In 1990, I defended a man charged with capital murder. On May 6 of that year, four men drove from a trailer park in southern Fort Pierce to a house in Sebastian. At least three of them burst through the front door and held a man at gunpoint. The man, allegedly a pot dealer, was home with his teenage girlfriend and his 6-year-old son. The intruders robbed the man, and then shot him execution-style in front of the girl and boy.
Joe McCallum was one of four men arrested. All were indicted for first degree murder. McCallum was alleged to have been the sole triggerman.
McCallum confessed to the crimes, including the shooting, in a late night interview with several police officers and two senior prosecutors. When they read him Miranda warnings, he told them, “I would really like to talk to a lawyer right now.” They stopped the interview, and called the Public Defender’s Office. Since it was late at night, an answering service took the call. Their attempts to reach the on-call defender proved fruitless. After a few minutes, the interrogation was resumed, and McCallum soon confessed.
I was appointed to defend Mr. McCallum. I found him to be a very mild-mannered guy, and he treated me with respect throughout our time working together.
Motion to Suppress Was Granted
I sought to suppress his confession, as the police and prosecutors had resumed their custodial interrogation even though McCallum had asked to talk to a lawyer. They claimed his request was equivocal, and not clear. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, I invited the judge to ask the prosecutors what more he could have said to make himself clear. The judge obliged, and the prosecutors had no response. The judge granted the motion, and ordered that there would be no testimony about the confession presented to jury at trial.
All three co-defendants took deals to flip against McCallum. One by one, they rushed to join the prosecution team.
Our defense investigation took us to rural Georgia, where I found a witness who heard one the other co-defendants confess to being the triggerman, and plot to convince McCallum it had been him. The evidence was conflicting, but McCallum may well have been the one guy who remained in the van.
A Deal Was Reached To Spare His Life
Whether it was due to the lost confession, or the witness from Georgia, or something else entirely, the prosecutors backed off the death penalty the week before trial, and by the end of the week, we had reached agreement on a plea; not to first degree murder, but to second.
Instead of facing either the death penalty, or life in prison, the only two penalties allowed for first degree murder, Joe McCallum was sentenced to a term of years.
Young and brash, I believed then that I had saved his life. Maybe I did; maybe not.
Now, he has done his time.
Joe McCallum gets out of prison today.