The Last Juror - Page 10

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The gun was too big for my pocket. For a few hours I tried walking around with it, but I was terrified the thing would discharge down there very near my privates. So I decided to carry it in a ragged leather briefcase my father had given me. For three days the briefcase went everywhere, even to lunch, then I grew weary of that too. After a week I left the pistol under the seat of my car, and after three weeks I had pretty much forgotten about it. I did not go to the cabin for more target practice, though I did attend a few other goat parties in which I avoided chitlins, moonshine, and an increasingly aggressive Carleen.

The county was quiet, a lull before the frenzy of the trial. The Times said nothing about the case because nothing was happening. The Padgitts were still refusing to pledge their land for Danny's bail, so he remained a guest in Sheriff Coley's special cell, watching television, playing cards or checkers, getting plenty of rest, and eating better food than the common inmates.

The first week in May, Judge Loopus was back in town, and my thoughts returned to my trusty Smith & Wesson.

Lucien Wilbanks had filed a motion requesting a change of venue, and the Judge set it for a hearing at 9 A.M. on a Monday morning. Half the county was there, it seemed. Certainly most of the regulars from around the square. Baggy and I got to the courtroom early and secured good seats.

The defendant's presence was not required, but evidently Sheriff Coley wanted to show him off. They brought him in, handcuffed and wearing new orange coveralls. Everyone looked at me. The power of the press had brought about change.

"It's a setup," Baggy whispered.

"What?"

"They're baitin' us into runnin' a picture of Danny in his cute little jail outfit. Then Wilbanks can run back to the Judge and claim the jury pool has been poisoned yet again. Don't fall for it."

My na?vet? shocked me again. Wiley had been positioned outside the jail in another effort to ambush Padgitt when they loaded him up for court. I could see a large front page photo of him in his orange coveralls.

Lucien Wilbanks entered the courtroom from behind the bench. As usual, he seemed angry and perturbed, as if he'd just lost an argument with the Judge. He walked to the defense table, tossed down his legal pad, and scanned the crowd. His eyes locked onto me. They narrowed and his jaws clenched, and I thought he might hop over the bar and attack. His client turned around and began looking too. Someone pointed, and Mr. Danny Padgitt himself commenced glaring at me as if I might be his next victim. I was having trouble breathing, but I tried to keep calm. Baggy inched away.

In the front row behind the defense crowd were several Padgitts, all older than Danny. They, too, joined the staring, and I had never felt so vulnerable. These were violent men who knew nothing but crime, intimidation, leg breaking, killing, and there I was in the same room with them while they dreamed of ways to cut my throat.

A bailiff called us to order and everybody stood to acknowledge the entrance of His Honor. "Please be seated," he said.

Loopus scanned the papers while we waited, then he adjusted his reading glasses and said, "This is a motion to change venue, filed by the defense. Mr. Wilbanks, how many witnesses do you have?"

"Half a dozen, give or take. We'll see how things go."

"And the State?"

A short round man with no hair and a black suit bounced to his feet and said, "About the same." His name was Ernie Gaddis, the longtime, part-time District Attorney from up in Tyler County.

"I don't want to be here all day," Loopus mumbled, as if he had an afternoon golf game. "Call your first witness, Mr. Wilbanks."

"Mr. Walter Pickard."

The name was unknown to me, which was expected, but Baggy had never heard of him either. During the preliminary questions it was established that he had lived in Karaway for over twenty years, went to church every Sunday and the Rotary Club every Thursday. For a living he owned a small furniture factory.

"Must buy lumber from the Padgitts," Baggy whispered.

His wife was a schoolteacher. He had coached Little League baseball and worked with the Boy Scouts. Lucien pressed on and did a masterful job of laying the groundwork that Mr. Pickard knew his community well.

Karaway was a smaller town eighteen miles west of Clanton. Spot had always neglected the place and we sold very few papers there. And even fewer ads. In my youthful eagerness, I was already contemplating the expansion of my empire. A small weekly in Karaway would sell a thousand copies, I thought.

