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Law and Money: My Truman Capote moment

|Written By Philip Slayton
Law and Money: My Truman Capote moment

Almost 50 years ago, Truman Capote visited convicted murderer Perry Smith in the Kansas State Penitentiary. You can read all about it in Capote’s book In Cold Blood, which was recently made into a critically acclaimed film.

Almost 50 years ago, Truman Capote visited convicted murderer Perry Smith in the Kansas State Penitentiary. You can read all about it in Capote’s book In Cold Blood, which was recently made into a critically acclaimed film.

Capote began his famous book: “The village of Holcomb [where the murders took place] stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’
Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is more Far West than Middle West.”

In January, I visited erstwhile Canadian lawyer Marvin Singleton in the Leavenworth Detention Center, a Kansas maximum-security prison near the prison (in the town of Lansing) where Perry Smith was hanged in 1965. Singleton is fighting extradition to Canada, where he is wanted on theft and fraud charges arising from a law practice he had in Nelson, British Columbia. He has been in Kansas prisons for well over a year, doing “hard time” (small cells, thin mattresses, bland food and many rules). Before being moved to Leavenworth, he was incarcerated in the Sedgwick County jail — a prison he shared for awhile with Dennis Rader, the Kansas serial killer known as BTK (“Bind, Torture and Kill”). Singleton is one of the people I write about in Lawyers Gone Bad, forthcoming from Penguin Canada.

The Detention Center is a low-slung, grey building on the outskirts of Leavenworth, in farm country off State Highway 73. It is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which, says its Web site, is the “founder of the private corrections industry and√¢‚ÃÆ’‡Â¨Â¬Â¶ the nation’s largest provider of jail, detention and corrections services to governmental agencies.” CCA trades on the New York Stock Exchange; there may be inmates in CCA facilities who, impressed by how well they are run, have bought shares.

To get into the prison, I must first push a button next to a wire-mesh door set in a razor wire wall. Unseen guards inspect me on closed circuit TV. Then, the door rolls open, letting me into a holding pen with a second razor wire wall and another mesh door. To prevent sudden dashes for freedom, the invisible guards only open the second door, by remote control, after the first one has been shut. Somewhere inside, beyond the walls of razor wire, is Marvin Singleton, once a member of the Law Society of British Columbia.

Once past the razor wire, I register as a visitor. Singleton has put me on his visitors’ list and I was approved earlier by prison authorities after supplying personal information by mail, including identifying my “race.” I cannot take “contraband” into the prison — that includes guns, tools, lighters, explosives, photographs, and cell phones. “Personal property,” including books, is also forbidden. A visitor cannot wear orange clothing — otherwise he might be confused with an inmate.

Registered as a visitor, I wait to be called. An hour or more goes by. Since books are contraband, I have nothing to read. I look around. The small room is full. I am the only white person. The other visitors are mostly young black women with small children, waiting (I presume) to see partners and fathers. There are a few Latinos. An elderly white man shows up and is quickly ushered inside: I overhear his conversation with a guard and learn that he comes to the prison regularly to teach “creation science.” Finally, a guard calls out: “visitor for Singleton!”

I go through a metal detector into the visiting room. It is lined on three sides with thick windows, with a telephone and a chair in front of each window. Behind each window is an inmate, also with a telephone. In front of the window are the inmate’s visitors. On the fourth side of the room is a guard who watches everyone. The room is full of the noise of shouted one-sided conversations and crying children. Behind one window is an old white man. It is Marvin Singleton, wearing orange clothing, waiting for me. In about a month, he will be celebrating his 73rd birthday.

We talk for an hour over the telephone, straining to hear each other against the intense background hubbub. Singleton tells me his story. Born in Kansas, he has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale and a doctorate in English from Duke University (his thesis, on H.L. Mencken, was published by Duke University Press). He has a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Singleton describes himself as a “law/humanities person” and says his interdisciplinary ability is “unmatched.” He moved to Nelson in 1971 and taught English at its Notre Dame University. When it closed in 1977, wanting to stay in Nelson, he turned to the practice of law. In 1990, for reasons that are unclear, Singleton resigned from the B.C. Bar. In 1993, he left for the United States.

For a time, after he left Canada, Singleton lived in a blue 1978 Ford van, parked first on the banks of the Red River in Nocona, Texas, and then on the streets of Wichita, Kansas. While he lived in the van, he wrote two novels, as yet unpublished. Meanwhile, in Nelson, allegations were made that funds were missing from estates he had been administering. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but desultory attempts to find him were unsuccessful. Singleton became a “fugitive from justice” in the eyes of Canadian authorities. Eventually, he got a job teaching English at a Wichita community college. In 2004, the RCMP received a tip he was in Wichita. Canada sought his extradition. On the evening of Monday, August 30, 2004, Singleton was watching television in his basement apartment. Logan Kline, a Deputy US Marshal, showed up and arrested him. “He was pretty surprised,” Deputy Kline told me, “but he was a real gentleman.”

Since his arrest, Singleton has fought ferociously against extradition, despite having to do hard time in American jails while he did so (he was not given bail). The reasons for his fight are mysterious. One explanation he gives is that the Canadian extradition request has been improperly formulated, and there has been prosecutorial and judicial misconduct in his case — he is angry about that. Some say the main reason for his struggle is he doesn’t want to be dragged back in chains. If extradition is denied, they say he will return freely to fight the charges against him. Sometimes, Singleton gives another reason: he has powerful enemies in Canada and is unlikely to get a fair trial there.

I ask what it’s like for an old, white, one-time lawyer to be in a place like Leavenworth. “If you have certain social skills, you can get along,” he says. What about violence? “I’ve had to threaten to mix it up a couple of times,” he says, “just to make a point.” He seems good-humoured about prison and cheerful. Guards are like hotel clerks, he says. Once a month, CCA chooses a prison employee as “employee of the month” and his or her picture is posted, with appropriate congratulations, in the prison entrance.

Does Singleton like living in Leavenworth? Does he relish his predicament, which marks him as a rebel who fights the establishment on points of principle, an identity he has carefully cultivated for many years? But Singleton says he finds being in prison “irksome.” He resents looking out of the window and seeing razor wire.
I ask him if, perhaps, he’s made a serious miscalculation. He’s been fighting extradition for almost 18 months. He may well lose and be taken to Canada in chains, having spent a long time in harsh American prisons for nothing. He admits that could happen. Meanwhile, he polishes his legal arguments, and writes poetry — “prison poems” he calls them. “I place quite a bit of stock in my prison poems,” he says.
Visiting time is over. The guard tells us to leave. I say goodbye to Marvin Singleton. As I go, I see his slightly smiling face behind the thick glass. He waves. I wave back.

Philip Slayton is now visiting professor of law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His book, Lawyers Gone Bad: Money, Sex and Madness in Canada’s Legal Profession, is forthcoming from Penguin Canada.