This is kind of an odd topic for a holiday month post, I realize.
But recently my mom gave me a stack of old magazines and inside one I found an article about a man on death row who said he didn’t do it.
The magazine is dated 2004. But a quick internet search revealed that just this year, the man finally passed – from liver cancer, not from lethal injection – and just days before opening arguments would have started for his third appeal.
He was on death row because he confessed to shooting four people and killing three of them at a bowling alley.
But his confession – 3 days of police interrogation without witnesses or audio/video recording – could well have been forced, given how eager everyone was to find out who did this awful thing and put them away for good.
As well, this man was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which damaged his brain and liver, predisposed him for a life of drug addiction and left him with an IQ deemed borderline competent to be tried. Offered up for adoption by his birth mother, he quickly proved too much for his adoptive parents, who consigned him to an institution for electroshock therapy and heavy medication.
When he got out of the institution, he promptly dropped out of school (in seventh grade) and that was that.
This abandoned child and troubled youth was the same man who, right after he signed his name to his confession, asked his interrogating officers, “Can I go home now?”
35 years on death row later, everyone knew the answer to that question. But after that initial confession, he also never stopped claiming his innocence. Perhaps he found it was safer to do so when a set of bars separated him from his interrogators.
My question as I read this sad, sad saga was simple: “Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?”
I mean, I certainly wouldn’t. Plus, isn’t the hallmark of a good criminal someone who a) wouldn’t confess even if they had committed the crime, and b) could convince a jury they were telling the truth about their innocence?
Clearly, this man, Max Soffar, was not a good criminal. He also wasn’t educated and he didn’t have anyone to help or mentor him, not even a public defendant at first. He certainly wasn’t innocent of all crime – in fact, he had become a rather well-known petty criminal in a circle of petty criminals.
But as the years went by, increasingly people began to believe he was certainly no murderer.
What interests me here is that I am just now reading a book by John Grisham called “The Rogue Lawyer,” and in the book the lawyer just happens to be defending a criminal who very much matches Soffar’s description.
Whether the book is written about this case or it simply happens frequently enough to be worth exploring at book length by a mega-best-selling lawyer-turned-author, it is clear Max Soffar isn’t the only person who has ever confessed to a crime they later say they didn’t commit.
So why would anyone do this? Why why why?
Money, for starters. There was a $15,000 reward out for anyone who helped catch the real killer, and Max Soffar had his eye on it.
Also, intimidation. He had helped the police before and was said to have stayed eager to help law enforcement throughout his free years.
The desire to go home probably played into it as well, since Soffar clearly thought his ticket to going home rested with signing the confession the police prepared for him.
But most interestingly, there is this passage in the 2004 Texas Monthly magazine written by Soffar’s long-time advocate, Texas legend Kinky Friedman:
Why would someone confess to a crime he didn’t commit? A cry for help? A death wish? Perhaps it has to do with what the poet Kenneth Patchen once wrote: “There are so many little dyings, it doesn’t matter which of them is death.”
Soffar may not have been much able to win friends and influence people as a free man, but he certainly seemed to find his feet in that department once behind bars. His wife, Anita, was his pen pal for three years before they got married.
His petition for release garnered more than 100,000 signatures. He earned not one, not two, but three appeals, the last of which was set to begin just days before he passed.
Yet every day he stayed behind bars was likely another kind of “little dying.” At the end it was a toss-up which would get him first, the needle or the cancer.
What I find beautiful about this story is that in spite of the dying, Soffar never caved. He had so much in life working against him. Who might he have been if his mom had kept him, or if his adoptive parents had persevered? What could have unfolded if, instead of petty thieves, he had fallen in with a straight-arrow crowd with real wisdom and practical guidance to offer?
What if what if what if…..
Medically speaking, we all die a little each day, starting the day we first pop out into this big wide world. But we don’t cave to it. We know it is coming, but we keep our chin up and keep living.
Whatever that is – that will to live that overrides a lifetime of “little dyings,” Soffar had it. I have it. You have it.
In this climate of so much political strife, global terror, ongoing hate and discrimination and so much else that feels like one little dying piled on top of the next, it seems worth remembering this.
It may not matter which of our little dyings eventually becomes the real thing. But our life – each day, each moment – this matters. This, this feels like something to be treasured right to the very last.
Today’s Takeaway: Did you follow the Max Soffar case at all (I confess I was unaware of it until a few days ago when I opened the magazine my mom gave me)? Or are you familiar with another similar case? How do you feel about the poem Friedman quotes? Have you ever gone through a time in your life where it felt like there were so many little deaths, it didn’t really matter if one became “the” one? If so, how did you get through that time in your life?