BOOKS - JUDICIOUS MURDER
My client was clocked doing fifty in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone. Unfortunately, he was going the wrong way on a one-way street, but none of that mattered. The cocaine the arresting officer found in his car did. If we lost this trial Ronald Perry would be spending his next several birthdays in the penitentiary.
It was my turn to cross-examine the arresting cop. I took a quick inventory; made sure my blouse was tucked into my skirt, and stood up.
“Officer.” I tapped my pencil on counsel table so I had everyone’s attention. “As you approached the car on foot, Mr. Perry rolled down his window without hesitation?”
“Well, he tried, but it was a manual window and the crank...well, it came off in his hand.”
The jury’s snickering faded with a stern look from Judge Denault.
“At that point you grabbed the handle and yanked the driver’s door open?”
“I pulled the door open, correct. Officer safety,” he declared, and puffed his chest out a few inches.
Right. The ultimate justification for an intrusion into a place the cops want to go but have no right to be.
I stood and strode to the exhibit table, picked up a dark blue prescription bottle that had previously been admitted into evidence and held it up. The white powder inside it had tested positive for cocaine.
“This bottle was in plain view on the front passenger seat?”
“Plain view, yes.”
“As you stood there outside the vehicle, you could not see inside the bottle, could you?”
“Nn…o.” He shifted uneasily in the witness chair.
“And you had no reason to think there was an unlawful substance contained in that bottle, did you?”
The witness rubbed his chin. African-American male driving crazy in a high-crime neighborhood in a Chicago suburb was a reason, for a cop, but he knew he couldn’t say that, and I knew he knew.
“Based on his driving behavior, I felt it was a legitimate request.”
Zing. A flesh wound, not mortal. This guy was good.
I took a step toward the witness stand. “So let me get this straight, Officer. Mr. Perry made no attempt to push the bottle between the seat cushion and the seat back, no furtive gesture under the seat, didn’t try to jam the bottle into his pocket?”
“Not that I recall.” He glared at me. The jury couldn’t miss it.
“The name on the prescription bottle was that of a Patricia McBroom?”
“And Ms. McBroom is currently in long-term drug rehab, is that correct?”
“Objection!” Assistant state’s attorney Roger Foster levitated out of his chair.
We argued over the relevancy of that question. The objection was sustained, so the cop didn’t have to answer, but the jury was getting the picture.
“My client told you he had just dropped Patricia off at her home, correct?”
“And he told you he was driving fast because another car seemed to be chasing him?”
The officer chortled.
“He said that, yes.”
“And he said he was not familiar with the neighborhood?”
“And in fact it is a dangerous, high-crime area, isn’t it?”
He fixed his gaze on a dust bunny scooting across the floor.
“Only when clients like yours race through it.”
“You’re Honor, strike the last remark please.”
“The witness will be responsive to the question. Answer stricken,” the judge said.
I wrapped one hand around the other so I wouldn’t be tempted to throw a pen at the witness.
“And when you asked him where the prescription bottle came from, he said it might have fallen out of his girlfriend’s purse, is that right?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Isn’t it true, officer, that when Mr. Perry first saw the bottle he picked it up and said, “What’s that?”
“Yes.” Lips pressed together in a grim line.
“And that reaction is consistent, is it not, with Mr. Perry’s position that he was unaware of the bottle or its contents until you pointed it out to him?”
“It’s consistent with a cover-up.”
“Judge, will you please admonish the witness.”
Reluctantly, like I had just asked him to remove his own molar, the judge told the cop to answer only the question posed and refrain from comment. Then, helpfully, he reminded the witness that the Assistant State’s Attorney would have an opportunity to question him again on re-direct.
“Officer, Mr. Perry handed you the bottle immediately after you requested it, right?”
The cop glared. “Yeah.”
“Hardly a cover-up.” I sat down before the judge could chide me for the gratuitous observation.
“We’ve been working since 8:45. It is now ten o’clock.” The judge was speaking for the benefit of the audio recorder which would be transcribed in the event of an appeal. “The jury deserves a coffee break. Fifteen minutes.”
