One of the most important aspects of writing a good story, however, is having a good story to tell. And in writing a book about the most important death penalty cases to reach the Supreme Court along with some of the arcane legal issues they presented, we were surprised to come across characters and situations that would make even Hollywood producers green with envy.
Perhaps one of the most important death penalty cases in the last forty years is Gregg v. Georgia. Greg is the 1976 case in which the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment after a four year hiatus. The Justices laid out a roadmap for the states on what is permissible in a death penalty statute and what is forbidden. Their decision set the stage for more than 13-hundred executions in the years that have followed. Troy Gregg himself was a hitchhiker who had robbed and murdered a couple of motorists who had given him a ride. The case had set Gregg up to be the first person to be executed in many years and in a way, he was. Only his execution wasn’t for murder and it wasn’t carried out by the state.
While in prison, Gregg got mixed up with four other Georgia death row residents said to be among the most notorious killers in Georgia history. Together they plotted and succeeded in a daring escape from the state correctional facility at Reidsville, Georgia. It all happened on the eve of Gregg’s scheduled execution. And Gregg himself was so pleased with his accomplishment that within a few hours, he called the news media to boast about it. Charlie Postell, an editor of the Albany Herald, phoned the prison to inquire about the break and was reassured by officials that Gregg and the others were still in their beds. When they found out later that Postell had it right, they were so infuriated they charged him as an accomplice. The charges were later dropped.
Gregg’s freedom turned out to be short-lived. He and his accomplices made it to North Carolina where they reassembled at a local saloon with some long lost girlfriends. Gregg made the unfortunate mistake of insulting one of them. One of the other escapees, Tim McCorquodale, convicted of the rape-torture-murder of a 20-year old woman, took exception even though it wasn’t even his girlfriend who had been slighted. Six feet tall and over three hundred pounds, McCorquodale picked up the somewhat frail Gregg, threw him to the ground and began stomping on him, his chest, his throat, his head. Gregg’s body was found floating in a lake outside Charlotte a few days later. Gregg’s fellow-escapees were apprehended. McCorquodale was charged, but never tried for Gregg’s murder. Reidsville’s electric chair got him first for the murder of the young woman.
Gregg v. Georgia will live on forever in the annals of U.S. criminal jurisprudence. Every student of U.S. law knows about it. But for these two non-fiction writers, this truly landmark case conjures up a few old familiar adages. Truth really is stranger than fiction and as Paul Harvey, one of our old ABC colleagues might have put it, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
Post by Tim O’Brien and Martin Clancy. The authors, long-time journalists at ABC News, have just released Murder at the Supreme Court—Lethal Crimes and Landmark Cases. Prometheus Books, 2013. http://www.murderatthesupremecourt.comhttp://www.amazon.com/Murder-Supreme-Court-Lethal-Landmark/dp/1616146486/