Friday, March 1, 2024

Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom, by McCracken Poston

Citadel, 2024
320 pp

arc -- my many thanks to the publisher along with my apologies for getting to this so late.  

I'm not a big true crime reader,  but I had seen this story portrayed on American Justice on A&E some time ago so I was very interested when contacted about reading this book since there's always more to the story than a one-hour television show can offer.  I was right in this case.   A new release from Citadel Press, Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom is a compelling read that shines a spotlight on a sadly all too-common occurrence:  an overzealous police detective and a district attorney who, without any real evidence, charged an innocent, eccentric man with the murder of his wife and put him on trial.   Let me just say that while I've tagged this book as "true crime," there is actually no crime here  unless you want to count that particular rush to judgment; Zenith Man is very much a cautionary tale at its heart.  

The "Zenith Man" of Ringgold, Georgia, is Alvin Ridley, once a TV repair man and owner of the local Zenith franchise.  The author's father once described him as "a good man," who is "odd now, very odd, but I don't think he would ever hurt a fly."   He made people in the town uneasy with his strange behavior, but by and large lived the life of a recluse.  So, in October of 1997,  the people in Ringgold were hit with a double whammy when they learned that social outcast Ridley not only had a wife, but that she had also died in their home.    It seems that Virginia Ridley had not been seen outside her home for decades, and in the late 1960s her estrangement from her family had forced her to have to go to court to assure her parents (who believed that she had been held against her will by her husband) that she was just fine where she was.  

On October 4, 1997, Alvin Ridley slowly made his way to the pay phone behind the Catoosa County Courthouse Annex, where he made at least two calls, one of them to 911.  With very little emotion, he informed the operator that he thought his wife has "passed out," and in answer to the operator's question, noted that his wife was not breathing. He also let the operator know that his wife was an "epi-letic," a part of the conversation (along with his request to "please hurry")  that was never "shared with the public or played on the news stations."   While the conversation was "detached" and "matter-of-factly" in tone, Ridley asked the 911 operator to "Please hurry."    After the death was discovered, the body was examined by the local coroner, who had found signs of petechiae, which could indicate that Virginia had been strangled or smothered; not once was Virginia's medical condition considered.  The coroner moved the body to the state pathologist at the GBI where an autopsy would be performed,  and in the process also passed along the rumors that Virginia had been a captive in the home for over thirty years.  When the pathologist started examining the body, he saw the petechiae, and came to the judgment that Virginia had "died at the hands of another person," either from "soft strangulation or a smothering, as in with the aid of a pillow or something like that."  The local coroner had also revealed to the lead detective on the case that she'd known Alvin for twenty years, and at no time had she "known him to be married or living with another female."  By June 1998, authorities had come to arrest Alvin Ridley for murdering his wife, and the town rumor mill geared up once more, helped by Virginia Ridley's sister rehashing the past and prompting headlines such as the one in National Examiner, which ran a story with the all-caps headlines "SICKO HOLDS HIS WIFE HOSTAGE FOR 30 YEARS THEN KILLS HER ... COPS CHARGE."   Attorney McCracken Poston Jr., representing Ridley,  did manage bail for Alvin, but the hard work of defending his rather difficult client was just beginning.  

Zenith Man takes the reader through that uphill battle, but the book as a whole is much more than just another true crime account.   Poston's patience, his efforts to understand how Ridley thought and his ability to treat him as a human being rather than simply a client is illuminated in this story, his empathy contrasted with the rush to judgment by others who simply jumped to their own conclusions about him because he was an eccentric loner and social outcast.  As it turns out, Ridley would later be diagnosed with (as noted on the jacket blurb so not a spoiler) autism spectrum disorder, which helps to explain his behavior.  Honestly, had Alvin not had Mr. Poston as his attorney, I believe he might just be sitting in prison to this day.  As Mr. Poston says on his own goodreads review, there are "millions of other adults out there still not yet diagnosed, interacting with the criminal justice system," which, when you think about it, is more than a bit depressing -- how many more innocent people like Alvin just might end up (or are currently) imprisoned for the wrong reasons?  The book also highlights how Ridley and Poston's relationship helped Poston in his own life, making it a very human story all around.  

Highly recommended.