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  • Susan Waller Lehmann

Lunch with Frankie, at $2 a Day


“Very interesting!” My husband handed me the iPad. “Look at this story on NPR.”

Alabama Sheriff Legally Took $750,000 Meant to Feed Inmates, Bought Beach House.[1]

I read the article and remembered the day I sat with a young inmate as he ate lunch in jail. I had been outraged as I watched him eat as measly smear of peanut butter on bread so stale the crusts fell away. The article explained why Frankie, and thousands of other prisoners throughout the state, were fed food that should have been thrown away.

The original story, written by a Birmingham News reporter, cited numerous reports of sheriffs all over Alabama who had legally taken funds earmarked for feeding county prisoners, and could spend this money however they wished. And spend they do. Some sheriffs bought vacation homes and others funded businesses. Money earmarked for food was theirs for the spending!

According to Alabama law, the reporter explained, a sheriff is personally responsible for feeding all prisoners under his or her control. The state provides less than $2 per inmate per day for meals. Whatever the sheriff does not spend on food, is his or hers to keep—an unusual sort of salary bonus. A federal lawsuit is now pending against all forty-nine Alabama county sheriffs for failing to produce records of food purchased, with public funds, for their inmates. The suit was filed in January 2018 by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.[2]

Evidently, housing and feeding prisoners at the Alabama county level is a for-profit industry. The less money the sheriffs spend on food, the more money they have to improve their personal quality of life. Since this news broke in early 2018, the Governor pledged to change this practice, but as of this posting a bill has yet to be introduced in the Alabama legislature.

~~~

On or about May 30, 2008 five young black men got into a car in Camp Hill, Alabama, and drove toward the Wal-Mart in Opelika. They rolled down the windows as the air conditioning didn’t work. They had spent the night together playing video games and planned to pass the day looking for girls to hang out with. Four of the boys had their guns. But the fifth, Timothy Heard, forgot his gun. He asked the driver to run him by his grandmother’s home so he could get it.

The four others said no. They didn’t want to make the detour to Loachapoka.

None of their weapons had been legally purchased. They’d been stolen, from home and car burglaries in their community. On the streets, all across America, and especially in poor towns like Camp Hill, guns are currency and are often traded for drugs and services. Typically, young men sell drugs because they can’t do anything else—for them, handguns are standard issue. All of these five teenagers lacked the education and the skills needed to put them on a path that could lead them out of Camp Hill—a trajectory that didn’t involve violence and crime.

On the way to the Opelika Wal-Mart, near rural Waverly, the car overheated. The driver, Jonathan Askew, 19, pulled to the side of the road. Frankie Bradford, 18, sat in the passenger seat. He co-owned the car with Askew and they made weekly payments to the man who sold it to them. Both got out of the car and met at the trunk, which held bottles of water they carried to refill the cracked radiator. They waited while the radiator cooled before they could empty their water bottles.

Two of the young men got out of the back seat and stretched in the mid-day sunshine. Heard, twenty years old, remained in the car. He groused that he didn’t have his gun. Tempers flared.

Somebody said, “Shut the fuck up. We ain’t going to your granny’s.”

With little warning, gunshots broke the stillness—scattering birds in a frenzy of flight and feathers. Timothy Heard was hit multiple times and lay dead, bleeding out in the backseat. By shooting into the car and killing the young man, the trigger man became eligible for a death sentence. Because they were together, in the car with the victim—and not one of the four took out his phone and called 9-1-1—they were all culpable of the murder. At that moment, all four suspects became eligible for murder charges even if they didn’t actively fire the rounds that killed Tim Heard.[3]

The two young men who had been sitting in the backseat, one a seventeen-year-old juvenile, were told to pull Heard’s body from the car and drag it into the woods near the side of the rural road. They wiped down the inside of the car as best they could, then drove back to Camp Hill and cleaned the car a second time. Soon, the youngest confessed to his uncle about the day Heard was killed. He gave his uncle the murder weapon.

The body was found shortly thereafter.

The story unraveled as each of the four young men were arrested and charged with murder.

All fingers pointed at Frankie Bradford as the shooter of Timothy Heard.

The motive? Backseat participant Dexter Martin told the District Attorney that Frankie killed Heard because it was rumored that Heard snitched to the police about an earlier shooting near Camp Hill. The older brothers of both Frankie and Jonathan Askew had been suspected as the assailants. It was believed that Heard was killed to prevent him from testifying against the elder Askew and Bradford brothers.

As the killing of Tim Heard was a potential capital case, none of the defendants were bond-eligible and had to remain in jail pending trial. Three of the defendants, including the juvenile, were confined in the Chambers County Jail, in Lafayette. For his protection, Frankie was housed at the Randolph County Jail, away from his co-defendants. Once the three were sentenced and moved to separate state prisons, Frankie was transferred to Chambers County, to await trial. Jonathan Askew, described by every person I interviewed as the ringleader of their little gang, received the lightest sentence and would be parole eligible by 2013.[4] The other two defendants pled guilty to murder and received life sentences with the possibility of parole. In exchange, all three agreed to testify that Frankie Bradford had been the lone shooter of Timothy Heard.

Nearly two years after the killing Frankie Bradford was charged with capital murder. In March 2010, I was court appointed to his case as a mitigation specialist.

I found Frankie to be a young twenty-one year old. He was slight in build and he was shy. His hair needed to be cut. He had been locked up since June 1, 2008. He told me he didn’t have any soap, shampoo, or toothpaste. Family members tried to keep money in his account so he could buy hygiene supplies, but money was tight for them, and no one had been to see him recently. The jail in Wedowee was an hour drive from Camp Hill. Transportation for his family was tricky—having gas money, reliable cars, and time off from work during visitation hours made it all pretty much impossible. Social visits were sporadic. He hoped that when he was moved to the Chambers County jail, in Lafayette, people would be able to see him more frequently. Lafayette was a shorter twenty-minute drive from Camp Hill.

As I walked him through my mitigation questionnaire, it was evident that he had no clear understanding of who his family was, or the people he came from. He hadn’t seen his mother in years and did not know where she was living. Somewhere in Florida? he thought. His grandmother had recently died. He said his father had died, but he couldn’t recall spending time with his father as a child. And, as we spoke, he indicated that maybe the man he called his father wasn’t really his father. There was a story, but he wasn’t clear about the details. Frankie was able to give me his older brother’s phone number. He said they were close. Frankie had lived with his grandmother, two aunts and cousins until he was arrested. He gave me a phone number and an address for them.

I set out to learn Frankie’s story.

