than if they lived in Dallas or Houston or, God forbid, New York.
Evidence inthe case, including a palm print lifted from the side of Gerri Faye's bathtub and pubic hairs found on Jessica's body and bed, has turned public opinion against Kevin Hailey. But the people of Atlanta seem doubly disturbed by their near certainty that no son of a Cass County deputy will ever go on trial for murder, no matter how compelling the evidence.
And he won't, not as long as Cass County District Attorney Neal Birmingham has anything to say about it. In a small county office building, Birmingham works across the hall from Kevin's father, Jerry. When Atlanta cops turned the case over to Birmingham, he appointed two of Jerry's closest friends to investigate. In a state notorious for over-zealous prosecution, one local observer says the DA's tender treatment of the deputy's son "is what we call 'serving him up a dish of home cooking'.''
"This case has registered a 7 on the Richter scale," says John Coleman, who was the editor of the local newspaper, the CITIZEN'S JOURNAL, at the time of the murders. "Most people that have expressed an opinion think Hailey is guilty, but more than anything they don't feel the system is working the way it should."
The magnolia and mimosa trees are in full bloom in Atlanta, where empty shops seem to outnumber surviving businesses. Because of the sagging oil and defense-based economy, a generation of young people has been forced to move elsewhere to find work. So much upheaval seems to have only reinforced Atlanta's resistance to change. Most of the town's black population lives on "the hill" - a road that curves up behind the Church's Fried Chicken on Highway 59. "We don't let'em roam," says one smiling young store manager.
About once a year, somebody ends up dead in a family fight, most recently when Mary Hare shot her husband and said she thought she was shooting at a dog in the backyard. But there hasn't been a cold-blooded killing in the six years since Clarence Earl Peters walked into the WalMart and shot his girlfriend, who was working in Layaway. After firing six times, he went to the front of the store, sat down and waited for the cops to come.
"Now that's the kind of thing that happens around here. People don't run." says Kenneth Rachel, a heavy-equiment operator wearing a T-shirt that says "I MY ATTITUDE PROBLEM." But ever since Rachel and his wife, Cindy, discovered the bodies in Gerri Faye's trailer, on January 27, nobody is so sure anymore what kind of thing can happen around here. And somebody did run - or walk.
Gerri Faye Butts was what people in Atlanta refer to as a good ol' girl. Just 110 pounds and most of that was mouth. If she thought somebody needed cursing, she'd get in their face and do the job. A plain woman with angular features and in-between-colored hair, she acted rebellious, one friend said, because she never felt pretty. But if she was your friend, that was it.
"If you were in a bad situation, if your husband was abusing you or your mother kicked you out, she'd take you in and all your kids," says Kim Nichols, one of a half-dozen women who refer to themselves as her best friend. When Gerri-Faye and her family moved the 50 miles to Atlanta from their hometown of Springhill, Louisiana, she was in a bad situation herself, 17 and pregnant.
Marriage wasn't much on her mind, not then or when she became pregnant again, with Mackenzie. She lived with her younger child's father for several years, but left him before the baby was born. "I don't think she ever had any intention of getting married," says her brother, Brian. "She didn't want anybody telling her what to do." Immediately after giving birth to Mackenzie, Gerri Faye had her tubes tied. She was 26.
She could barely provide for the 2 children she had, living in a trailer with a rotting underside pocked with holes so big a possom once climbed into her kitchen. Not a lot of people wanted to lease the place after a previous tenant had committed suicide there, so Gerri Faye had a good deal on the rent. Her girls were afraid to stay in the front bedroom where the man had died, and she usually slept on the sofa. She wanted desperately t move and took night classes in hopes of getting a better paying job as a lab assistant, only to find that she couldn't stand the sight of blood. But if she couldn't change her life, she could at least create order in her home, and housekeeping became Gerri Faye's religion. She adhered to her rituals of stripping the beds every Saturday and scouring the bathroom every night. She's wash an ashtray as soon as she put out a cigarette and was forever asking her friends if they smelled something funny.
If Gerri Fay was obsessive, it was because she needed to feel she was in control, even if only of her small space. If she was bold and big-talking, it was because she was scared to give an inch.
Her girls were very like her, in very different ways. Jessica was the responsible firstborn who couldn't wait to grow up. "She knew she was at that age when she was about to get her period, and she was so excited," says Rita Woods, a friend of Gerri Faye's. "She'd come in the room and jump around saying, "Oh, Mama, I think I'm cramping.'" Jessica met her father only once. Her sister, Mackenzie, a smart, sassy little firecracker who seemed to have been born with Gerri Faye's prickly temperment, called any man who was around "Daddy."