Judge speak for weak kidneys. I warned my client not to make eye contact or speak to any of the jurors. As I swept through the wooden gate that separates the players from the spectators, my opponent, Roger Foster, got in my space.
“The jury never should have heard that bit about the girl friend being in drug treatment,” he fumed.
“Right. Juries should only hear what the State spoon-feeds them. Last time I checked the Bill of Rights the defense gets to put on a case, too.”
I opened the double doors into the main corridor. Usually by this time of morning the large volume calls like traffic were winding down and the halls were deserted except for a few folks who showed up at the wrong time or the wrong date or perhaps the wrong courthouse. But today attorneys and court personnel drifted by with expressions ranging from consternation to disbelief. I felt like I had just walked onto a movie set where everyone knew the script except me. I stopped short and Roger crashed into me.
“What are all these people doing here?” I asked.
His head swiveled around like a duckling searching for its mommy.
My good friend Kevin Lange materialized from a crowd disembarking from the elevators. His ruddy complexion was as gray as parchment paper.
“Susan. We need to talk.” He grabbed my hand and led me around the corner to a quiet alcove near the jury commissioner’s office. Behind rimless glasses his eyes were troubled. “Something’s happened to Sam. I’m on my way to the hospital. I knew you’d want to come.”
“Hospital? What do you mean? What’s going on?”
“I heard he was attacked. Apparently it happened in his chambers.”
This was not making sense, things like that don’t happen, not here, not to Sam.
“You should come with me. Let’s go.” He pulled my hand and led me to the staircase.
“Kev, wait, I gotta tell Judge Denault. Be back in a minute.”
I burst into Denault’s office. He had been apprised of Sam’s situation via e-mail when he arrived in his chambers. He was amenable to a recess until noon if my opponent would agree. I called Roger and he graciously acquiesced. He needed the time to shore up his case. I found my client, told him he was free for a while, then Kevin and I made a dash for his red BMW.
“Did someone break in? Have they arrested anybody?” My words tumbled out as our car doors slammed in unison.
“The courthouse called right before I came to get you. All I know is what they told me.”
“What about Betty? Does she know? Where is she?”
Sam and his wife had the kind of marriage I wanted if I ever grew up and found the right guy. They thrived in their nine to five lives and when they came together at the end of the day they were like two teenagers in love for the first time. A cynic would call it a fairytale: I called it damn lucky.
“I’m sure someone took care of that,” Kevin responded. “They probably sent a car for her. She shouldn’t drive.”
The Beamer rumbled to life. We rocketed out of the lot and turned the corner on two wheels. White knuckles gripped the door handle. Mine.
“Maybe Betty’s not the only one who shouldn’t drive.”
He shot me a glance, then lightened up on the gas. “Right. Sorry.”
Minutes later we swerved into the hospital’s circular drive. Kevin slammed on the brakes and we dashed in the emergency room entrance. The maternal-looking woman at the reception desk gave us a welcoming smile but it disappeared when Kevin asked her about Judge Kendall. She asked who we were, then told us to take a seat while she made a phone call. The weight of an entire law library settled on my chest.
We sank into two cushioned armchairs, deep in separate thoughts. Five years ago, when I had a chance to learn technique and share the passion of a master litigator like Sam Kendall, I didn’t have to think twice. Since then he and I had tried dozens of cases together, always defending the unjustly accused. In the grubby world of toe-to-toe litigation he was my hero; in the real world he was my best friend. I leaned over, elbows on knees, my mind as scattered as the chips in the terrazzo floor. A minute, perhaps an hour later, gray slacks appeared above black tousled loafers. I looked up into a vaguely familiar face.
“Good of you to come.” The voice was husky, deep.
“Griff,” Kevin acknowledged.
That would be Griffen Bartley, Sam’s nephew, and a newly minted lawyer in Sam’s former law firm.
The newcomer nodded at me, then sank to his haunches. We leaned toward each other till all three heads almost touched.
“He didn’t make it.” Bartley’s voice broke. He took a ragged breath. “Sam’s gone.”