"When did you first hear that Miss Kassellaw had been murdered?" Wilbanks asked.

"Couple of days after it happened," Mr. Pickard said. "News is sometimes slow getting to Karaway."

"Who told you?"

"One of my employees came in with the story. She has a brother who lives around Beech Hill, where it happened."

"Did you hear that someone had been arrested for the murder?" Lucien asked. Ho prowled around the courtroom like a bored cat. Just going through the motions, yet missing nothing.

"Yes, the rumor was that one of the young Padgitts had been arrested."

"Did you later confirm this?"

"Yes."

"How?"

"I saw the story in The Ford County Times. There was a large photo of Danny Padgitt on the front page, right next to a large photo of Rhoda Kassellaw."

"Did you read the reports in the Times?"

"I did."

"And did you form an opinion about Mr. Padgitt's guilt or innocence?"

"He looked guilty to me. In the photo he had blood all over his shirt. His face was placed right next to that of the victim's, you know, side by side. The headline was huge and said something like, DANNY PADGITT ARRESTED FOR MURDER. "

"So you assumed he was guilty?"

"It was impossible not to."

"What's been the reaction to the murder in Karaway?"

"Shock and outrage. This is a peaceful county. Serious crimes are rare."

"In your opinion, do folks over there generally believe Danny Padgitt raped and murdered Rhoda Kassellaw?"

"Yes, especially after the way the newspaper has treated the story."

I could feel stares from all directions, but I kept telling myself that we had done nothing wrong. People suspected Danny Padgitt because the rotten sonofabitch had committed the crimes.

"In your opinion, can Mr. Padgitt receive a fair trial in Ford County?"

"No."

"Upon what do you base this opinion?"

"He's already been tried and convicted by the newspaper." "Do you think your opinion is shared by most of your friends and neighbors over in Karaway?"

"I do."

"Thank you."

Mr. Ernie Gaddis was on his feet, holding a legal pad as if it were a weapon. "Say you're in the furniture business, Mr. Pickard?"

"Yes, that's correct."

"You buy lumber locally?"

"We do."

"From whom?"

Pickard readjusted his weight and pondered the question. "Gates Brothers, Henderson, Tiffee, Voyles and Sons, maybe one or two others."

Baggy whispered, "Padgitt owns Voyles."

"You buy any lumber from the Padgitts?" Gaddis asked.

"No sir."

"Now or at any time in the past?"

"No sir."

"Any of these lumberyards owned by the Padgitts?"

"Not to my knowledge."

The truth was that no one really knew what the Padgitts owned. For decades they'd had their tentacles in so many businesses, legitimate or otherwise. Mr. Pickard may not have been well known in Clanton, but, at that moment, he was suspected of having some relationship with the Padgitts. Why would he voluntarily testify on Danny's behalf?

Gaddis shifted gears. "Now, you said that the bloody photograph had much to do with your assumption that the boy is guilty, that right?"

"It made him look very suspicious."

"Did you read the entire story?"

"I believe so."

"Did you read where it says that Mr. Danny Padgitt was involved in an auto accident, that he was injured, and that he was also charged with drunk driving?"

"I believe I read that, yes."

"Would you like for me to show it to you?"

"No, I remember it."

"Good, then why were you so quick to assume the blood came from the victim and not from Mr. Padgitt himself?"

Pickard shifted again and looked frustrated. "I simply said that the photos and the stories, when taken together, make him look guilty."

"You ever serve on a jury, Mr. Pickard?"

"No sir."

"Do you understand what's meant by the presumption of innocence?"

"Yes."

"Do you understand that the State of Mississippi must prove Mr. Padgitt guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?"

"Yes."

"Do you believe everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a fair trial?"

"Yes, of course."