But there weren't many men around. Gerri Faye hadn't been with anyone in the three years since Mackenzie had been born. When Gerri Faye's father, the one man she really counted on, died of cancer in February, 1991, she became severely depressed, crying for hours and living on canned potato soup. "We were always telling her 'Get out and live.'" says Nichols. "Then she did and look what happened."
One weekend in October, Gerri Faye and a couple of her coworkers drove to Louisiana for a David Allen Coe concert. The next day, she told friends she'd run into Kevin Hailey, who was there on a date with a girl named Misty. (Kevin and his wife had recently separated, somewhat famously, after Angie walked into a bar called the Bud Hut, found her husband all over Misty and said, "If I'd known we were having company, I'd have changed the sheets.") Gerri Faye said that someone at the concert had slipped some ecstasy into her drink, and Kevin had somehow wound up in her bed.
Not that she would have to have been drugged. She liked the guy and talked about him constantly. Wasn't it amazing that he lived just down the block and yet they'd never really known each other? She raved about the sex, telling friend she'd thought Mackenzie's daddy was kinky until she met this boy. He made her feel pretty.
Kevin was great with the kids, too, babysitting occasionally and making them dinner almost every night. He played checkers with Jessica and even went to watch her baskerball practice. She developed a little crush on him, and Mackenzie called him "sweetie pie." Still, Gerri Faye told friends she didn't really understand Kevin - or completely trust him.
His life of relative privilege had been quite different from her own. After his parents' divorce, when he was 7, Kevin lived at various times with his mother, his grandparents or his father, a ladies' man he adored and emulated. But he certainly never wanted for anything, receiving his first dirt bike from his grandfather when he was only 4 years old. In school, he was both the class bully and the class flirt; adults were impresses by his extravagant displays of deference and kids respected his muscle. He was big for his age even before he began working out, as a high school football star.
"There was always some punk that just wanted to say they whipped Kevin Hailey," says Kathy Weaver. "It's kind of like being the fastest gun in the West... If Billy the Kid were alive, he could tell you."
The DA denies that Kevin has a violent streak. "Hailey just has no record, no history of violence," Birmingham says firmly. He dismisses plenty of evidence to the contrary: At 18, Kevin pleaded no contest to assault charges after pulling a knife on a schoolmate whose arm was in a sling. Birmingham takes a boys-will-be-boys view of the incident. "Well, dang, I had a lot of friends who were in fights in high school, and I don't consider them dangerous," he says, laughing. Kevin paid a small fine and left town to join the Navy.
While his ship was docked in Scotland, Kevin was charged with attempted murder in the knifing of a shipmate. "But he just about had to do that to defend himself, from what I understand," Birmingham says. According to Scotland Yard, the charges were dropped because the other sailor had already put out to sea.
Kevin's military career was cut short in the spring of 1989, when he tested positive for cocaine and, according to military records, told navy investigators that he had begun using the drug back in Atlanta. He returned home with an "other than honorable discharge," taking a part-time job as a bouncer at a bar. Police investigators say Kevin's friends told them he was still usinfg drugs at the time of the murders. "Whatever was floating through town," according to one friend. At the Bud Hut, on the Louisiana state line, patrons who say he was in a fight nearly every weekend also insist they saw him knock a retarded man to the ground and pound another man's head into the concrete. Birmingham steadfastly maintains that his investigation has uncovered no proof that Kevin has ever been a troublemaker. "There's been all this talk about his reputation for violence" - he shakes his head - "I can't find any."
But sometime around Christmas, Gerri Faye told friends that Kevin's temper had started to scare her. The infactuation was over, and she had a bad case of the blues. It was her first Christmas without her father, and her mother, always the perfect wife, had already taken up with a much younger man - an ex-con, for God's sake. Then too, Gerri Faye had fallen behind on the payments for a new set of tires for her old white Oldsmobile and had started selling pot to catch up. It was not a happy holiday. On Christmas Day, Brian says he saw Kevin explode in a rage when Mackenzie interrupted him as he was assembling her new tricycle. More and more often, he visited late at night on his way home. The week before she died, Gerri Faye told several people that she and Kevin were definitely in the outs. He owed her $90, and she figured he'd been avoiding her to keep from paying up. "But don't worry," she told one friend, "if I ever see him again, I'm going to rip his head off."
