Texas Monthly‘s Pamela Colloff has done it again. As I’ve obsessively documented on this site, and as ratified by greater minds than mine, she has applied her prodigious skills as a reporter and writer to powerful narratives about crime. Though her work has focused on wrongful convictions, I find her latest piece notable because it doesn’t — and because, instead, it focuses on what I find to be a more nuanced and difficult topic, the proper calculus of blame and punishment in a crime of violence when the defendant is indeed guilty. It does all that, and adds a bonus: a reporting mystery (more about that in a moment).
Colloff’s primary character is a former Texas district attorney, Tim Cole, whose unflinching tough-on-crime stance wins a life term for a teenager involved in a murder of a fellow teen. Later on, though, doubts creep in — not about the legal guilt of the defendant, Randy Wood, or the loss suffered by victim Heather Rich or her family, but about the amount of time Wood ought to serve. After Cole’s drinking costs him his marriage and job, plunging him into a suicidal depression, the lawyer begins to turn his life around. And that is when, Colloff writes, his world view starts to shift:
He began attending a twelve-step program, and there were times when he stopped drinking for months, even a year at one stretch, though he continued to falter. “I came to see how people—good people—could make terrible mistakes,” Cole said. “And how maybe they shouldn’t have to pay for them for the rest of their lives.”
Now that he no longer seeks votes by acting tough, Cole could concede that a sentence shorter than a maximum isn’t a sign of weakness if it’s the proper sentence for the circumstances. Seeing Wood as the least culpable of the three convicted in Rich’s killing, Cole joined the effort to get Wood’s sentence reduced. Thus far, that effort has been fruitless.
The emotional high point comes late in the story, when Cole and Wood meet in prison. It happened last fall, 15 years into Wood’s sentence. Remarkably, Colloff is able to paint the scene with a full dialogue, using direct quotes. I asked Colloff via Twitter how she managed that, and she declined to say on the record. “It’s going to have to remain a bit mysterious,” she wrote. The choices I can imagine: She was there (unlikely, because she could just write that). The prison taped it and provided the recording (highly unlikely, especially since there was a lawyer in the conversation). Or Cole taped it and provided it to Colloff (the probable source of her quotes). In any case, it makes for a more readable and memorable scene, one that ends inconclusively, as Wood remains in prison indefinitely.
Colloff says the story is available to non-subscribers until this Friday, February 28. Take advantage soon. Better yet, subscribe to the great Texas Monthly, one of only a few regional magazines with such a history and commitment to long-form reported narratives on crime.