"Good. Let's say you got a summons for jury service in this case. You've read the newspaper reports, listened to all the gossip, all the rumors, all that mess, and you arrive in this very courtroom for the trial. You've already testified that you believe Mr. Padgitt to be guilty. Let's say you're selected for the jury. Let's say that Mr. Wilbanks, a very skilled and experienced lawyer, attacks the State's case and raises serious doubts about our proof. Let's say there's doubt in your mind, Mr. Pickard. Gould you at that point vote not guilty?"

He nodded as he followed along, then said, "Yes, under those circumstances."

"So, regardless of how you now feel about guilt or innocence, you would be willing to listen to the evidence and weigh it fairly before you decide the case?"

The answer was so obvious that Mr. Pickard had no choice but to say, "Yes."

"Of course," Gaddis agreed. "And what about your wife? You mentioned her. She's a schoolteacher, right? She would be as open-minded as you, wouldn't she?"

"I think so. Yes."

"And what about those Rotarians over there in Karaway. Are they as fair as you?"

"I suppose so."

"And your employees, Mr. Pickard. Surely you hire honest, fair-minded people. They'd be able to ignore what they've read and heard and try this boy justly, wouldn't they?"

"I suppose."

"No further questions, Your Honor."

Mr. Pickard hustled off the witness stand and hurried from the courtroom. Lucien Wilbanks stood and said, rather loudly, "Your Honor, the defense calls Mr. Willie Traynor."

A brick to the nose could not have hit Mr. Willie Traynor with more force. I gasped for air and heard Baggy say, too loudly, "Oh shit."

Harry Rex was sitting in the jury box with some other lawyers, taking in the festivities. As I wobbled to my feet, I looked at him desperately for help. He was rising too.

"Your Honor," he said. "I represent Mr. Traynor, and this young man has not been notified that he would be a witness." Go Harry Rex! Do something!

The Judge shrugged and said, "So? He's here. What's the difference?" There was not a trace of concern in his voice, and I knew I was nailed.

"Preparation for one thing. A witness has a right to be prepped."

"I believe he's the newspaper editor, is he not?"

"He is."

Lucien Wilbanks was walking toward the jury box as if he might take a swing at Harry Rex. He said, "Your Honor, he's not a litigant, and he will not be a witness at trial. He wrote the stories. Let's hear from him."

"It's an ambush, Judge," Harry Rex said.

"Sit down, Mr. Vonner," His Honor said, and I took a seat in the witness chair. I fired a look at Harry Rex as if to say, "Nice work, lawyer."

A bailiff stood in front of me and said, "Are you armed?"

"What?" I was beyond nervous and nothing made sense.

"A gun. Do you have a gun?"

"Yes."

"Can I have it, please?"

"Uh, it's in the car." Most of the spectators thought this was funny. Evidently, in Mississippi, one cannot properly testify if one is armed. Another silly rule. Moments later the rule made perfect sense. If I'd had a gun, I would've begun firing in the direction of Lucien Wilbanks.

The bailiff then swore me to tell the truth, and I watched as Wilbanks began pacing. The crowd behind him looked even larger. He began pleasantly enough with some preliminary inquiries about me and my purchase of the paper. I managed the correct answers, though I was extremely suspicious of every question. He was going somewhere; I had no idea where.

The crowd seemed to enjoy this. My sudden takeover of the Times was still the source of interest and speculation, and, suddenly, there I was, in plain view of everyone, chatting about it under oath and on the record.

After a few minutes of niceties, Mr. Gaddis, who I assumed was on my side since Lucien certainly was not, stood and said, "Your Honor, this is all very informative. Where, exactly, is it going?"

"Good question. Mr. Wilbanks?"

"Hang on, Judge."

Lucien then produced copies of the Times and passed them to me, Gaddis, and Loopus. He looked at me and said, "Just for the record, Mr. Traynor, how many subscribers does the Times have now?"