~~~

Frankie was the most child-like of any client I’d worked with. He smiled, he clearly wanted to please me, and he didn’t appear to be anxious to leave the jail, unlike many clients who either want to go on to prison to serve their sentences or walk out of jail a free man. As I investigated his story, I became convinced that he’d been coerced into killing, probably by his co-defendant Jonathan Askew, yet Askew received the lightest sentence of all four.

The Nuremburg trials struggled with the issue of culpability, much I as did with this case. Who is more culpable when a crime is committed? The person who gives the orders, or the person who executes them?

His attorneys liked him, as did his teachers and guidance counselor. I liked him. We all were sickened when we considered the possibility of Frankie receiving a death sentence. Those who knew him had a great deal of empathy for Frankie Bradford. I interviewed his juvenile probation officer who was not allowed to speak on the record to me, but who wrote a sentencing statement on Frankie’s behalf. He genuinely worried about a good outcome for Frankie. We planned to subpoena him as a mitigation witness during the sentencing phase of Frankie’s trial so he could tell the judge and jury why Frankie’s life should be spared.

Everyone who knew Frankie described him as “slow,” “gentle,” and “kind.” He was labeled a follower, not a leader. Mitch Joiner, a high school history teacher and basketball coach who had taught all the young defendants, and their siblings, said he didn’t believe Frankie was capable of an original thought, much less be able to plan, and execute a murder without external influence. “If you said to Frankie, let’s go get pizza, he’d say ‘Okay.’ If you said to Frankie, go stand outside in the rain and wait for it to stop, he’d say ‘Okay’ and go stand in the rain and wait for it to stop. If you said go shoot this guy, he’d probably say, ‘Okay.’ That’s Frankie. He wouldn’t talk back or ask questions, he would just do what you told him.”