He called on Wednesday of that week, says a friendwho was with Gerri Faye at the time, to tell her he'd be over one night that weekend. When she went on an errand Saturday afternoon, she left a note to Jessica: "If Kevin calls, tell him to come on down." He never showed.
On Sunday, Gerri Faye's friend Patty Cook had a few people over to watch the Super Bowl, and others who were there say Gerri was looking better than she had in weeks. But the game was over before the half, and after drinking 4 or 5 beers, Gerri Faye took her girls home, around 8:30 PM. Sometime around 10, Gerri called her brother Jason to remind him to pick up Jessica for school the next day. She was tired, she said, and was getting the girls ready for bed.
Kevin attended a different Super Bowl party, with friends who dropped him off at his grandparents' house, down the block from Gerri Faye's, at about 2:30 AM. His grandmother was up late too, working on the church's yearbook, and told police she had only just fallen asleep when he came in and called, "It's me, Grandma." She said he went straight to his room (across the hall from hers), where a large framed photograph of Jerry Hailey in his deputy sheriff's uniform hangs on the wall. On the far side of the room, a door opens onto a side porch.
At 5 AM,his grandmother got off and turned off the television in Kevin's room, where he lay sleeping. And at 6:15, his grandfather woke him, made him breakfast and saw him off to work at East Texas Paint, where he was doing some sandblasting.
By 7, Cindy Rachel, Gerri Faye's babysitter, had decided that Gerri must have overslept. When no one answered the phone, Cindy went over to the trailer and found Jason waiting outside for Jessica. They pounded on the door for some time before Jason called his brother Terry who drove to Gerri Faye's thinking, "That boy worries about everything." The landlady couldn't remember which key fit the trailer door and handed them a sack full of keys, none of which worked. Finally Cindy went home and pulled her husband, Kenneth, out of bed. He broke the trailer's front window and crawled into Gerri Faye's living room, thinking he was going to get the cussing of his life when he saw the broken glass.
It was dark in the trailer, and he couldn't see much of anything until he opened the door. Even then, he walked right by the body on the sofa and had gotten as far as the front bedroom when Cindy screamed, "Ohmigod, Gerri Faye!" Terry was in the back bedroom by then, but he could barely make out Jessica's form on the bed. "I was shaking her, yelling, 'Jessica! Jessica!' but her shoulder was so stiff it didn't move." Cindy was still screaming, as all of them were, and holding Gerri Faye's head, until Kenneth dragged her away. But Cindy was the one who noticed the light under the bathroom door.
Word of the killings spread quickly. At 8:45 AM, Gerri Faye's mother, Lanette, was driving home from her boyfriend's house when she noticed her preacher in the car behind her, flashing his lights and honking the horn. She figured she was in for another lecture about the propriety of her new relationship. "I saw it was Brother Lee and I thought, 'Oh he doesn't want to get started in on me. I am not in the mood.'"
Before 9AM, Keith Hailey was on his way to East Texas Paint to break the news to his brother Kevin, who stayed and finished his shift before going home that evening.
Within 24 hours, the local gun shop had sold out of pistols. And a number of Gerri Faye's relatives and friends had given the investiators the same name: Kevin Hailey. They had no proof, of course. But the cops said there were no signs of forced entry or a struggle. And they reasoned, as Gerri Faye's friend Jenny Dawson says, that "at that time of night, Gerri would not have opened the door for anybody but Kevin Hailey."
There were plenty of other suspects. The police called in a one-night stand Gerri Faye had taken home in an attempt to get back at Kevin. His possible motive? Friends say Gerri Faye told anybody who would listen that the guy hadn't been worth the effort. "She said there wasn't anything down there," the police report noted. Mackenzie's father was on the list but he had been in intensive care in a Texarkana hospital, recovering from a logging accident. And her mother's boyfriend, whom Gerri Faye had detested, said he had been with Lanette all night. He and all the others passed a polygraph.
When Kevin was called in for questioning that evening, he agreed to take a lie-detector test too, until his father quickly vetoed the idea. Kevin told investigators he hadslept with Gerri Faye a few times several months back, but he hadn't seen her in the week since they's had a brief conversation at her trailer.
