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The Woman in White Marble

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April Higuera 


April Higuera is the owner and principal agent of ADH Investigations, specializing in complex, criminal defense investigation of violent crimes on county, state, and federal levels. She conducts fieldwork investigations and offers consultation nationwide. April also writes on best practices for criminal defense investigation and aspects of the criminal justice system to raise public awareness. Her book, Making the Case for Innocence, self-published Sep. 2016, is receiving rave peer and consumer reviews.

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The Dark Side of the Light

After the pat-down, the guards allow me to enter the connecting walkway between the guardhouse and the inmate housing units. Riverbend Maximum Security in Nashville, Tennessee houses a handful of my “clients” (not sure what else to call them), all of whom are on death row.

As I walk the grounds inside the barbed wire perimeter fencing of Riverbend, I can hear whistling and eager male voices directed toward me. Some are whimsically complimentary and some desperately ask me to represent them.

I guess I look like an attorney. Most folks say I hold myself like a cop. I still consider myself a newcomer to the field of criminal defense investigation. I am a tall, blonde, female singer-songwriter once-removed from New York city, unwittingly now entrenched in a “man’s career” as a private detective.

I look forward and keep moving along the straight and narrow path. Sometimes I smile and say hello, but on this day Im focused on meeting Sedley Alley, who some have labeled a serial killer, and the interview ahead of me. There is no guard walking alongside me, but the inmates cant reach me anyway. Each pod or housing units outside yard is enclosed by additional fencing that isolates it further.

I look anxiously for Building C. Finding it, I ring the buzzer at the entry door and hear the door lock click open. While tugging the big handle Im nearly pulled forward off my feet by the heavy weight of the solid metal door.

The moment I step inside, the door quickly closes behind me, locking itself. I wait in between the double set of doors. The purgatory of the penitentiary, I think to myself. What would happen if they forgot me here? Theres no water, no bathroom, and no one can hear me locked in between thick metal doors and cement walls.

On previous visits Ive had to wait in between these doors, in this three-foot-by-three-foot space, for quite a while. At least it seemed like a long time. It was probably only a couple of minutes.

When the outer door locks, the inner door opens, and I walk through it into another guard station for Building C. I sign in again, telling them who I want to see. Usually they know Im coming and who Im scheduled to see, but sometimes they have to radio up to the main guard station for verification. I then wait alone in a designated room.

There are two doors in this room: one door from the guard area, and another door on the opposite side of the room leading to the inmate cellblock. The door I came through was solid metal with a thick glass window framing a diamond pattern of lead wire within the glass. The door on the other side of the room is made of only thick prison bars, the same as a jail cell door, with open air between the bars. I can hear myriad inmatesvoices and lots of activity on the other side of the barred door. Through the door to the guard room side, I hear nothing.  In fact, the guard is no longer at his post.

The room contains four attached plastic orange bleacher seats. No table. Nothing to hide behind.

I have never been comfortable engaging strangers, not to mention serial killers. But truthfully Im fascinated to meet and interview Mr. Alley. I wait only a few minutes.

A guard and a very tall man in a blue and white jumpsuit appear outside the barred door in the hallway, between the inmate cellblock and me. The guard opens the heavy iron bar door . . . its double-thick hinges screeching for oil, same as you hear them on TV jailhouse documentaries.

Sedley walks into the room and stands in front of me without any shackles and says, “Hello.

The guard locks the door behind himself as he leaves the area, isolating me with a serial killer.

Sedley Alley is the only inmate I have ever interviewed here that is not shackled hand and foot. My clients at this facility all show up in this room with a thick chain around their waists, to which their wrists are handcuffed. Another chain connects their waist chain to their ankle shackles by a chain that holds their feet shoulder-width apart so they cant run. Alley is not shackled or cuffed at all. My game face is on. I smile and shake his hand.

“Hey Sedley. My name is April. Im your defense investigator.”

“I know,” he nodded. We sit down in seats right next to one another.

Attorneys always give clients a heads-up when Im coming to visit.

“Why arent you shackled?” I inquired with great interest.

He tells me he is “A” level, which means hes not considered threatening or high-risk. He also holds a job in the prison. In other words, he is a trusted prisoner.

I hide my surprise, and break the ice by asking him to educate me on the prison system and classifications, and he kindly obliges me. He has nothing better to do this day.

Alley is a very soft-spoken, polite, and gentle man, in my estimation. Throughout my two-hour interview with him, my opinion doesnt change. He explains how his confession was coerced by police at gunpoint and by threats to arrest his wife in conjunction with the ghastly murder of the beautiful, 19-year-old aviation student who was the adopted daughter of a U.S. Ambassador.

