Firefighters pulled four charred bodies out of the wood clapboard flophouse on Troup Street in Valdosta, Ga., after a white-hot blaze in October 2005 left it a smoldering heap and melted windows up and down the block.
Within hours, Cynthia Allen was arrested for setting the fire and thrown in jail.
Georgia prosecutors soon will present a jury with a very simple argument: She did it. She must die.
It would be an easy case if it weren't for Boyd Young and his colleagues. They intend to make the jury's choice — life or death — much more difficult.
As Allen's lawyers, they've spent months combing through the wreckage of her life, trying to follow clues that might demystify her behavior.
What explains the vacant look in Allen's eyes, and her tendency to answer the simplest questions with rambling incoherence? Is there more to the stories in Valdosta that cast Allen as an aggrieved tenant of the flophouse and a constant target of violent physical and mental abuse?
These hints point toward a dreadful existence for Allen, stretching as far back as her childhood in a dangerous New Orleans housing project.
Chasing down those clues is taking Young and his colleagues on an arduous and emotional journey through a world layered thick with poverty, dysfunction and tragedy.
They've essentially become Allen's biographers, documenting every important facet of her life and preparing to explain it — and why it matters — to a jury.
This is how they'll defend her.
It's the only choice they have.
"Cynthia is just not somebody who belongs on death row, not even close," Young said. "That's what we've got to prove."
This is the new face of capital defense in Georgia.
Allen's lawyers work for the Office of the Georgia Capital Defenders, a state-funded, centralized operation of well-trained lawyers and investigators who were assembled in 2005 to handle nothing but the state's death penalty cases.
In each case, the office assigns at least two attorneys and a full-time investigator. One attorney is on staff in the office; the other is typically a private practice lawyer from the town where the case is being tried.
They spend what's necessary. They do what's necessary. They work every case as if it were their only one, no matter what.
The idea is to fulfill — at long last — the Supreme Court's edict that everyone who's accused of a capital crime receives an adequate defense, in accordance with the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
For years in Georgia, that directive fell flat in a system that forced judges to corral whoever was available to defend the accused in death penalty cases, and paid lawyers in these cases whatever local counties could afford.
McClatchy Newspapers' review of 80 death penalty cases from 1997 through 2004 in Georgia and three other states reveals how inglorious that system could be.
In 17 of the 20 Georgia cases, attorneys lacked the know-how or money — or both — to present robust cases in defense of their clients, particularly at the crucial points when juries were weighing death sentences.
In the other states — Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi — lawyers in 56 of the 60 cases examined failed in the same manner, for similar reasons.
Many of the lawyers in those cases called only a few witnesses, or none at all. They missed myriad stories of abuse, neglect and mental deficiency in their clients' backgrounds. They had no narratives prepared to coax jurors to see their clients as human beings, with lives that encompassed much more than the crimes they committed.
A simple conversation with any of the capital defenders about their jobs reveals the difference between their way and what came before.
Chris Adams, who heads the office, said their work was about expanding the jury's perspective.
"I like to say that the prosecution asks the jury to look at the crime through a knothole," he said. "Our job is to take down the fence, to look at the whole life. Every person is more than their worst act. It's never just about the crime."
Adams' lawyers are doing the work that the U.S. Supreme Court has said defenders must do in capital cases, and they're following the guidelines that the American Bar Association long has embraced.
They're a solution to the problems that the McClatchy review found.
With a simple number, they're also providing an answer to those who might doubt whether that work matters, whether jurors might consider a defendant's background in the face of a brutal crime.
Their record: 23-0.
Not one of their clients has been sentenced to death since the office started fielding capital cases in 2005, even though the vast majority have been found guilty of heinous murders.
"In our line of work, it's inevitable that one of our clients, someday, will get a death sentence," Adams said. "It's bound to happen. Some jury, somewhere, just won't see things our way. However, it won't be from lack of effort on our part. We're not leaving anything undone."
Adams' office is funded by court fines and fees, and last year its budget was hit hard by a decline in state collections. The office is paying less now to the private-practice attorneys it assigns to cases, and may have to stop using them altogether if the financial outlook doesn't improve.
