Donald Manuel Paradis came out from the dark last week to the sweet, sweet light of freedom, after being a wrongfully convicted death row prisoner of 21 years due to the Idaho judicial system's ineptitude and a prosecutor's zealotry.
He joins the likes of Sonia Jacobs, who spent half her life on Florida's death row, waiting. Waiting as her husband was executed for a crime he didn't commit either -- waiting for a friend, not the court system, to come up with the crucial evidence that set her free. His story joins the growing list of judicial abuses that have led the state of Illinois to suspend application of the death penalty until further notice.
Paradis was a prisoner of perceptions, principally those of a claque of Spokane and Coeur d'Alene news media who refused to accept that this greasy, Mexican-looking member of an outlaw motorcycle gang might be guilty of nothing.
Let's look back on 1980 -- the year the crime he was convicted for occurred -- and its late-1970s milieu. At that time, a duly elected Kootenai County Commissioner was leading his parishioners on a torchlight parade down Government Way, to exorcise the courthouse of the demons he was sure possessed it.
A prominent attorney had murdered his wife and gotten away with it, giving Kootenai County the dubious distinction as being the best place in America to kill your old lady.
Sheriff's deputies were on trial for having illicit sex with a girl in the back seat of a county cruiser.
Bikers had acquired the habit of overtaking the city park on the Fourth of July, leaving no woman or child safe.
Precursors of the neo-Nazis, calling themselves the Posse Comitatus, were suing each other for cattle thievery and plotting to kidnap Duane Hagadone's kids.
News media described Kootenai County as a haven for witch covens, whose members were rumored to encircle wayward cars on Highway 41 late at night and devour their occupants.
The old prosecutor Gary Haman had, while in office, been kicked out of the Iron Horse Saloon for brandishing a handgun.
The son of a judge was arrested, with his buddies, for dragging a live dog to its death behind a car, through downtown Coeur d'Alene.
Oh, but those bikers.
So when Paradis' Spokane Valley house burned down on the morning of the 1980 summer solstice, and Paradis was allegedly seen at the same time (with two other bikers) walking out of a gully south of Post Falls where two bodies would later be found, it was no huge leap of faith to believe he was the actual killer.
Authorities determined that the two murder victims, Scott Currier and Kimberly Ann Palmer, were killed at Paradis' house in Spokane, but since their bodies were dumped in Idaho, why not invent two scenarios? Have one be killed in Spokane, and the other killed in Idaho. Two separate crimes. Two trials. Two shots at Paradis. Six darts instead of three.
The first trial was moved to Seattle, where mountaineer and jury foreman Jim Whittaker pronounced them innocent.
Kootenai County -- its fury at bikers inflamed by a protest Paradis and his Gypsy Jokers brethren had staged over their right to park more than one Harley Davidson to a parking meter -- saw different.
A fair trial could be had. The county assigned a brand new pistol-brandishing judge (Haman) and a court-appointed defense attorney six months out of law school, who had never tried an action of any sort before a jury, to Paradis.
This defense attorney was put up against a prosecutor with huge political ambitions, someone who was also Bishop to several of his Mormon jurors, and gave Paradis' lawyer no money to conduct an independent investigation.
The prosecutor, Marc Haws, withheld notes he'd taken during his initial meeting with Dr. Bill Brady -- the prosecutor's medical witness of choice. The since-defrocked Oregon State medical examiner lost his job for selling body parts of autopsied humans. Photos Brady took during the autopsies of Currier and Palmer, all of which clearly established that they were killed in Spokane, were never shown to the jury.
I met Paradis and spent countless hours with a family doctor, a board-certified Wallace pathologist named Glen Faith, talking about the case. It struck me as so absurd that I didn't even attend the trial; I had no idea, and Paradis had no idea, that he was going to get convicted.
But there it was, in December of 1981, a sentence of death for Paradis for Palmer's murder. I don't think the death penalty is wrong, if you take someone like Ted Bundy -- but this case was just too bizarre. It was clear to me that Paradis was innocent.
John Luster, a 1st District judge, took on Paradis' post-conviction relief petitions. Luster, Faith and I caucused for hours over the evidence -- evidence that either was misrepresented to the jury or which the jury never got the opportunity to see. We all agreed: this guy was innocent.
Then, in 1985, I got a collect call from death row, from the man who did kill Palmer. Apparently Thomas Henry Gibson wanted to clear his conscience. Gibson described to me in gruesome detail how he'd garroted Palmer in Spokane, including details he could only have known second-hand if he'd seen the photographs Haws was still hiding -- photos neither of us knew about.
Another man, Charles Amacher, who was in prison for something else in San Francisco, was the one who killed Currier -- since he was never convicted for that murder, he is free now.
Paradis wasn't home when the murders took place, but he wasn't exactly in church either: He was over at a rival biker's house, making sure the man wouldn't discover that Paradis had stolen his motorcycle -- not a very good alibi.
But the Kootenai County prosecution had no alibi for bullying a Mormon jury whipped by one if its own bishops. It had no alibi for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, or for inflaming a public willing to hang a greasy Mexican-looking biker. Paradis volunteered to give DNA evidence, but no one was interested in taking it, so he joined the growing number of wrongfully convicted death row inmates.
The trial of Paradis and his subsequent 21 years in the Idaho penal system renders pale any stunt the neo-Nazis have ever pulled here. Paradis spent last weekend walking the woods around Boise with his family. I think about the long, ridiculed walks I took through the newsrooms of Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, trying to get someone else to peer-review my research into his case.
For me it was a lonely life. For Paradis, it was a train to death. Now, perhaps, both of us are free.
David Bond, a freelance writer and former award-winning daily newspaper reporter, lives in North Idaho.
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