During my interviews, Jonathan Askew consistently emerged as the leader of the five young men. It seemed it was easy to direct Frankie’s actions. All you had to do was tell him to do something. But intent is an important element of capital murder, and, by all accounts, Frankie lacked this ability. When the defense attorneys for Frankie’s co-defendants did not allow me to question them, Frankie’s lawyers and I concluded that Jonathan Askew ordered Frankie Bradford to shoot Timothy Heard to protect their older brothers from prosecution.

There was no doubt that Frankie was the trigger man. He admitted as much when he spoke with his grandmother, Dorothy Roberts, in a phone call from the Randolph County jail.

“Son, did you kill that boy?” she asked. “Tell me the truth.” He admitted that he had. He could not lie to his grandmother. Despite numerous warnings, neither realized the phone call had been recorded. Fortunately for the defense, Ms. Roberts died before she could testify to the confession and authenticate the recording.

I quickly learned, through the cousins and aunts, that Ms. Roberts, the woman who raised him, whom he called “grandma,” had no blood relationship to Frankie. The man he thought was his father was Ms. Robert’s son. Ms. Roberts and her disabled son told the courts he was Frankie’s father so that Mrs. Roberts would receive a monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check for Frankie. Both Mrs. Roberts and her son died before I was brought onto the case.

I was told that his mother, Shirley Bradford, had willingly surrendered custody of baby Frankie and his brother because of her alcohol and drug problems. Ms. Roberts agreed to take them in as foster children and she raised the boys with her daughters and grandchildren in a large double wide trailer in a residential area. My first order of business was to visit them and to begin to gather records.

Frankie had grown up in Camp Hill, Alabama, a town that is slowly disappearing, an isolated and rural backwater community. Camp Hill has grown smaller with the passing of each year: in 2010, the U.S. Census noted a population of 1,014, which was 159 fewer people than ten years earlier. Income had declined, too. In 2010 the median household income was $18,663, which was lower than the $20,655 median income reported in 2000. By 2010, nearly 40% of individuals and families lived below the poverty line in Camp Hill. With few reliable transportation options, and one fueling station, residents had a difficult time earning a living. Public bus transportation to other communities was nonexistent. In 2015 Edward Bell High School, the sole remaining public school in Camp Hill, was closed. All students are now bussed to Dadeville.

For impoverished rural families, this isn’t unusual—if you don’t have reliable transportation, how can you get to work? And if you can’t get to work, how can you maintain reliable transportation? Living and working in Alabama revealed a cruel truth hidden by the bucolic beauty of rolling hills of farmland and forest—public transportation infrastructure in the South is rarely robust enough to handle the needs of a community, even when it does exist. A car is required because jobs are rarely located within rural communities. When my family and I lived in the Montgomery area, we watched as the bus routes were slashed, providing fewer services to communities, typically the ones with the most need. What transport remained was more expensive, and less convenient, to the users. This was painfully ironic—Montgomery is known for the bus boycott that launched the Civil Rights movement yet it’s a fractured system now, at best.

When the economy of Camp Hill boasted cotton gins and a brickyard, the railroad went through town, but those businesses are long gone. As is the railroad. I found an operational gas station and convenience store in Camp Hill, but little else. I watched people buy groceries at this store with their food stamps—chips, lunchmeat, processed cheese slices, cereal, and milk, all costing much more than food at a real grocery store. An actual grocery was miles away.

There is a private school, the Lyman Ward Military Academy, in the town. It was originally founded in 1898 by Unitarian minister Dr. Lyman Ward to provide education and vocational training to rural and impoverished white Alabama boys. Since the early 1970’s it has been transformed into a military academy for grades 6-12. Tuition and uniform fees now cost over $21,000 per year. The school, once intended to provide education and training for those impoverished local white boys, is now a boarding school for elite white boys. Unsurprisingly, Lyman Ward is the primary employer in Camp Hill—it provides janitorial, maintenance, grounds keeping, and cafeteria jobs to the local residents. Frankie’s grandmother and one of his aunts worked at the school.

