Page 13 of The Last Juror

Ernie Gaddis, the District Attorney, filed a motion to enlarge the jury pool. According to Baggy, who was becoming more of an expert each day, in the typical criminal trial the Circuit Court clerk summoned about forty people for jury duty. About thirty-five would show up and at least five of those would be too old or too sick to be qualified. Gaddis argued in his motion that the increased notoriety of the Kassellaw murder would make it more difficult to find impartial jurors. He asked the Court to summon at least a hundred prospective jurors.

What he didn't say in writing, but what everybody knew, was that the Padgitts would have a harder time intimidating one hundred than forty. Lucien Wilbanks objected strenuously and demanded a hearing. Judge Loopus said one was not necessary and ordered a larger jury pool. He also took the unusual step of sealing the list of prospective jurors. Baggy and his drinking buddies, and everyone else around the courthouse, were shocked by this. It had never been done. The lawyers and litigants always got a complete list of the jury pool two weeks before trial.

The order was generally viewed as a major setback to the Padgitts. If they didn't know who was in the pool, then how could they bribe or frighten them?

Gaddis then asked the Court to have the jury summons mailed, not personally served by the Sheriff's office. Loopus liked this idea too. Evidently he was well aware of the cozy relationship between the Padgitts and our Sheriff. Not surprisingly, Lucien Wilbanks screamed over this plan. In his rather frantic responses he made the point that Judge Loopus was treating his client differently and unfairly. Reading his filings, I was amazed at how he could rant so clearly for so many pages.

It was becoming obvious that Judge Loopus was determined to preside over a secure and unbiased trial. He had been the District Attorney back in the 1950s before ascending to the bench, and he was known for his pro-prosecution leanings. He certainly appeared to have little concern for the Padgitts and their legacy of corruption. Plus, on paper (and certainly in my paper), the case against Danny Padgitt appeared to be airtight.

On Monday, June 15, amid great secrecy, the Circuit Court clerk mailed a hundred summonses for jury duty to registered voters all over Ford County. One arrived in the rather busy mailbox of Miss Callie Ruffin, and when I arrived for lunch on Thursday she showed it to me.

* * *

In 1970, Ford County was 26 percent black, 74 percent white, with no fractions for others or those who weren't certain. Six years after the tumultuous summer of 1964 and its massive push to register blacks, and five years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, few bothered to sign up in Ford County. In the statewide elections of 1967, almost 70 percent of the eligible whites in the county had voted, while only 12 percent of the blacks did so. Registration drives in Lowtown were met with general indifference. One reason was that the county was so white that no black could ever be elected to a local office. So why bother?

Another reason was the historical abuse at the point of enrolling. For a hundred years whites had used a variety of tricks to deny blacks proper registration. Poll taxes, literacy exams, the list was long and miserable.

Yet another reason was the hesitancy by most blacks to be registered in any manner by white authorities. Registration could mean more taxes, more supervision, more surveillance, more intrusions. Registration could mean serving on juries.

According to Harry Rex, who was a slightly more reliable courthouse source than Baggy, there had never been a black juror in Ford County. Since potential jurors were selected from the voter registration rolls and nowhere else, few showed up in a jury pool. Those who survived the early rounds of questioning were routinely excused before the final twelve were empaneled. In criminal cases, the prosecution routinely challenged blacks under the belief that they would be too sympathetic to the accused. In civil cases, the defense challenged them because they were feared as too liberal with the money of others.

However, these theories had never been tested in Ford County.

* * *

Callie and Esau Ruffin registered to vote in 1951. Together, they marched into the office of the Circuit Court clerk and asked to be added to the voter rolls. The deputy clerk, as she was trained to do, handed them a laminated card with the words "Declaration of Independence" across the top. The text was written in German.

The clerk, assuming that Mr. and Mrs. Ruffin were as illiterate as most blacks in Ford County, said, "Can you read this?"

"This is not English," Callie said. "It's German."

"Can you read it?" the clerk asked, realizing that she might have her hands full with this couple.

"I can read as much of it as you can," Callie said politely.

The clerk withdrew the card and handed over another. "Can you read this?" she asked.

"I can," Callie said. "It's the Bill of Rights."

"What does number eight say?"

Callie read it slowly, then said, "The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive fines and cruel punishments."

At about this time, depending on whose version was being described, Esau leaned in and said, "We are property owners." He placed the deed to their home on the counter and the deputy clerk examined it. Property ownership was not a prerequisite to voting, but it was a huge asset if you were black. Not knowing what else to do, she said, "Fair enough. The poll tax will be two dollars each." Esau handed over the money, and with that they joined the voter rolls with thirty-one other blacks, none of whom were women.

They never missed an election. Miss Callie had always worried because so few of her friends bothered to register and vote, but she was too busy raising eight children to do much about it. Ford County was spared the racial unrest that was common throughout most of the state, so there was never an organized drive to register blacks.

* * *

At first I couldn't tell if she was anxious or excited. I'm not sure she knew either. The first black female voter might now become the first black juror. She had never backed away from a challenge, but she had grave moral concerns about judging another person. " 'Judge not, that ye be not judged,'" she said more than once, quoting Jesus.