Even with its troubles, the office is committed to providing each client with what he or she needs.
It couldn't be more important than in Allen's case.
'WE'RE NOT HERE TO GET ANYONE INTO TROUBLE'
"F--- you, bitch. F--- you and your baby!"
A tall young black woman stood on the front steps of her townhouse in the Fisher Housing Projects, on the West Bank of New Orleans. She was shouting down the street after another young woman who was walking away slowly but decisively, with her small child in tow.
Boyd Young and Jay Romond, two of Allen's attorneys, stood near the woman on the steps, waiting patiently, though tentatively now, for her to turn her attention to them.
Laura Wood, the investigator who's working Allen's case, was already in the woman's home, waiting by the phone.
The woman had told Young and the others that she knew where two of Allen's adult children were, and could reach them. She was the latest lead they had, and the best.
But before she could help them, she had business to settle with her target, the other woman, who was now walking faster down the street with her child.
"Yeah, I said it! I said it standing right here!" the woman on the steps continued. "I'm not up in here spreading my legs, popping out children. I ain't got no kids! So keep your baby out of my house."
Romond suggested that maybe they should come back later.
"No, no, honey," the woman interrupted, now completely calm and even welcoming. "I know where they are. Let me just go call them."
So Young, Romond and Wood unearthed yet another clue in the months-long quest to piece together Allen's past.
They had come to this point, three white lawyers trying to stay clear of an argument in one of New Orleans' worst housing projects, by digging deeper, going father and pushing harder than many attorneys might to defend a client charged with capital murder.
That they were here in these projects, knocking on doors and asking lots of questions, was in itself remarkable. Even in the post-Katrina haze, with probably less than half its usual population, this was a dangerous place. A drug war raged. Police had found four bodies in a stairwell not three weeks before Young and the others showed up.
When they arrived, walking in the bright fall sunshine through the projects' main courtyard, an elderly woman who lived there told people not to talk to them. They might be police, she said. Maybe they're selling something. Or they might be social workers, there to take away somebody's children.
None of this deterred Young and the others. Romond, with a buzz cut and piercing green eyes, dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and motorcycle boots, strolled right up to apartment doors, knocked and asked loudly whether the person inside knew Allen.
When puzzled responses echoed back through the door, he offered, awkwardly: "I'm a lawyer, working on a case involving Cynthia. We're not here to get anyone into trouble."
He followed up with a reminder of how serious his mission is:
"It's a death penalty case."
They'd been in New Orleans for two days, trying to collect records that the hurricane probably had destroyed and trolling through the housing project where Allen grew up.
Before that, they'd knocked on doors in the impoverished Valdosta neighborhood where Allen lived and where she started the fire. They'd spent hours in the Lowndes County Jail, getting to know Allen and trying to get her to talk in detail about her past.
It wasn't always rewarding.
There were dead ends everywhere and people who didn't want to cooperate, even when they knew how serious and important Allen's case was.
In New Orleans, the three lawyers arrived on the day that the city's football team, the Saints, was hosting its first home game since the hurricane. Nearly everyone they met was distracted by the euphoria, even many hours before kickoff.
At the city's central school office, where they hoped to unearth Allen's school records, a woman dressed in the Saints' black and gold colors told Wood that she should come back the next day.
"I'm leaving, because the big game's tonight," the woman said.
It turned out to be a dodge. When they returned, they learned that all the school records had been destroyed after the hurricane. Soaked with water, then caked in mold and mildew, everything was simply trashed.
That would make working Allen's case even more difficult.
The hurricane also had scattered Allen's family members to the winds, so finding them would require creativity.
Weeks later, Young and the others indulged a marathon journey, driving two of Allen's children from New Orleans to Valdosta to see their mother in jail. The visit with the mother they hadn't seen in years was an incentive for Allen's children, whose lives are chaotic and unfocused; for Young, Wood and Romond, it was a clever way to spend hours listening to stories about their client's life and her family.
The three aren't exactly what you imagine when you think of death penalty lawyers.
Romond, 27, began college as a prospective minister in a conservative Baptist church. He came to doubt those beliefs, though, and by law school was enrolled at predominantly black Howard University in Washington and learning about criminal defense work.
