With Rolling's execution, vindication seemed out of grasp
A lawyer spent 16 years living under a shadow of suspicion.
By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published October 27, 2006
Among the people standing vigil outside the prison at Danny Rolling’s execution Wednesday was Hal Carter, an Atlanta lawyer.
Carter hoped Rolling would confess to the murders nearly 17 years ago of Julie, Tom and Sean Grissom in Shreveport, La.
At the time of the killings, Carter was Julie Grissom’s fiance. He also became a suspect.
Now, he wanted the suspicion to end.
But at 6:30 p.m., when those outside learned that Rolling had sung a hymn and was then executed, Carter realized his name would continue to be connected to the Shreveport murders.
“I left despondent,” he said. “Neither I nor the Grissom family would ever have the certainty we needed.”
When the Grissom murders took place in November 1989, dozens of TV broadcasts and newspapers said the police had named Carter as “the primary suspect.”
Shunned, insulted and threatened, he closed down his prosperous Shreveport law practice and moved to Georgia, leaving family and friends.
“Not only was I destroyed over Julie’s death, I was also falsely accused,” he said. “Worst of all, the real killer was free to strike again.” Rolling struck nine months later in Gainesville.
After the Gainesville murders, Grissom began his own investigation and discovered uncanny similarities between the three Shreveport murders and the five Gainesville murders. Among the similarities: The murderer’s rare blood type was the same at both crime scenes and the bodies were posed.
On Wednesday, as Carter stood in the field outside Florida State Prison in Starke with death penalty opponents, a sparrow fell from the sky at his feet. He held it through the execution, feeling its beating heart in his hands. After the execution, he raised his hands in the air and the bird soared toward the sky.
“I took this as a sign that something good would happen,” he said.
This thought was bolstered by a letter he had received from Rolling weeks before.
Carter had written Rolling and asked for “the truth about the Grissom murders.” Rolling had responded in writing, “You will be vindicated. My word.”
But when people standing outside the prison learned that Rolling had said nothing, Carter realized his hopes had been dashed.
Rolling had gone to his death without keeping his word, or so Carter thought. Until he got a phone call Thursday night.
It was Mike Hudspeth, the Shreveport pastor who had spent Wednesday with Rolling. He said he had asked Rolling to clear Carter’s name and shortly before the execution Rolling had handed him a written statement.
“You’ll be very pleased,” Hudspeth told Carter. Police would announce the confession in Shreveport on Friday morning, he said.
In a messy combination of cursive and print on a crumpled piece of paper, Rolling had written, “Hereby, I make a formal, written statement concerning the murder of Julie, Tom and Sean Grissom in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. Hal Carter, Julie Grissom’s former fiance is 100% innocent — totally pure of that crime. ”
Carter was shocked. He thanked Hudspeth and told him that the news had not only “changed a very sad day, but also the rest of my life.”
Rolling’s confession continued: “I and I alone am guilty. It is my hand that took those precious lights out of this old dark world. With all of my heart I wish I could bring them back. Being a native son of Shreveport, I can only offer this confession of deep felt remorse over the loss of such fine outstanding souls.”
Back at his suburban Atlanta home, Carter said he spent all of Friday thanking God for this sudden, unexpected turn of events.
“I also thanked Danny,” he said. “I know he was a terrible killer, but he kept his word.”