"About forty-two hundred," I answered with a little pride. When the bankruptcy hit Spot had squandered all but twelve hundred or so.

"And how many copies are sold at the newsstand?"

"Roughly a thousand."

Roughly twelve months earlier I had been living on the third floor of a fraternity house in Syracuse, New York, attending class occasionally, working hard to be a good soldier in the sexual revolution, drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol, smoking pot, sleeping until noon anytime I felt like it, and for exercise I'd hustle over to the next antiwar rally and scream at the police. I thought I had problems. How I'd gone from there to a witness chair in the Ford County courtroom was suddenly very unclear to me.

However, at that crucial moment in my new career, I had several hundred of my fellow citizens, and subscribers, staring at me. It was not the time to appear vulnerable.

"What percentage of your newspapers are sold in Ford County, Mr. Traynor?" he asked, as casually as if we were talking business over coffee.

"Virtually all. I don't have the exact numbers."

"Well, do you have any newsstands outside of Ford County?"

"No."

Mr. Gaddis attempted another lame rescue. He stood and said, "Your Honor, please, where is this going?"

Wilbanks suddenly raised his voice and lifted a finger toward the ceiling. "I will argue, Your Honor, that potential jurors in this county have been poisoned by the sensational coverage thrust upon us by The Ford County Times. Mercifully, and justifiably, this newspaper has not been seen or read in other parts of the state. A change of venue is not only fair, but mandatory."

The word "poisoned" changed the tone of the proceedings dramatically. It stung me and frightened me, and once again I asked myself if I had done something wrong. I looked at Baggy for consolation, but he was ducking behind the lady in front of him.

"I'll decide what's fair and mandatory, Mr. Wilbanks. Proceed," Judge Loopus said sharply.

Mr. Wilbanks held up the paper and pointed to the front page. "I refer to the photograph of my client," he said. "Who took this photograph?"

"Mr. Wiley Meek, our photographer."

"And who made the decision to put it on the front page?"

"I did."

"And the size? Who determined that?"

"I did."

"Did it occur to you that this might be considered sensational?"

Damned right. Sensational was what I was after. "No," I replied coolly. "It happened to be the only photo we had of Danny Padgitt at the moment. He happened to be the only person arrested for the crime. We ran it. I'd run it again."

My haughtiness surprised me. I glanced at Harry Rex and saw one of his nasty grins. He was nodding. Go get 'em, boy.

"So in your opinion it was fair to run this photo?"

"I don't think it was unfair."

"Answer my question. In your opinion, was it fair?"

"Yes, it was fair, and it was accurate."

Wilbanks seemed to record this, then filed it away for future use. "Your report has a rather detailed description of the interior of the home of Rhoda Kassellaw. When did you inspect the home?"

"I have not."

"When did you enter the home?"

"I have not."

"You've never seen the interior of the house?"

"That's correct."

He flipped open the newspaper, scanned it for a moment, then said, "You report that the bedroom of Miss Kassellaw's two small children was down a short hallway, approximately fifteen feet from her bedroom door, and you estimate that their beds were about thirty feet from hers. How do you know this?"

"I have a source."

"A source. Has your source been in the house?"

"Yes."

"Is your source a police officer or a deputy?"

"He will remain confidential."

"How many confidential sources did you use for these stories?"

"Several."

From my journalism studies I vaguely remembered the case of a reporter who, in a similar situation, relied on sources and then refused to reveal their identity. This had somehow upset the Judge, who ordered the reporter to divulge his sources. When he refused again, the Judge held him in contempt and the cops hauled him away to jail where he spent many weeks hiding the identity of his informants. I couldn't remember the ending, but the reporter was eventually let go and the free press endured.

In a flash, I saw myself being handcuffed by Sheriff Coley and dragged away, screaming for Harry Rex, then thrown into the jail where I'd be stripped and handed a pair of those orange coveralls.

It would certainly be a bonanza for the Times. Boy, the stories I could write from in there.