Frankie had gone to both the elementary and junior high schools in Dadeville, a larger town in Tallapoosa County, and briefly attended the Edward Bell high school in Camp Hill. I retrieved his school records and saw that he had struggled academically from an early age. He eventually quit school when he was told he needed to continue to attend Special Education classes in high school. His IQ was very low, and it was suspected that he was borderline for Intellectual Disabilities, which is currently the accepted term for those who were once labeled Mentally Retarded. I needed to find concrete evidence of this as it would be used as ammunition against the death penalty as a possible sentence. In 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court determined that executing a mentally retarded person was a cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore a violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I requested his Special Education records from the Tallapoosa County Board of Education, hoping to obtain a baseline IQ test. A score of sixty-five or below would give Frankie a good chance of getting out from under the death penalty.

Over the course of the next twenty-two months, I gathered every scrap of information I could find about Frankie. I spent several hours with a sympathetic guidance counselor who wept during our interviews because she had tried to help each and every one of the four defendants, hoping to keep them from dropping out of school in the years before the killing. She had not known the victim. He had lived in a different school district. She and Frankie’s “grandma” had begged him to stay in the Special Education classes so that he could graduate from high school, but his shame at being labeled special overwhelmed him. The counselor was heartbroken at what had happened to the five young men that day near Waverly. She was willing to testify for Frankie at his sentencing and she provided a concise and heartfelt affidavit on his behalf. He, like every child who passed through her school, was important to her.

I found his mother Shirley in an Orlando nursing home and visited her. She had been in chronically ill health for years—strokes left her wheelchair-bound. She allowed me to gather all of her medical records which consisted of hundreds of pages of exam notes and treatment accounts. The records portrayed a life of chronic alcoholism, drug addiction, and prostitution, beginning when she was thirteen years old. She admitted to drinking alcohol and smoking crack throughout her pregnancy with Frankie. While she professed to want to help her son, or communicate with him, she did not respond to his letters, even though I brought her paper, envelopes, pens, and postage stamps before I returned to Alabama. Some distances are beyond a bridge.