He professes his innocence once again to me, as he has done to others now for 18 years.

Having already read a previously published book characterizing Sedley Alley as a monster, Im expecting to experience something entirely different during our initial meeting. I ask him a lot of questions about his personal life and his beliefs. I want to know more about him.

He talks about his kids and his second wife Layne (to whom he is no longer married), as well as his deceased former wife Debra. He speaks of all these people in loving fashion.

He goes on to describe life in prison, his prison education, and his work for pay behind bars. Its obvious that the guards like him and arent concerned about him acting out. He’s had no disciplinary write ups in prison. His only problem being here is that hes been wrongly convicted.

As I listen to his tender and seemingly genuine words, I’m softened by his kind eyes respectfully engaging me, and I think about the case facts.  The young girl was found laying face down in a park in Millington, Tennessee.  She had at least 100 blunt trauma injuries on her head and body.  She was naked.  She was covered in blood, had strangulation marks on her neck, and a tree branch, which had been sharpened into a point, shoved between her legs (multiple times) so deeply that it pierced her lung.

Personally, Im now becoming confused, and keep asking myself, “How did this nice man kill anyone in any way other than an accident or in self-defense?” I think to myself how charming Ted Bundy had to be to snare the number of young girls he tortured and killed.

The evidence the State of Tennessee presented against Alley at trial seemed insurmountable. It included blood evidence of the victim on his car, witness identification of him, witness identification of his car, and his confession just hours after the murder.

I share my honest opinions with Sedley, as I do with every client, about the evidence against him and how guilty he appears . . .  on paper. He nods and then shakes his head. He tells me his side of the story in detail, after which I again ask a lot more questions. No investigator had ever come to talk with him before. 

He admits hes not sure what I can do at this point to help him. Alley is resigned to his fate in the death chamber. To me, his demeanor personifies utter defeat and hopelessness.

He raps on the interview room window for the guards to come and release me back to my safe world.  In the months to come after meeting Sedly, I investigate his case and discover much evidence of innocence on his behalf . . . just like he said. Shameful negligence and coverups by law enforcement, planted evidence, hidden exculpatory evidence by the prosecutor, and ineffective assistance of counsel by his trial and appeal attorneys who conducted no investigation on Sedley’s behalf . . . ever.  They will argue that he confessed so why investigate.  Well, for one reason (as if they even need one . . . it is their job to investigate), the so-called confession recording consisted of about 50 minutes with seven starts and stops during a 12-hour interrogation.  And, the details confessed were not consistent with the victim’s injuries.

Also among the strong evidence of innocence was a witness who identified the abductor as being 5’8”, dark tan, short dark hair, black shorts.  Not only was Alley 6’4”, pale, long blond hair, glasses, blue jean shorts, but the victim’s boyfriend fit the eyewitness description perfectly . . . and, even more dramatic is Alley’s alibi.  He was under police surveillance at the time of death noted by the state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the victim.  This time of death notation, however, was hidden from Alley’s defense team and never presented to the jury at trial.  When I found the document 18 years later, the judge didn’t want to hear about it.

It was too late to be credible in the mind of the judge.  Opining that Alley had confessed long ago and nothing had been presented to refute the charges in all this time.  Our pleas for the judge to allow the first-time testing of the existing DNA evidence were denied, citing the accidental contamination of the evidence by law enforcement.  And so the State of Tennessee executed Mr. Alley in front of his two children and a room full of strangers.

I once believed that I could be a famous singer-songwriter.  I was very idealistic and wanted to spread my message of love throughout the world.  Murder investigation was the furthest thing from my mind.  I began investigating cases for defense because I needed the extra money while pursuing my music career. 

Once upon a time, as a newcomer to criminal defense, I felt ashamed of my profession . . . helping criminals.  People asked me how could I defend rapists and murders.  Law enforcement and prosecutors told me that they do “God’s work” and I work for “the dark side.”  Then I began paying more attention to The U.S. Constitution, hearing about wrongful convictions, false confessions, and actually investigating cases of false allegations.  Now I passionately write commentary on the human aspects of the criminal justice system and defense investigation. 

That is not the only turnaround for me.  I used to feel safe, when I was ignorant.  My beliefs about criminals and those who punish them use to be a clear sense of good and evil, but I have dug deep and discovered the tunnel crossing beneath that line in the sand.

Copyright © 2017 April Higuera