Wilbanks continued, "You report that the children were in shock. How do you know this?"

"I spoke with Mr. Deece, the next-door neighbor."

"Did he use the word 'shock'?"

"He did."

"You report that the children were examined by a doctor here in Clanton on the night of the crime. How did you know this?"

"I had a source, and later I confirmed this with the doctor."

"And you report that the children are now undergoing some type of therapy back home in Missouri. Who told you that?"

"I talked to their aunt."

He tossed the newspaper on the table and took a few steps in my direction. His bloodshot eyes narrowed and glared at me. Here, the pistol would've been useful.

"The truth is, Mr. Traynor, you tried to paint the unmistakable picture that these two little innocent children saw their mother get raped and murdered in her own bed, isn't that right?"

I took a deep breath and weighed my response. The courtroom was silent, waiting. "I have reported the facts as accurately as possible," I said, staring straight at Baggy, who, though he was pecking around the lady in front of him, at least was nodding at me.

"In an effort to sell newspapers, you relied on unnamed sources and half-truths and gossip and wild speculation, all in an effort to sensationalize this story."

"I have reported the facts as accurately as possible," I said again, trying to remain calm.

He snorted and said, "Is that so?" He grabbed the newspaper again and said, "I quote: 'Will the children testify at trial?' Did you write that, Mr. Traynor?"

I couldn't deny it. I kicked myself for writing it. It was the last section of the reports that Baggy and I had haggled over. We'd both been a little squeamish, and, with hindsight, we should have followed our instincts.

Denial was not possible. "Yes," I said.

"Upon what accurate facts did you base that question?"

"It was a question I heard asked many times after the crime," I said.

He flung the newspaper back on his table as if it were pure filth. He shook his head in mock bewilderment. "There are two children, right, Mr. Traynor?"

"Yes. A boy and a girl."

"How old is the little boy?"

"Five."

"And how old is the little girl?"

"Three."

"And how old are you, Mr. Traynor?"

"Twenty-three."

"And in your twenty-three years, how many trials have you covered as a reporter?"

"None."

"How many trials have you seen, period?"

"None."

"Since you are so ignorant about trials, what type of legal research did you do in order to accurately prepare yourself for these stories?"

At this point I would have probably turned the gun on myself.

"Legal research?" I repeated, as if he were speaking another language.

"Yes, Mr. Traynor. How many cases did you find where children age five or younger were allowed to testify in a criminal trial?"

I glanced in the direction of Baggy, who, evidently was now under the wooden bench. "None," I said.

"Perfect answer, Mr. Traynor. None. In the history of this state, no child under the age of eleven has ever testified in a criminal trial. Please write that down somewhere, and remember it the next time you attempt to inflame your readers with yellow journalism."

"Enough, Mr. Wilbanks," Judge Loopus said, a little too gently for my liking. I think he and the other lawyers, probably including Harry Rex, were enjoying this quick butchering of someone who'd meddled in legal affairs and gotten it all wrong. Even Mr. Gaddis seemed content to let me bleed.

Lucien was wise enough to stop when the blood was flowing. He growled something like, "I'm through with him." Mr. Gaddis had no questions. The bailiff motioned for me to step down, off the witness chair, and I tried desperately to walk upright back to the bench where Baggy was still hunkering down, like a stray dog in a hailstorm.

I scribbled notes through the rest of the hearing, but it was a failing effort to look busy and important. I could feel the stares. I was humiliated and wanted to lock myself in my office for a few days.

Wilbanks ended things with an impassioned plea to move the case somewhere far away, maybe even the Gulf Coast, where perhaps a few folks had heard of the crime but no one had been "poisoned" by the Times's coverage of it. He railed against me and my newspaper, and he went overboard. Mr. Gaddis, in his closing remarks, reminded the Judge of the old saying, "Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause."

I wrote that down. Then I hustled out of the courtroom as if I had an important deadline.



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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