Wood, who's 28 and from suburban Charlotte, N.C., is just barely out of the University of Georgia Law School, and has worked before only as a fellow in a federal public defenders office. Despite her diminutive frame and youth, she's unfazed wandering through poor neighborhoods to work a case.
She also represents the primary difference between how cases are handled in Georgia now and how they used to be. She works exclusively on the part of Allen's case that's designed to tell her story, to gather all the information about her life and her family and mold it into a cogent presentation.
She's schooled in this kind of work; without her, what the other lawyers do wouldn't be as effective.
In Valdosta, they've also enlisted the help of Sam Dennis, a private defense lawyer whose familiarity with local courts, judges and the prosecutor will come in handy. Dennis is something of an icon in Valdosta, the lawyer whom everyone turns to in a pinch.
His real first name is Saleem, and he's of Lebanese descent, but his family has been in Valdosta for two generations. His voice is bathed in a deep-South accent, he hunts with ammunition that he mixes himself and he keeps a pistol in his office desk. "You never know who's going to come through that door," he explained.
Young is the most unusual. Thirty-two, with a mop of brown curly hair and a puffy face, typically dressed in a polo shirt and flip-flops, he looks as if he's still in a college fraternity. His cell phone, which has a habit of ringing at times when he needs to be serious, plays the rap song "Ridin' Dirty," by Chamillionaire.
It's all misdirection. He spent six years as a public defender in Charleston, S.C., and has handled cases of all kinds, compiling an astonishing record.
He feels deeply for his clients, all of them, and was so distraught during his first capital trial that he cried during parts of it. At one point, the defendant, who was being sentenced to life in prison, turned to Young's co-counsel and said, "Boyd's not taking this too well, is he?"
Young had to learn to control those feelings, though, to better represent his clients and to keep his own sanity.
That challenge befalls all of Allen's lawyers. How do they trudge through the wreckage of people's lives all day, and check their emotions sufficiently to do their jobs?
In New Orleans, a city that revels duly in both life and death, they work Allen's case by day and cut loose on Bourbon Street each night. In Valdosta, they visit Allen at the jail during the day and strategize over scotch at Dennis' lakefront home at night.
They decompress by living hard, which isn't terribly different from the way that police officers or other people with tough jobs blow off steam. They get closer to one another to keep their distance from the awful circumstances of their clients' lives. They joke about the dysfunction they sift through all day, to make it seem less real and to mask the awful consequences they confront in their cases.
But the truth is never far from their minds.
"I'll do anything to make sure Cynthia isn't executed. Anything," Young said.
"Don't ever doubt that."
FITTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Their work on the case began at the Lowndes County jail, a collection of squat, tan buildings on the outskirts of Valdosta where Allen awaits trial.
Her lawyers must be cleared through two heavy metal doors and into a small, dank room where they meet their client. There's barely room for more than two people.
Allen wears a jumpsuit with horizontal black and white stripes. She's a short woman with cornrows and a glinting gold tooth. Her eyes, big and brown, convey a natural warmth along with a disturbing emptiness.
She's always glad to see her lawyers; they're her only visitors.
They spend hours with Allen in the jail, listening to her talk about anything and everything.
The process is a little like dating. They couldn't break out intimate questions about her on the first visit. They can't batter her with questions about the crime.
They listen, for hours, to build trust and rapport with Allen. Over time, she'll reveal what they need. But it won't come without methodical, unrelenting effort.
Wood spends the most time listening to Allen and trying to keep track of what she says on each visit.
Wood couldn't be more out of place in the jail, with her diminutive frame, short brown hair and youthful looks. But Allen took to her quickly, and their chats have taken on the aura of two girlfriends chatting.
It didn't take long for Wood or Young to notice that something's profoundly wrong with Allen. She's slow to answer even the most basic questions, and even when she does it's often with what appears to be nonsense.
There's a blank look on her face, almost always accompanied by a sheepish smile. She has trouble remembering the basics about her life, even the details of how she started the fire that landed her here. There's a string of inconsistencies that they must sort out.
One thing is clear, though: Her life has been a constant tragedy.