I found his biological father, too. He lived in the back room of Camp Hill’s sole convenience store. He lived rent-free in exchange for janitorial and general maintenance services. He also guarded the store at night. He was married. His wife, a white woman, had schizophrenia and was unable to work. She received a small monthly SSI check which helped buy them gas, cigarettes, and an occasional beer. They had no car. They were generous of spirit and wanted to help Frankie but there was little they could do, short of calling me, sometimes collect, to get case updates. They began writing to Frankie and sent him an occasional money order so he could buy a few incidentals.

~~~

As we neared the trial date, some good news—the attorneys were able to remove the death penalty as a potential sentence—his IQ was very low and we now had the documentation to support it. Plea deal discussions began. I continued to visit him and update him on who I had seen and with whom I had spoken. I would relay family news. On one such day, due to a late start on my part, I found myself at the Chambers County Jail right at lunchtime.

I thought I would have to wait around town while the inmates ate their lunches. I apologized to the guard and offered to wait until it was over. He disappeared. Within a few minutes, he unlocked the gated door and brought me into the attorney meeting room.

“I’m going to bring Frankie in here, with his lunch tray, if that’s okay with you?”

That was fine with me.

“Would you like a tray?” he asked.

“Of lunch?” I was surprised. He nodded. “Oh, no, I’m okay. But thank you.” I was genuinely touched by his politeness. He offered sweet tea, but I declined. Although I am a true southerner, I have never developed a taste for sweet tea. My mother, a transplanted Midwesterner, said Southerners put so much sugar in their tea that a spoon can stand upright in the glass.

As the officer went to find Frankie, I looked around the small room that was used as a library and meeting room for attorney visits. Basic handmade wooden shelves held a collection of used books for the inmates to read. I scanned the spines—the reading material was predominately Christian-based, with King James Bibles and annotated collections of children’s Bible stories or hymns. There were quite a few romance novels, their covers quite tattered and worn. I smiled at these. During one visit Frankie had asked me for books, “like the kind my grandma reads,” and my husband and I spent a morning at a used book store in Montgomery, buying a boxful for Frankie. We carefully selected books we thought he’d enjoy, ones our kids had read when they were in the fourth and fifth grades, like White Fang and Island of the Blue Dolphins. Silly us, I thought as I thumbed the spine of one of the books we had given him. Frankie had thanked me for the books, but he seemed disappointed. I later learned that Frankie didn’t want classics, he wanted romance novels because of the steamy sex scenes. He just didn’t know what those books were called.

Within minutes, Frankie shuffled into the meeting room, his hands cuffed and legs shackled. He smiled broadly at me. There were two plastic folding tables in the room. I chose a table. The guard placed the food tray on the table and again offered lunch to me. I shook my head, no, and thanked him. He left the room, locking the door behind him.

Frankie sat down in front of his tray. He waited, as if unsure about eating in front of me. “Please, go ahead,” I said. As Frankie began, I looked over the dirt-encrusted lunch tray. He had been given two sandwiches. They were made from white bread that was so stale the crusts had separated and were dangling off the sides. I couldn’t tell if there was anything between the slices of bread.

“Frankie, is there something on the bread? What kind of sandwich is that?”

He pulled the bread slices apart and we examined the sandwich. There was a translucent layer of smooth peanut butter spread across the bread, the layer as thin as a piece of paper. I marveled at the skill it must have taken to spread such a paltry amount of peanut butter on the stale bread. A little pile of applesauce plopped directly onto the filthy tray complimented the sandwiches. A well-used plastic spoon had been provided to eat the applesauce. A grimy plastic cup, with a faded University of Alabama Crimson Tide logo, was partially filled with tepid water. The cup offered a small irony—we were in the midst of rival Auburn country.

“Frankie, is this what you usually get to eat here?”

“Yes ma’am,” he smiled, “but sometimes we get jelly, too.”

The tray was typical of the ones used in school cafeterias. Thick, heavy plastic with molded indentations to hold plates and cups of food. This tray was old and grubby from years of improper and haphazard washing. I wanted to pick it all up with as few fingers as possible and drop it in the trash. I wanted to go into the kitchen and find out why Frankie was being fed food that should have been thrown away. Inside, I raged. Frankie didn’t understand why I was upset. This was his normal. This was most likely the way he’d eaten for much of his life. He was grateful for the meal.

People who have no compassion or empathy tell me that he was lucky to be alive and fed at all. I say to them, “When a person is in jail it’s usually because he’s awaiting trial. We’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. These people—who are at the mercy of the sheriffs who apparently feed them for much less than two dollars a day—have every expectation and right to be treated at least as well as we treat our own pets.”

~~~

In March 2012 Frankie was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. I had moved out of state a month earlier and was unable to attend the hearing and say my goodbyes. He will be eligible for parole in May 2023.

I wish Frankie well. I hope his food is better at the prison.

~~~

[1] Domonoske, Camila. NPR.org, “Alabama Sheriff Legally Took $750,000 Meant To Feed Inmates, Bought Beach House.” Mar. 14, 2018. Accessed Apr. 7, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/14/593204274/alabama-sheriff-legally-took-750-000-meant-to-feed-inmates-bought-beach-house. In the perfect definition of “double-edged sword,” this same sheriff was also required to borrow $150,000 to keep his inmates fed, after the previous sheriff died in office and, per state law, the remaining funds earmarked to feed Etowah County inmates went to the late sheriff’s estate. It took years to pay off the unexpected debt.

[2] Blinder, Alan. Nytimes.com, “Alabama Moves to Limit Sheriffs From Pocketing Jail Food Money.” Jul. 11, 2018. Accessed Feb. 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/us/alabama-jail-food-money.html.

[3] Connell, Lindsay. WTVM News. “Suspects Identified in Murder of Camp Hill Man.” Jun. 3, 2008. Accessed Apr. 7, 2018. http://www.wtvm.com/story/8420030/suspects-identified-in-murder-of-camp-hill-man?clienttype=printable.

[4] Askew told prosecutors Frankie Bradford had been the ringleader of this group, and that Bradford had intended to kill Timothy Heard. In exchange for his testimony against Bradford, Askew received a twenty-year sentence for his participation in the murder. It was structured so that he would serve five years, with five years’ probation to follow. He was sentenced on March 25, 2010 and paroled on May 1, 2013. His probation was revoked later that year when he tested positive for cocaine.


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©2017 BY SUSAN LEHMANN INVESTIGATIONS (SLI)