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John Grisham, meet Dan Stidham 

Fiction pales against a Paragould lawyer's real life trial in a triple child slaying.

Today, three years later, you walk into the Stidham law office in Paragould and so much has changed. For one thing, on this day in midweek the place is quiet. The phone rings regularly, but not incessantly the way it did back then. The reception area has been refurbished, and the lawbook-lined conference room straight ahead is neat and unoccupied--no half-eaten sandwiches, no takeout cartons, no crumpled paper and chewed pencils. The only obvious sign to events past is the large stack of storage boxes marked "J.M." on the conference room floor just inside the door.

There are, however, some less-than-obvious signs. One is that the name on the outside of the building is simply Stidham Law Firm instead of the former Stidham & Crow. Beyond that, the signs grow even less obvious. To notice those, you'd have to spend some time with the attorney-in-residence here, Daniel T. Stidham. He's a big man, a former high school football player, and he's much younger than you might've expected.

But he's no longer as young as he looks.

On this day in spring 1996, he's just recovering from arguing his notorious client's case before the Arkansas Supreme Court, which ruled against him. Now Stidham has sent off for his credentials to argue before the United States Supreme Court. It's the final chance, the court of last resort. And thus it'll mark the end not simply of a case but a journey, one Stidham began in June 1993 when he and his law partner were appointed to defend a borderline-retarded youth who'd confessed to taking part in one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in the state. It's a journey that began on one relatively well-traveled road--the road of the public-defender obligated to do his best for a client he assumes is guilty--but then the road suddenly veered into dangerous territory. The danger started when Stidham and his partner decided their client was innocent.

As the anniversary of these events neared, I traveled to Paragould to meet Dan Stidham.

The events that would change Stidham's life first presented themselves as white noise, background sounds on a TV set, and then as a phone call out of the blue. The first date was May 6, 1993, a Thursday, and Stidham was visiting his father in Sherwood. They had just come in from fishing when they happened to catch the bulletin on CNN: The bodies of three 8-year-old boys had been found in a drainage ditch in a wooded area off I-40 in West Memphis, and there were rumors of "sexual mutilation."

"Jesus," said Stidham. The image of his own 8-year-old son, Daniel, came to mind.

"It's gotta be gang related," Stidham's father said.

"Thank God we live in Paragould," said Stidham, and the two men went back to putting up their fishing gear. A little over a month later, early in the morning of Monday, June 7, the phone rang at Stidham's house in Paragould. Dan was in the shower. He thought he heard the ring, but he wasn't sure. Still, he suddenly had a sick feeling in his stomach. Nobody called that early with good news. In a minute his wife, Kim, came into the bathroom. It was Circuit Judge David Goodson. Dan went white: He'd taken Friday off to go fishing. Did I forget a court date? he thought.

But it wasn't that. Judge Goodson was presiding that day in Crittenden County, which includes West Memphis. "Dan," the judge said, "I've got to appoint somebody to this murder case over here, and I was thinking of you." He explained that the public defender's office had declared a conflict of interest, so it was necessary to get a couple of lawyers from outside the county to represent each of the defendants. "I'd like you and Greg"--that was Stidham's law partner-- "to represent Jessie Misskelley."

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