Kevin was not at the funeral. Atlanta residents who'd slipped money into the collection jars in downtown stores had raised $9,000 for the services and a granite headstone with hearts around Gerri Faye's, Jessica's, and Mackenzie's names. They were buried alongside Gerri Faye's father, in nearby Welcome, Arkansas. While the preacher gave a blessing, a police photographer videotaped the mourners and their license plates.
A week or so later, the lab reports on the evidence gathered at the crime scene began to trickle in, and Atlanta Police Chief Mike Scott felt a headache coming on. It had been his dream to move back home to Atlanta from Dallas, where he had been a police detective with a reputation as a solid investigator, square as a box. The soft spoken detective didn't smoke, hardly drank and was still very married to his first wife. He was so straight, in fact, that for the first six months he was assigned to Homicide, the guys were sure he was a plant from Internal Affairs.
Several years earlier, Scott had taken a 50 percent pay cut and had come back to Atlanta, where an oil painting outside his small office depicts Jesus watching over a patrol car. But almost since the day he returned, the new chief found himself at odds with the DA. The chemistry was never promising between Birmingham, a bombastic career politician, and Scott, an almost painfully earnest cop. The chief says it galls him to watch the DA routinely dismiss charges against everyone who is anyone. He openly ridicules the federally funded drug task force headed by Birmingham, saying he finally quit the group over the selective justice that targeted only back residents. "I can't think of a white person they've arrested since they got that grant," he says.
At his law library in nearby Linden, Birmingham, a district attorney for 30 years, is paging through a file maked "JESSICA BUTTS." A hearty white-haired man of 63, Birmingham was a good hundred pounds lighter when the picture was taken for the 1962 campaign poster on the wall in his outer office. Nicknamed Quick Deal Neal by local defense attorneys, he never stops smiling as he declares in a booming voice that he barely even knows Kevin's father. But he says it's a fact that he doesn't have much taste for this case.
"Cases are funny; each one has to stand on its own bottom," Birmingham says, laughing as though genuinely amused. He says the chief regularly sends him cases based on insufficient evidence. And he doesn't think the evidence presented in court against Kevin Hailey amounts to much: Three pubic hairs - on Jessica's sheets, her bedspread and her big toe - and two head hairs on a comforter at Gerri Faye's feet matched samples taken from Kevin "in every microscopic detail," says Charlie Linch, a trace-evidence analyst at the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas. Linch says that means that the hairs had to have come from Kevin "or someone who is exactly the same, down tot he last pigment." Despite Kevin's assertion that he hadn't slept with Gerri Faye in months - and her mania for cleaning - Birmingham insists that, "as the boyfriend, those hairs could have been left anytime."
However, one of the pubic hairs was carrying a louse sac that an expert at the University of Miami said must have been laid around the time of the murders. When Kevin gave hair samples to the police, he was surprised to learn that he had lice. Birmingham ordered more tests to try to pinpoint when the louse egg had been laid. But the expert testified that it could not possibly have been as long as a week before the murders, when Kevin said he had last visited Gerri Faye's trailer.
A palm print lifted from the side of the tub also matched Kevin's. In the early days of the investigation, Kenneth Rachel called police to tell them that they'd probably find his own prints all over the tub since he'd fixed a leaky faucet for Gerri Faye not long before the murders. But the only print found on the tub was Kevin's, and investigators said its position suggested that he had to have been kneeling beside the tub when he left it there. A young friend of Jessica's told police she had seen Gerri Faye scrubbing the bathroom the day before she died. Still, Birmingham says with a shrug, "That print's not much to go on."
Mike Scott figured it happened something like this: After a night of partying, Kevin returned home and took the two-minute walk down the street to Gerri Faye's. They argued, and when Gerri Faye got in his face, he snapped, choking the life out of her in a moment of rage. But there were witnesses. Jessica may have been calling for help when he pulled the phone cord out of the wall and tied it around her neck. Maybe Mackenzie woke up then. She was just 3, but she would certainly have been able to identify him. By now, he was calmer and spent, more afraid than angry. Mackenzie had to die too, of course, but his heart wasn't in the killing, and in a twisted act of mercy, he decided that drowning sould be less painful than strangulation, or at least less personal. Holding the little girl at arm's length, he pushed her head under the water with one hand while leveraging himself against the bathtub with the other. He probably raped Jessica after her death, according to the police theory, in an attempt to make them believe that sex had been the motive for the murders. Then he cleaned up the place, rearranged the furniture, and slipped back into his grandparents' house as they slept.
