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The Wrong Man

A True Story of Innocence on Death Row

2001
Author:

Michael Mello
Foreword by Mike Farrell

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The frightening in-the-trenches story of an attorney’s fight to save his client from the death penalty.

The Wrong Man is the dramatic story of Michael Mello’s twenty-year fight to save “Crazy Joe” Spaziano, a member of a widely feared motorcycle gang, from execution for a murder he didn’t commit. In a gripping personal account, Mello, a well-known author, activist, and legal commentator, describes the details of the case and the controversial extremes to which he was driven by it. Mello took the unconventional and risky step of involving the Miami Herald in his legal work; the newspaper eventually published an investigative piece that was instrumental in turning the tide of public opinion and bringing Spaziano’s case to the attention of the national media.

Read and learn. Mello’s passion sears the pages of this book, proving once again that justice, hard fought, will prevail.

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen

In 1976, “Crazy Joe” Spaziano, a member of a widely feared motorcycle gang, was sentenced to death for the murder of Laura Lynn Harberts, whose body was found in a trash dump near Spaziano’s trailer. Nine years after his conviction by a Florida jury, a set of audiotapes was discovered that revealed that police had hypnotized and coached the primary witness against Spaziano, a witness who later recanted his testimony. Despite this exculpatory evidence, Spaziano’s case continued to move steadily toward the electric chair.

The Wrong Man is the dramatic story of Michael Mello’s twenty-year fight to save Spaziano from being executed for crimes he didn’t commit. In a gripping personal account, Mello, a well-known author, activist, and legal commentator, describes the ins and outs of this case and the extremes to which he was driven by it. In his desperation to halt this miscarriage of justice, Mello broke ethical and procedural rules, faced possible contempt charges and disbarment proceedings, and gave up hope of ever practicing law in Florida again. Among his unconventional measures was to involve the Miami Herald, which eventually published an investigative piece exposing the fundamental unfairness of Spaziano’s sentence, an article that was instrumental in turning the tide of public opinion and bringing the case to the attention of the national media.

More than an account of a single, notorious death penalty case, The Wrong Man is an indictment of capital punishment and the criminal justice system-a fascinating first-person narrative about death penalty legal work and a detailed account of how the justice system often fails to deliver justice. Ultimately Mello offers compelling proof of the following sad reality: wrongful convictions can easily occur, and innocent people are sentenced to death and executed in America.

Michael Mello is the author of The United States of America vs. Theodore Kaczynski (1999), Dead Wrong (1997), and Against the Death Penalty (1996). Currently a professor of law at the Vermont Law School, he has worked on several high-profile cases, including those of Ted Bundy, Theodore Kaczynski, and Elizabeth Morgan.

Mike Farrell is a celebrated actor and president of California Death Penalty Focus.


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Michael Mello is the author of The United States of America vs. Theodore Kaczynski, Dead Wrong, and Against the Death Penalty. Currently a professor at the Vermont Law School, he has worked on several high-profile cases, including those of Ted Bundy, Theodore Kaczynski, and Elizabeth Morgan.

Mike Farrell is an actor and president of California Death Penalty Focus. Through this organization, several concerned citizens have endorsed Michael Mello’s efforts to call attention to the plight of Joseph Spaziano, among them Edward Asner, Ted Danson, Shelley Fabares, Piper Laurie, Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Bonnie Raitt, Mary Steenburgen, and Peter Yarrow.

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Read and learn. Mello’s passion sears the pages of this book, proving once again that justice, hard fought, will prevail.

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen

The Wrong Man offers yet another painfully urgent piece of evidence that capital punishment needs to be abolished.

Peter Yarrow

Like a stone dropped into a pond, my hope is that this book will create the ripple effect of touching an ever-widening audience of people willing to reconsider the death penalty and the 'business' of death in America. The story told in The Wrong Man is a most effective weapon to help conquer the disease of capital punishment.

Edward Asner

The Wrong Man is an important work on a critical subject. Mello exposes a system rotten to the core.

Jack Lemmon

Read this book; it is a love story and a tragedy. Michael Mello's fight to save Joe Spaziano's life is, in its odd way, a love story. The tragedy is ours. Mello's struggle with a system that cares more about protecting itself than finding the truth, that cares more about how it looks than it does about doing justice, that would rather kill an innocent man than admit its own mistakes, provides a harrowing and painful lesson for those who want to believe that equal justice under law exists in America today.

Bonnie Raitt

Michael Mello may be the most passionate opponent of the death penalty in America. In this remarkable book, he provides a searing account of his efforts to free ‘Crazy Joe’ Spaziano, who has spent decades on death row for a crime that Mello is convinced he did not commit. Even those who are less fervently opposed to capital punishment than Mello will be riveted by his eloquence, candor, and unshakable commitment to his cause.

Jeffrey Rosen

To appreciate the obstacles faced by defense counsel in a modern capital case, one cannot do better than to study The Wrong Man.

