Charles Wakefield, finally free
It was, in the jargon of my people, a scoop.
I happened on it almost by accident. I had a habit of checking through probation, pardon, and parole records to see who was staying in prison and who was getting sprung. When I noticed the name “Charles Wakefield,” the word “murder,” and the word “parole,” I knew I’d found something important. I just didn’t know how important it was and how wrong I would be about so many things.
I did an archive search and discovered that Wakefield had been convicted of killing off-duty Greenville County deputy Frank Looper and his father back in the 70s. He was tried and convicted faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. He was sentenced to death. His life was over.
What happened over the next 25 years is a matter of record and a very long, unwritten book. (Update: It is also the subject of the Murder, etc true crime podcast debuting in 2019).The short version tells the story of a man who escaped the death penalty, but still faced life in prison. A few years before my little discovery, Wakefield had received parole and had it rescinded after a massive public outcry. Now, he had been released again. I knew that I, the local NBC affiliate’s crime beat reporter, had the lead story of the day.
I got it all confirmed and then did what I thought made the most sense. I called the former police chief, Mike Bridges, who also happened to be one of the investigating officers who put Wakefield in prison. Bridges was outraged. I put him in front of a TV camera and let him fume, red-faced and vitriolic. The outrage grew. Within a few days, Wakefield’s parole had again been rescinded. He would not go free.
I was so proud of myself. My discovery had resulted in a murderer staying in prison. It was a victory, I thought, for journalism.
That’s when Eric Gottlieb showed up at my office. He was a New York attorney and about the only soul in the world who gave a damn about whether Charles Wakefield ever got out of prison.
I’ll admit, I was suspicious of Gottlieb at first. Here was this attorney and documentary filmmaker who was helping out a guy that, for all I knew, had brutally murdered a narcotics officer and his father.
I fully expected Gottlieb to be furious. I expected him to try to shame me. I expected him to tell me how wrong and irresponsible I was. Instead, he gave me a big pile of papers and asked me to read from beginning to end. He told me a story about a man–a patsy– who had spent a quarter century in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I was skeptical, but promised Gottlieb I would read.
I read every page of the photocopied file. And then I read it again. I started taking notes, putting yellow Post-Its all over the pages. By the time I’d made it through the second time, I believed that Charles Wakefield was an innocent man.
The file was not Gottlieb’s writing. It was a ream of paper containing police reports, arrest reports, indictments, and just about everything at which I considered myself an expert at deciphering. It wasn’t an interpretation. It was raw data.
Gottlieb didn’t have to make an argument to me. It was all there in black and white. All anyone had to do was read to see that Wakefield was a suspect and convict of convenience. He made one dumb move and investigators seized on it. The story is much too long to fully defend, and I wouldn’t expect you to take it at face value. Someday I expect you’ll hear the full story. For now, though, just accept that I believe in Wakefield’s innocence. Despite my love and respect for the law enforcement community, I believed the good ol’ boys of the 1970s had convicted the wrong man and had kept him in prison ever since.
What this meant was that my exuberant reporting had helped send an innocent man back to prison. I have never properly dealt with or been able to explain the guilt. My remaining years in television were spent trying to right that wrong. I never succeeded and I never forgot. Over the years, Gottlieb has kept in touch and given me occasional updates on the story. I think he knows that I’ve wrestled with the guilt even after leaving TV.
More than keeping up with me, Gottlieb never gave up on Wakefield. When people like me wandered off to new lives, Gottlieb kept fighting. He kept begging. He kept quietly convincing people that Wakefield should be set free. By the time it was all said and done, even members of the victims’ family were asking that Wakefield go free. Gottlieb did it all, not through tricks of lawyering and loopoholes, but through a patient and quiet belief that he was–for free-representing an innocent man. Because Gottlieb was also a documentary filmmaker, the southern law enforcment and legal establishment labeled him as a liberal, New York profiteer. It was an unfair characterization and one that only people who didn’t know him would believe.
I, a man who has a hard time believing in anybody, consider Gottlieb a hero. Why? Because last night he sent me the photo below (published here with Gottlieb’s permission) with the subject line “Free at last.”
Charles Wakefield is man I have never met, but has represented so many things in my life. He is a symbol of why reporters should be responsible. He is a symbol of how a justice system can go terribly astray. He is a symbol of why we should always ask if conventional wisdom is correct.
More than that, though…thanks to Eric Gottlieb, Charles Wakefield is free.
Update: It took them a few days to hear about the story, but the local news media finally picked up on it. Here are the local pieces (in order of making it onto the air/into print with the story):