"But if everyone followed that verse of Scripture, our entire judicial system would fail, wouldn't it?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, gazing away. I had never seen Miss Callie so preoccupied.

We were eating fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. Esau had not made it home for lunch.

"How can I judge a man I know to be guilty?" she asked.

"First, you listen to the evidence," I said. "You have an open mind. It won't be difficult."

"But you know he killed her. You all but said so in your paper." Her brutal honesty hit hard every time.

"We just reported the facts, Miss Callie. If the facts make him look guilty, then so be it."

The gaps of silence were long and many that day. She was deep in thought and ate little.

"What about the death penalty?" she asked. "Will they want to put that boy in the gas chamber?"

"Yes ma'am. It's a capital murder case."

"Who decides whether he is put to death?"

"The jury."

"Oh my."

She was unable to eat after that. She said her blood pressure had been up since she received the jury summons. She had already been to the doctor. I helped her to the sofa in the den and took her a glass of ice water. She insisted that I finish my lunch, which I happily did in silence. Later, she rallied a bit and we sat on the porch in the rockers, talking about anything but Danny Padgitt and his trial.

I finally hit paydirt when I asked her about the Italian influence in her life. Over our first lunch she had told me that she learned Italian before she learned English. Seven of her eight children had Italian names.

She needed to tell me a long story. I had absolutely nothing else to do.

* * *

In the 1890s, the price of cotton rose dramatically as demand increased around the world. The fertile regions of the South were under pressure to produce more. The large plantation owners in the Mississippi Delta desperately needed to increase their crops, but they faced a severe labor shortage. Many of the blacks who were physically able had fled the land their ancestors toiled as slaves for better jobs and certainly better lives up North. Those left behind were, understandably, less than enthusiastic about chopping and picking cotton for brutally low wages.

The landowners hit upon a scheme to import industrious and hardworking European immigrants to raise cotton. Through contacts with Italian labor agents in New York and New Orleans, connections were made, promises swapped, lies told, contracts forged, and in 1895 the first boatload of families arrived in the Delta. They were from northern Italy, from the region of Emilia-Romagna, near Verona. For the most part they were poorly educated and spoke little English, though in any language they quickly realized they were on the bad end of a huge scam. They were given miserable living accommodations, in a subtropical climate, and while battling malaria and mosquitoes and snakes and rotten drinking water they were told to raise cotton for wages no one could live on. They were forced to borrow money at scandalous rates from the landowners. Their food and supplies came from the company store, at steep prices.

Because the Italians worked hard the landowners wanted more of them. They dressed up their operations, made more promises to more Italian labor agents, and the immigrants kept coming. A system of peonage was fine tuned, and the Italians were treated worse than most black farmworkers.

Over time some efforts were made to divide profits and transfer ownership of land, but the cotton markets fluctuated so wildly that the arrangements could never be stabilized. After twenty years of abuse, the Italians finally scattered and the experiment became history.

Those who remained in the Delta were considered second-class citizens for decades. They were excluded from schools, and because they were Catholic they were not welcome in churches. The country clubs were off limits. They were "dagos" and shoved to the bottom of the social ladder. But because they worked hard and saved their money, they slowly accumulated land.

The Rossetti family landed near Leland, Mississippi, in 1902. They were from a village near Bologna, and had the misfortune of listening to the wrong labor agent in that city. Mr. and Mrs. Rossetti brought with them four daughters, the oldest of which was Nicola, age twelve. Though they often went hungry the first year, they managed to avoid outright starvation. Penniless when they arrived, after three years of peonage the family had racked up $6,000 in debts to the plantation with no possible way of paying them off. They fled the Delta in the middle of the night and rode a boxcar to Memphis, where a distant relative took them in.

At the age of fifteen, Nicola was stunningly beautiful. Long dark hair, brown eyes - a classic Italian beauty. She looked older than her years and managed to get a job in a clothing store by telling the owner she was eighteen. After three days, the owner offered her a marriage proposal. He was willing to divorce his wife of twenty years and say goodbye to his children if Nicola would run away with him. She said no. He offered Mr. Rossetti $5,000 as an incentive. Mr. Rossetti said no.

In those days, the wealthy farming families in northern Mississippi did their shopping and socializing in Memphis, usually within walking distance of the Peabody Hotel. It was there that Mr. Zachary DeJarnette of Clanton had the blind luck of bumping into Nicola Rossetti. Two weeks later they were married.

He was thirty-one, a widower with no children and in the midst of a serious search for a wife. He was also the largest landowner in Ford County, where the soil was not as rich as in the Delta, but still quite profitable if you owned enough of it. Mr. DeJarnette had inherited over four thousand acres from his family. His grandfather had once owned the grandfather of Calia Harris Ruffin.