When word got out that Kevin was the leading suspect, Jerry Hailey threatened to sue the city, and town officials asked Scott to stop the investigation. "It would be a lot easier for me if it wasn't Kevin," Scott says with a sigh, "But I kind of think we ought to let a jury decide."
Among those convinced by the evidence was Jerry Hailey's boss, Sheriff Paul Boone, who wears a white Stetson like a proper Texas lawman and is generally regarded, as one Atlanta businessman puts it, as "your grandfather, the sheriff."
As the case divided local law enforcement, the sheriff lined up with Scott. "I'm 95 percernt sure (Kevin's) the one," Boone says, sucking on a toothpick. On March 19, Boone dispatched Jerry Hailey to the far end of the county on an errand. Officers were posted at the doors of the jail, just in case there was any trouble. When Kevin left work that afternoon, he was arrested, driven to the office where his father works and introduced to his interrogator, Bill Parker.
Parker is another former Dallas homicide detective, now a private investigator with a sideline in procuring murder confessions for small police departments around the state. He believes every suspect has the right to confess without the interference of a lawer and finds nothing quite so invigorating as a nice heart-to-heart with a psychopath. The plan was to get a confession from Kevin before anybody knew he'd been arrested.
But the newspaper editor couldn't help noticing all the excitement over at the police station when he drove by on his way home from work. John Coleman heard that Hailey had been arrested and called in every one of his 12 employees. The next edition of the paper wouldn't hit the streets for several days, so he decided to put out a secial edition. "Instead of 'Stop the presses,' it was 'Stop the copy machine.'" he says. Coleman's staff made 900 copies of a quickly written story about the arrest, and by 7:30 that evening, they were fanning out across town to distribute the copies.
Back at the jail, the interrogation was in its fourth hour. Because coercion just wouldn't be sporting, Parker prefers psychological warfare. He showed Kevin several photographs of hair samples under a microscope and asked him to match the two that were alike, saying, "Have you ever heard the expression, 'I've got you by the short hairs?'" When Kevin turned the photo over and saw his name on the back, Parker says, he spilled tobacco juice all over himself.
"I accused him of doing it, but then I accuse everybody I talk to. The normal response is 'You're crazy, man. I didn't kill anybody.' I said, 'Kevin, I've looked over all the evidence and there's no question in my mind you killed those people.' And he said, 'I hear that.'"
Then the two men heard a loud racket from somewhere outside. Parker talked louder, hoping the noise would go away. It didn't. Finally Kevin said, "Sir, I think you're about to meet my mama." Outside, Kathy Weaver was trying to kick in the glass doors of the Sheriff's office. And she did get in - when the officers posted at the doors arrested her for disturbing the peace. The interrogation was over.
Birmingham says the murder investigation was just beginning and asked Jerry Hailey's two friends to start from scratch. In the week before the hearing, he seemed encouraged by a forensic report indicating that the tiny hairs found on Mackenzie's face might have belonged to a black person. Gerri Faye was known to have had at least one black friend, he said. But then a medical examiner in the Dallas lab that had performed the autopsies said the hairs most likely came from his own assistants.
The DA also had his suspicions about a lesbian who used to work with Gerri Faye. There was no evidence implicating the woman, who was stuck at home with her family on the night of the murders, after her car had slid into a ditch in a driving rain. After she passed her second polygraph test, Birmingham admitted that the only support for his theory was the woman's apparent knowledge of how the victims' furniture had been rearranged after the murders. "It worked great on Columbo,' he said. For once he wasn't laughing.
When it became clear that Birmingham had no immediate plans to take the case against Hailey to a grand jury, the Butts family complained to local reporters. Birmingham responded by firing off a press release that made 5 sarcastic references to Brian Butts as "the rocket scientist." The newspaper got dozens of letters criticizing the DA for his insensitivity toward the family of three murder victims. Birmingham blamed reporters for failing to note that thpse references to Brian had been crossed out - each with a single stroke.
While Birmingham fought with the press, Kevin's wealthy aunt engaged Doug Mulder, one of the highest-paid criminal-defense attorneys in Texas. As longtime Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade's top assiatant prosecutor, Mulder has had an unbroken winning streak. Outside Texas, he is best known for prosecuting the Randall Dale Adams case, the basis of the 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line. The film alleges that Mulder suppressed evidence, purchased testimony, coached witnesses to lie and offered the real cop killer immunity in exchange for his testimony against Adams, who was sentenced to death. The Texas state bar twice investigated the alegations against Mulder and twice dismissed them. Adams was released as a result of the film.