Boston Review

The author of The Wrong Man, Michael Mello, spent years as Joseph Spaziano’s lawyer as Spaziano-known as ‘Crazy Joe’-tried desperately to prove he was really innocent of a murder and to get off Florida’s Death Row. But The Wrong Man is a much about Mello as it is about Spaziano. Mello, a professor at Vermont Law School, once was a defense attorney in Florida, and his is the story of being won over by the defendant and then risking all to save his life. In the end Mello succeeds, but the cost is high. He nearly goes broke and, at times, loses his bearings as his battles to get an appeals court to hear Spaziano’s evidence of innocence are frustrated by procedural roadblocks. There is a drama to almost any death-penalty case, but Spaziano’s case is particularly dramatic as Mello describes him being read his death warrants and moved to the death-watch cells where he will spend his last hours, only to gain another reprieve. It is dramatic, too, in how The Miami Herald, enlisted by Mello, digs up evidence to help save Spaziano’s life, including a recantation from the key witness, who was hypnotized before he testified. When Spaziano finally wins a new trial and prosecutors offer him a deal, the book poses a tough question. Should Spaziano plead no contest-not admitting any guilt-to get out from his death sentence and have a chance at parole, or should he risk a retrial-and perhaps another death sentence-to prove his innocence? There is no easy answer.

Chicago Tribune

Mello’s book is not just a narrative of the battle to save the client he believed to be innocent, but a sharp criticism of the capital punishment system. The Wrong Man begins, quite simply, ‘Innocent people are sentenced to death and executed in the United States.’

St. Petersburg Times

Whether you support the death penalty or not, Mello’s book deserves your attention. The media filters this kind of information for us and packages it in easy-to-swallow bites. Courtroom dramatists present us with simple black-and-white decisions to make before the commercial break. The Wrong Man is not easily digestible, nor is it simple-but that is exactly why anyone who wants an informed opinion on the death penalty should read it.

Rain Taxi

Mello’s book is most significant for its detailed account of how difficult it was to get the death sentence overturned. Most Americans would be horrified at how courts and governors handle death-penalty cases, and this book is more than worth its price for its account of that process.

Washington Post Book World

“One of the strengths of Michael Mello’s vivid and disturbing book, The Wrong Man, is that he has stripped away the anonymity and revealed a flesh-and-blood human being in anguish over his pending death. Mello has laid bare the torturing years of an innocent man’s struggle against the state’s machinery of death.

Of all the defense attorneys expounding on the incarceration of innocent men and women, Michael Mello is probably the most intemperate. And, like all intemperate writing, The Wrong Man: A True Story of Innocence on Death Row appears at first to be rife with exaggerations. For the most part, however, the book-despite its emotionalism and zeal-holds up factually and thus is an important corrective to the conventional wisdom.

Ruminator Review

Stories about innocent individuals convicted of crimes while the actual perpetrators remain at large are becoming increasingly common in U.S. newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets. Occasionally the accounts are interesting and complicated enough to fill an entire book. I have read about a hundred such books. But never have I read one about the phenomenon as impassioned, intemperate-or as controversial concerning the role of journalists-as the lawyer Michael Mello’s account of the Joseph Spaziano case in Florida.

Steve Weinberg, Columbia Journalism Review

One of the strengths of Michael Mello’s vivid and disturbing book, The Wrong Man, is that he has stripped away the anonymity and revealed a flesh-and-blood human being in anguish over his pending death. Mello has laid bare the torturing years of an innocent man’s struggle against the state’s machinery of death.

Harry Mitchell Caldwell, TRIAL

An excellent book which details the injustice of the justice system and one man’s fight against capital punishment.

M2 Best Books

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Contents

Foreword Mike Farrell
Author’s Note
Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Watching Two Lives Converge: The Biker and the Nerd
2. Prisoner No. 049043: Letters from Death Row
3. Lawyers for the Dead
4. Hurricane Season: The First Death Warrant
5. The Outlaw Bikers’ Clubhouse
6. Outlaw Judiciary: Giving Up on the Courts
7. Death’s Witness: Tony DiLisio Redux
8. “Dear Governor Chiles . . .”
9. The Secret Police Report
10. Acoustic Shadow
11. Exquisite Chaos: The Final Death Warrant (August 1995)
12. Checkmate
13. Hell in a Very Small Place
14. I’m Fired by the Court: “Crazy Michael” and “Crazy Joe”
15. “I Won’t Debate My Soul with Strangers”: Outlaws against All Odds
16. The Police Detective, the Psychic, and the Skull
17. The Fires of Jubilee: Florida’s Malfunctioning Electric Chair
18. Judgment Day
19. To Bedlam and Part way Back
20. An Absence of Malice
21. Life Itself
22. Why the “Crazy Joe” Case Matters

Appendix Execution Guidelines for the State of Florida

Index