Former Dallas Morning News star reporter Olive Talley has a piece in the paper today saying Walker Railey killed his wife and got away with it. Not in so many words. Forgive me if you're under 100 years old and this is all Greek to you.
Railey was a certain local archetype -- the very prominent, very beloved, very hypocritical Dallas preacher -- when his wife Peggy was nearly strangled in their home in April 1987. The attack left her severely brain damaged and in a vegetative state until her death Monday. Walker Railey, then pastor at First United Methodist Church, said he couldn't have been the attacker because he was with his mistress at the time, but everybody decided he did it.
But he was acquitted.
Last time I heard about Talley, she was working as an advertorialist for the fracking industry. She was a very good reporter back in the day.
Her piece in today's paper includes two lines that struck me.
Line 1: We all know the outcome of the trial and his acquittal, thanks to what many said was the good work of defense attorney Doug Mulder and the shoddy work of the Dallas County district attorney's office.
Line 2: My mother, a Methodist firm in her faith, has repeatedly offered her belief that "if the lower courts don't take care of this, the higher court will."
Only two conclusions can be intended here by Talley. Railey got away with it because of clever and unclever lawyering. And: If you ever get a drunk driving ticket, hope and pray the judge won't be Talley's mom.
Here is my reservation in all of this. In a many-years hiatus from news reporting, I wrote books about murder cases. When I could, I covered the trials -- every single hearing and appearance from start to finish -- without ever having to meet a daily deadline.
And I watched my former brethren of the press from the far end of the courthouse steps. I'm not claiming my true-crime books were legal texts or high literature. They paid the rent. But the experience taught me some very interesting stuff about reporters.
First of all, the mediatoids always have their own courtroom. It may be the cafeteria or the diner down the street or the courthouse step, but they always hold court somewhere.
It's informal. "Whaddya think?" "How 'bout that boyfriend?" "Did you think that blood-splatter expert had kinda nutsy eyeballs?" The important thing is that they always come up with a verdict.
He did it. Or he didn't do it. I don't think the reporters on a big case ever quite realize that's what they're doing, but they do it because they have to.
Why? Because in the news biz you never get fired for being wrong when everybody else is wrong. You get fired for being wrong alone -- the only one who said the contrary of what everybody else said. You can even get fired for being right alone. You get fired for making your own news medium the odd man out, the fool in the public's eye, so you never want to be the odd man out, unless you're just odd, in which case you work for Village Voice Media.
If you work for the daily paper or the TV station, you attend those informal proceedings at the diner or on the steps, and you go all the way with whatever the media verdict may be.
The other thing I learned was that, once reporters have rendered their own verdict, they can make an amazingly persuasive case, even against an innocent person, sometimes especially against an innocent person.
That case almost always will be based on matters extraneous to the crime. The accused was a slut. He was a hypocrite. She was a mean bitch to her grandchildren, and she had multiple fur coats. He was a preacher, but he spent his time out of the pulpit banging a mistress. And she was a blonde!
That works. Let me tell you something. If you're a bitch or a slimeball, do not ... I repeat, not! ... get yourself accused of murder, because you're going to have one hell of a hard time beating it, even if you were in Latin America the day it happened.
We now know how often and how terribly the courts get it wrong. In fact, the media have been raising all kinds of sober-sided questions about the honor and integrity of the criminal justice system in the wake of all the shocking exonerations of innocent persons condemned to death or long sentences by juries of their peers.
But, gee, I can't remember seeing a single story in which the media went back to see what their own role may have been in those convictions. Might be worth checking, just for grins.
Walker Railey had about as big a media pile-on going against him as you could get. They might as well have run his picture on the 10 p.m. news every night with a screaming voiceover: "WHY IS THIS MAN FREE? GODDAMN IT!"
Now we know why he is free. He is free because the jury didn't think the prosecution proved he did it. And here is the last thing, I promise, that I learned by sitting through those damned murder trials not thinking about my daily headline. I listened to all of it. Every word. But I did not hear a single word the same way the jury heard it. I may not have been thinking about headlines, but I was thinking about my book. They were thinking about something else.
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Did he do it?
That's different. Only the jury thinks that way. The judge thinks about the law. The lawyers think about winning. The cops think about retirement. The witnesses think about getting on television.
Only the jury hears every word and weighs it against the vote they must make in that room at the end of the last day. Their opinion is worth some serious respect, and I mean no disrespect to Olive Talley's mom. Give her a break. Back then, she was reading her daughter's stuff.
[Editor's note: As an example of the media's view of the Railey trial, we wanted to post a copy of "How Walker Walked," by former Observer staffer Laura Miller, but sadly it was published in 1993, the pre-digital age. Let's just say she disagreed with the outcome. Will will attempt to scan and post. It's around here somewhere ...]