When Mulder called Birmingham to tell him he was on the case, the DA suggested that a grand jury wouldn't be necessary. No, Mulder might as well file a moton for a hearing that would free Kevin while the investigation continued, he said. A public hearing would be more satisfying to the community than grand jury proceedings behind closed doors, he said. And, as he did not say, there would be no chance of an indictment. Birmingham predicted the outcome of the hearing in an interview several days before it even began: "It's not like we're letting a hardened serial killer go."
Still, on visiting day at the county jail in the week before the hearing on June 8, Kevin is jumpy and stuttering, talking with his hands and spitting steady streams of tobacco juice into a tiny blue cup. Though he looks tough, with tatoos on both arms and a deep scar on the end of his nose, the display of nerves is disarming. He has a lazy eye, and rarely looks up. "It's been hard on (his family) - we were born and raised here, and it never dawned on me that it was going to... I knew they'd look at me because of my association with her..." his voice trails off and, taking shallow breaths, he starts again. "Apart from this," he says, "I'm your average small town guy. I like to fish, I like to hunt, and I get along with anybody as long as you don't mess me around... I'm not going to stand there and let somebody slap me in the face and walk off. What man would?"
Is that what happened?
"No," he says quickly, looking up just for an instant. "I didn't kill her. It was a whole lot of people that didn't know what was going on that wound me up here. My name just got brought up in it." He goes on to suggest that he never even slept with Gerri Faye. "We were real good friends; it never really got beyond that."
So, how did his pubic hairs get in her trailer?
"I can't talk about the evidence," he says. "The evidence I've been made aware of has been compensated for, and as far as my lawyer says, everything is going smooth."
His lawyer is right. When the hearing does begin, Birmingham is embarassingly deferential to Mulder, at one point telling an officer who is testfying to "wait before you answer this next question to see if Mr. Mulder has any objections." Mr. Mulder doesn't, and Birmingham continues, methodically presenting evidence and then raising doubts about its significance: you have no way of knowing when the palm print was left? Birmingham's questions are those of a defense attorney.
Visiting Judge David Cave, from the Dallas suburb of Duncanville, has been brought in on the case after the local judge declined to hear it. He seems confused by Birmingham's obvious support for the man he is prosecuting and eventually begins questioning some of the witnesses himself: Are fingerprints water soluble? Yes. With people getting in and out of the tub, would a print be likely to remain there for a number of days? No.
The last witness Birmingham calls to the stand is Mike Scott. Facing his nemesis with a standard issue smile, the DA abruptly thumps the note pad on the table with a flourish and thunders, "Chief, in the name of all justice, is there any way a man should be put to death on the basis of this evidence?"
Scott's expression does not change. He is perfectly still for a moment and then turns to the judge to ask if he may answer the question. But by that time, Birmingham has already continued: "I'm on the wrong side, Chief, but I can't help it." As the courtroom erupts in chaos, Birmingham asks that all charges against Kevin Hailey be dismissed.
The judge gapes, recovers, clears his throat. "It seems to me that there is a body of evidence he was there. I think there is sufficient evidence to let the grand jury look at it. Let's let them decide." The judge sets bond at $10,000 and is off the bench.
Back in his office just after the hearing, Birmingham says that even if the press and public opinion do force him to send the case to a grand jury, "I'm the one that has to present it, and I don't think he did it. For all practical purposes, it's over." Within the half hour, Kevin is off with his wife and dad in search of a cheeseburger and onion rings. His friends are on a beer run.
Brian Butts and his wife, Georgia, tune in the 5:00 news where Kevin's release leads the broadcast. "In a triple-murder case that shocked our area, Kenin Hailey is free," the Shreveport anchor says. The tape shows Hailey walking out of the courthouse.
In the weeks following the hearing, Sheriff Paul Boone fired Jerry Hailey, saying his deputy had interferred with the murder investigation. Kevin was arrested in Bowie County on a gun charge at a roadblock; the officer had noticed a handgun on the floor of his vehicle. Birmingham said that the new arrest was not grounds for revoking Kevin's bail. The Butts family and their friends gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition requesting that the state replace Neal Birmingham as prosecutor on the case. Following Judge Cave's recommendation, Birmingham turned evidence in the Butts murder investigation over to a grand jury, which, as of press time, had not yet made a decision.
End of article - -
The reporter, Melinda Henneberger, wrote for the NY Times - this was her first article for GQ