Don Paradis spent 21 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He watched workers bring in wood to build the gallows where he was supposed to hang.
And now he’s a free man.
After Paradis spent 14 years on death row, the pro bono work of corporate lawyer Edwin Matthews Jr. LAW ’62 helped reverse his conviction.
Paradis and Matthews made an unusual pair at Yale Law School yesterday, where they spoke to about 50 people. Matthews is soft-spoken and older than his client; Paradis wears his hair in a ponytail and has an earring and tattoo.
Matthews gave a step-by-step explanation of his work on the case before Paradis told about writing to Playboy for help, pouring a pitcher of water on the prosecutor’s lap, and slugging through law books on his own to try to find a way to prove his innocence. Both men agreed that the American court system failed Paradis.
Paradis said he arrived home in Spokane, Wash., late one night in 1980 to find people leaving in a hurry and a friend in the driveway warning him that there were two dead bodies in his house.
A member of the Gypsy Jokers Motorcycle Club, Paradis said he didn’t think the police would believe him if he called to report finding the bodies. So he and two friends transported the bodies across state lines and left them in Idaho.
Paradis was then arrested because he was seen near where the bodies were found.
He was convicted of murder in 1981 and sentenced to death in 1982. Although he was assigned various local lawyers, their direct appeals of his death sentence to the Idaho Supreme Court were unsuccessful.
Through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund, Matthews and the Coudert Brothers firm became involved just before the state Supreme Court ruled.
“The next thing I know, I’ve got Mr. Corporate Lawyer from New York,” Paradis said.
Matthews worked on the case despite his practice’s focus on mergers and acquisitions, and securities and finance work. He said he and his firm took the Paradis case pro bono because he was concerned about the number of death row inmates without lawyers.
The losses in court continued even after Matthews brought to light forensic evidence supporting Paradis’ innocence.
“I had been 13 years on the case, and we were losing,” Matthews said. “I thought I’d gotten myself into some awful nightmare.”
So next he worked to get national attention, saying he was frustrated with local media that sided with the Idaho courts. The New Yorker did a story on the case, and ABC ran a segment about it.
After the media attention and various hearings, Paradis won in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
“People like Don Paradis have paid with their lives,” Matthews said. “He has paid with 21 years of his life.”
Paradis talked about the difficulties of life in and after prison.
“It’s torturous to be in that situation, knowing you’re innocent and trying to get people to care, especially when you’re at the end of your case and facts don’t matter,” Paradis said.
Now that he’s out of prison, Paradis said he is still having trouble.
Changes that shocked Paradis included the development of automatic toilet flushing, laptop computers and lattes.
“I have no skills, and everything has changed,” Paradis said. “Dealing with freedom all at once is hard, confusing and overwhelming.”
But Paradis said he believes it is his duty to tell his story. Yesterday, he encouraged Yale law students to look to his example of survival for inspiration as they head toward their future careers.
“This is a situation where a [mergers and acquisitions] attorney got involved,” Katherine Newberger LAW ’03 said. “Realizing that most students here will practice non-criminal law, it’s important to raise awareness about taking a criminal case pro bono.”