The marriage was a package deal. Nicola was wise beyond her years, and she was also desperate to protect her family. They had suffered so much. She saw an opportunity and took full advantage of it. Before she agreed to marriage, Mr. DeJarnette promised to not only employ her father as a farm supervisor but to provide his family with very comfortable housing. He agreed to educate her three younger sisters. He agreed to pay off the peonage debts from the Delta. So smitten was Mr. DeJarnette that he would've agreed to anything.

The first Italians in Ford County arrived not in a broken ox cart, but rather by first-class passage on the Illinois Central Rail Line. A welcoming party unloaded their brand-new luggage and helped them into two 1904 Ford Model T's. The Rossettis were treated like royalty as they followed Mr. DeJarnette from party to party in Clanton. The town was instantly abuzz with descriptions of how beautiful the bride was. There was talk of a formal wedding ceremony, to sort of buttress the quickie service in Memphis, but since there was no Catholic church in Clanton the idea was scrapped. The bride and groom had yet to address the sticky issue of religious preference. At that time, if Nicola had asked Mr. DeJarnette to convert to Hinduism he would have quickly done so.

They finally made it to the main house at the edge of town. When the Rossettis turned into the long front drive and glimpsed the stately antebellum mansion built by the first Mr. DeJarnette, they all broke into tears.

It was decided that they would live there until an overseer's house could be renovated and made suitable. Nicola assumed her duties as the lady of the manor and tried her best to get pregnant. Her younger sisters were provided with private tutors, and within weeks were speaking good English. Mr. Rossetti spent each day with his son-in-law, who was only three years his junior, and learned how to run the plantation.

And Mrs. Rossetti went to the kitchen where she met Callie's mother, India.

"My grandmother cooked for the DeJarnettes, so did my mother," Miss Callie was saying. "I thought I would too, but it didn't work out that way."

"Did Zack and Nicola have children?" I asked. I was on my third or fourth glass of tea. It was hot and the ice had melted. Miss Callie had been talking for two hours, and she had forgotten about the jury summons and the murder trial.

"No. It was very sad because they wanted children so badly. When I was born in 1911, Nicola practically took me away from my mother. She insisted I have an Italian name. She kept me in the big house with her. My mother didn't mind - she had plenty of other children, plus she was in the house all day long."

"What did your father do?" I asked.

"Worked on the farm. It was a good place to work, and to live. We were very lucky because the DeJarnettes took care of us. They were good, fair people. Always. It wasn't that way for a lot of Negro folk. Back then your life was controlled by the white man who owned your house. If he was mean and abusive, then your life was miserable. The DeJarnettes were wonderful people. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather worked their land, and they were never mistreated."

"And Nicola?"

She smiled for the first time in an hour. "God blessed me. I had two mothers. She dressed me in clothes she bought in Memphis. When I was a toddler she taught me to speak Italian while I was learning English. She taught me to read when I was three years old."

"You still speak Italian?"

"No. It was a long time ago. She loved to tell me stories of being a little girl in Italy, and she promised me that one day she would take me there, to see the canals in Venice and the Vatican in Rome and the tower in Pisa. She loved to sing and she taught me about the opera."

"Was she educated?"

"Her mother had some education, Mr. Rossetti did not, and she had made sure Nicola and her sisters could read and write. She promised me I would go to college somewhere up North, or maybe even in Europe where folks were more tolerant. The notion of a black woman going to college in the 1920s was downright crazy."

The story was running in many directions. I wanted to record some of it but I had not brought a notepad. The image of a young black girl living in an antebellum home speaking Italian and listening to the opera in Mississippi fifty years earlier had to be unique.

"Did you work in the house?" I asked.

"Oh yes, when I got older. I was a housekeeper, but I never had to work as hard as the others. Nicola wanted me close by. At least an hour every day we would sit in her parlor and practice speaking. She was determined to lose her Italian accent, and she was just as determined that I would have perfect diction. There was a retired schoolteacher from town, a Miss Tucker, an old maid, I'll never forget her, and Nicola would send a car for her every morning. Over hot tea we would read a lesson and Miss Tucker would correct even the slightest mispronunciation. We studied grammar. We memorized vocabulary. Nicola drilled herself until she spoke perfect English."

"What happened to college?"

She was suddenly exhausted and story time was over. "Ah, Mr. Traynor, it was very sad. Mr. DeJarnette lost everything back in the 1920s. He'd invested heavily in railroads and ships and stocks and such stuff, and went broke almost overnight. He shot himself, but that's another story."

"What happened to Nicola?"

"She managed to hold on to the big house until the Second War, then she moved back to Memphis with Mr. and Mrs. Rossetti. We swapped letters every week for years, I still have them. She died four years ago, at the age of seventy-six. I cried for a month. I still cry when I think of her. How I loved that woman." Her words trailed off and I knew from experience that she was ready for a nap.

Late that night I buried myself in the Times archives. On September 12, 1930, there was a front page story about the suicide of Zachary DeJarnette. Despondent over the collapse of his businesses, he had left a new will and a farewell note for his wife Nicola, then, to make things easier for everyone, he had driven to the funeral home in Clanton. He walked in the rear door with a double-barreled shotgun, found the embalming room, took a seat, took off a shoe, put the gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger with a big toe.



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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