Allen says she grew up in New Orleans in a family of 22 children who all lived in a three-bedroom apartment in a housing project. At first, her lawyers doubted that this was really the case, and thought that maybe Allen was remembering incorrectly. But it turned out to be true, confirmed by family members whom they found in New Orleans.
Allen also told them she had eight children. On another day, she said there were seven; that turned out to be the correct number. Allen's lawyers didn't confirm it, though, until they met some of them. Allen became a mother at age 12, when she was in seventh grade. That's also when she dropped out of school.
Allen told them that she'd come to Valdosta with a boyfriend who told her he had family there. Allen said she left him later, after she got tired of the beatings he gave her.
She took up with another man, the one who was living in the flophouse. He beat her, too, she said, but she could never manage to get away — and stay away — from him.
This is a recurring theme they hear from Allen: She survived by latching on to men who gave her food, shelter and drugs. But the price of their company often was regular beatings.
They learned that Allen has never worked a day in her life, has never earned an income.
Wood, who's given to blunt assessments of every situation, said it was a good thing that Allen was a woman; her body was the one thing of value she could use to survive.
"If she were a man, nobody'd be interested in her," Wood said.
The day of the fire, Allen and another tenant in the flophouse fought violently enough for the police to come. The officers told Allen that she'd be better off not returning to the house, and to stay away.
She didn't listen, and was back there later that night, trying to get in. When she couldn't, she set fire to a blanket that was covering a set of weights on the front porch.
Allen thought that trying to burn up the metal weights was a good way to get back at the people in the house.
"They'd rather you do something to them than hurt those weights," she said.
But the fire spread to the wooden house, which was in poor condition. It burned like a torch, so hot that it melted windows and blinds in houses up and down the block. Four people didn't get out.
Wood listens to Allen intently, and takes copious notes. She and the others must follow up on every name, every detail and every event that Allen mentions. They've canvassed the neighborhood around the house, hearing from neighbors about how frequently residents of the flophouse mistreated Allen, slapping her hard and dragging her by her clothes in and out of the house.
One neighbor said Allen was just a "thing" to the people in the house.
After a few weeks, the case the attorneys needed to build on Allen's behalf started becoming clearer.
They learned that Allen had sought disability status with Social Security after badly hurting her finger. A screener at Social Security had noticed the blank stare and slowness that Wood and Young have become familiar with, and referred Allen for a battery of mental tests.
Allen's IQ was 59, according to the tests, well below the minimum of 70 that Georgia requires for defendants to be eligible for the death penalty. She has severe depression and mental illness that causes her to hear voices and hallucinate.
It was a huge break for Allen's case, but it was just the beginning of the work that Young and the others must do. Even if Allen is profoundly retarded, as her IQ suggests, Georgia law will require her lawyers to prove that her deficits were just as profound when she was a child, and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she has always been slow.
Even though she's been horribly abused by nearly every man in her life — from her father to her brothers to each of her father's children and her boyfriends — they must document how bad it was and connect it with the circumstances that led her to start the fire.
Valdosta turned up more clues and a lot of dead ends, but it was in New Orleans, in and around the Fisher housing projects, that Allen's lawyers finally uncovered the whole story.
There, in the hurricane-damaged and mostly depopulated project, they found neighbors who remembered Allen's family. They confirmed that she had 22 siblings and was always slow, and, as they put it, "crazy."
One neighbor said that all of Allen's siblings were "slow, crazy or dead."
Most important, they confirmed where Allen's children were: right around Fisher, struggling to raise their own kids.
One lived with a boyfriend in the tenements, they said; the other had been staying across the street, in new townhouses that were being built to replace the high-density projects.
This was what took Young and the others to the steps of the tall woman who was cursing down the street after her neighbor.
Instinct would have suggested leaving, steering clear of the whole situation. But Allen's lawyers needed her children. They needed the stories they knew, the details they remembered about their mother's life.
It was a crossroads; a point at which it would have been easy to turn back and say they did their best but came up short.
They went on. They found Allen's family, and began to fill in the rest of the blanks about her background.
Their work won't end for months, until they have the story they need to defend Allen's life. This is how they will defend her.
It's the only choice they have.